Everything has changed.
For Katie Dannemiller, vice president of baseball operations for the Greensboro Grasshoppers, the last year has been an alternate reality compared with the previous two and a half decades she’s spent in the game.
For some time in 2020, she held onto hope that minor league baseball would be played. Early on, Dannemiller was optimistic for a July 4 Opening Day, because what could be more American than the national pastime? But as the national holiday approached, reality set in and her hopes diminished. The season was canceled on June 30. Working from home in the baseball industry was unheard of, but the staff of the Grasshoppers was doing just that, until the majority of workers—who have since returned—were furloughed.
When that happened, Dannemiller found herself learning new areas of the organization like ticketing, merchandising and inventory, but she was disappointed in having what she felt was a limited impact.
“It was deflating,” she said. “I didn’t see a whole lot of return on my investment. There wasn’t a lot you could do. The most deflating was when we did come back into the office—not having anybody here and wondering, ‘Could this remain this way?’ That’s when I got a little bit down and hoped it wouldn’t be the way in April. Thankfully it’s not. And I remain optimistic that better days are ahead.”
The days Dannemiller is most longing for will bring a return to hosting. She has long used the analogy of First National Bank Field as a home for herself and her staff. And when it is safe to do so, they look forward to opening their doors and playing host to the biggest and best party on the block.
“When you leave, you remember, and you want to come back to another party at our house,” she said. “That’s what we want to get back to.”
As it stands, the Grasshoppers will open with a 30% capacity crowd on Opening Day. Though North Carolina governor Roy Cooper has moved the state to 50% capacity crowds, the six-foot social distancing requirement does not allow for that at the ballpark.
“The hardest part is planning for May 4, Opening Day, and planning for it properly,” Dannemiller said. “There’s so much work that goes into setting your seating bowl, your food and beverage concession lines, your egress and ingress, and how people are going to navigate throughout the ballpark.”
No matter the official attendance numbers, the Grasshoppers remain committed to hosting their party, with regularly-scheduled fireworks, zany promotions, virtual national anthems, and “the best possible family fun experience at the ballpark.”
There’s nothing Dannemiller is looking forward to more than resuming some semblance of the routine she has developed over her 24 years in baseball. In particular, she’s looking forward to resuming regular interactions with people at the park.
She realized as much just before Christmas, during a trip to the grocery store for essentials. There, the Greensboro executive ran into one of the team’s ushers and condiment cart workers, volunteering for the Salvation Army, and was elated.
“That made me realize at that time the enjoyment I have of seeing the people who come to our ballpark on a regular basis,” she said. “That made me realize that I really do miss seeing everybody.”
As an aside, she also misses getting her steps in around the concourse.
“Not having a season taught me that as hard as it is to work 70-plus games with 20 to 30-plus special events, and go 24/7, that kept me young,” Dannemiller said. “In the pandemic times of being away, not running the ballpark and special events, and running the concrete, I’ve noticed my aches and pains more. I certainly noticed a little bit of the Covid 10 pounds added on. It’s such a hard schedule when you run it for almost 25 years, but you don’t realize how much it keeps you young and healthy.”
Hoping things return to some kind of normal at some point in 2021, Dannemiller is grateful that her career has taught her to be adaptable and to embrace new challenges.
“Everything has changed, other than we were fortunate to have kept our affiliation with the Pittsburgh Pirates,” Dannemiller said of the Grasshoppers, who move from the Low-A South Atlantic League to the new High-A East League.
“There’s something every day, questions from a salesperson, or food and beverage questions, or just in general as we’re getting ready to open our gates, more questions pop up. So it’s forever changing.”