It has barely rained in North Carolina in the past month, but fittingly, it poured for hours in the leadup to Opening Day in Kannapolis.
It was one more worry on top of the many that had come before it.
A ballpark that was supposed to open for the 2020 season sat empty all last year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that canceled the 2020 minor league season. After a lost season, like everyone else around the minors, Kannapolis’ staff heard rumors that the 2021 minor league season would be delayed further. After all that, the threat of a rainout was just one more stresser for teams that have dealt with plenty over the past 20 months.
“A lot of concerns were based on rumors,” Kannapolis general manager Matt Millward said. “Things were changing so frequently, that it’s almost like getting yourself worked up for nothing … There were a lot of naysayers who said, ‘Oh, they’ll never start on time.’ “
But one hour before the scheduled first pitch, the first hints of sunlight began to break through what had until then been a steady rain. Kannapolis got to open its new ballpark on time for Tuesday’s opener. Well, on time if you don’t count the lost 2020 season or the one month coronavirus-induced 2021 delay.
First pitch took place at 7:08 p.m. as Rangers leadoff hitter Evan Carter, making his professional debut, walked, took second and third on a wild pitch and then scored on a sacrifice fly. The rain stayed away the rest of the night as Down East beat Kannapolis, 8-4, in front of 2,487 fans.
It was a capacity crowd given the current, local coronavirus restrictions. Around the country, minor league stadium capacities are to conform to local regulations. In Kannapolis on Opening Day, that meant roughly 50% of normal capacity.
The 2,500 fans scattered around Atrium Healthcare Ballpark weren’t distributed like a normal half capacity crowd. There were no packed-full sections and near-empty sections as you would normally see with 2,500 people scattered around the park. Instead, people were clearly packed in their own little pods, with space between them and the next group.
Look a little closer and the signs of the adjustments for the coronavirus were even more obvious. There was yellow caution tape that kept fans out of the seats that sit next to the dugouts, down the foul lines and next to the bullpen. Major League Baseball’s restrictions on how close fans can get to the players and staff mean that there are buffer areas, so some of the prime picnic/group seats down the lines and many of the best seats in the house were empty for now.
For now, It’s as if there’s a moat between the players and the fans.
The dugout suite, a section built to closely resemble the actual Kannapolis dugout that sits just to its right, sat empty. It’s too close to the players and staff to be used at this time.
But once the game got underway, those adjustments were more subtle than overt.
Every few innings, ushers would hold up signs reminding fans to wear their masks as they walked through the aisles. Signs greeting fans as they walked in noted that MLB requires that all fans wear masks at minor league games unless they are actively eating or drinking.
If you paid attention, it was easy to notice that there were no on-field promotions between innings—that moat between fans and players remained. But the promotions (Family Feud, Dress Like A Player, Roar Like An Animal and others) continued, just in different spots around the stadium and broadcast to fans on the video board beyond left field.
Boomer, the team’s mascot, wandered the concourse, looking like a Mr. Met with a mustache who gets shot out of cannons.
The stadium’s merchandise store stayed busy from well before first pitch to the end of the game—the line of people waiting to get in (stadium store capacity was limited to 12 because of Covid-19) offering yet another reminder that not everything is normal yet.
The new stadium’s LED lights flashed to the beat during a T-shirt giveaway.
They also flashed when Kannapolis’ cleanup hitter Chase Krogman hit the home team’s lone home run of the night.
Fireworks followed the final out. Kannapolis’ in-stadium organist interjected song snippets all night. If you were a fan attending your first game or your 500th, there were many of the marks of what makes minor league baseball a draw around the country.
“It’s a mark of return to normalcy for everybody,” Millward said.
It wasn’t entirely normal. But after 20 months of waiting, semi-normal felt even better than normalcy did two years ago.
Anyone who loves minor league baseball has now experienced life without it, which made Opening Day all the sweeter.