Sometimes you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone.
That’s certainly been the case with minor-league baseball, an integral part of the sport – its life blood, really – that has been dark and largely in turmoil for the past 20 months.
But on Tuesday, the lights were blazing, in places like Hillsboro, Oregon, where the Everett AquaSox finally – finally – opened the 2021 season. And weather permitting they’ll be shining Thursday at Cheney Stadium, when the Tacoma Rainiers debut against El Paso.
How excited are the people involved, those who have had both their livelihood and their passion taken away temporarily, to see grassroots baseball return?
“Oh, my gosh. It’s through the roof,’’ said Andy McKay, the Mariners director of player development. “It’s the equivalent of having a Springsteen concert in New Jersey or something. It’s that level of how thrilled I am. The Beatles in Liverpool (Tuesday) night.
“These kids have been through an incredibly difficult year and, really, the whole organization has. To let these guys get on the field and compete, and to let the coaches get out there and do their jobs again in that environment, is something they’ve been waiting for a long time.”
The “alternate site” – an addition to the baseball vernacular that hopefully never returns – just wasn’t the same thing. Neither was instructional league, spring training or the short-lived Co-op League.
“It’s crazy,’’ pitcher Logan Gilbert said Tuesday via Zoom from Cheney Stadium. “It feels like it’s been forever. That’s all we’re talking about in the locker room, just getting back out there and having real competition again…we’re all fired up and ready to get out there.”
That general sentiment was seconded by Danny Tetzlaff, the general manager of Everett, and Aaron Artman, president of the Rainiers. Artman said of those long, difficult months while the fallout from COVID-19 battered the minor leagues: “It was rough on our souls.”
Not only did those organizations – long-established sporting institutions in their communities — have to weather severe financial hits from empty ballparks; they sweated out a seismic (and at times heartless) restructuring of the minor leagues by MLB.
But at least they survived, unlike the 40 teams that lost their affiliated status. Tacoma is now part a revamped circuit in which the pedestrian name of “Triple-A West” has replaced the history-laden Pacific Coast League. Everett has made a significant move from short-season rookie ball to playing a full season at the highest rung of Class A. Both are delighted to remain affiliated with the Mariners at a time their farm system is thriving.
“Man, the excitement level is off the charts,’’ Tetzlaff said. “We’re very happy to get going again. It seems like our fans are just champing at the bit to get back out and see live baseball and see the future stars playing right here again in Everett.”
For the AquaSox, that list includes such touted names as outfielders Julio Rodriguez (“the man who leads baseball in fun and hard contact,’’ in McKay’s words) and pitchers Emerson Hancock, George Kirby, Brandon Williamson and Isaiah Campbell. Four of the six players from the abbreviated 2020 draft will be in Everett making their professional debuts.
The Rainiers’ roster will feature three celebrated players on the verge of the majors – so close, in fact, that Artman feared the delay of the minor-league season for a month might affect their availability for Tacoma. But, sure enough, outfielder Jarred Kelenic, catcher Cal Raleigh, and Gilbert are all Rainiers. For now, anyway.
One of the many shames of the 2020 minor-league shutdown is that so many skilled players didn’t get the normal growth and progression from playing a season with all the challenges they must eventually conquer. That inevitably stunted their path to the majors, which is a huge reason why this return is so coveted.
“There were individuals and players who were primed for something big in 2020,’’ McKay said. “It was just erased. They couldn’t do anything. So that would be the main focus for me, that idea these kids have spent their lives chasing this thing and now they get to continue it.”
Artman was delighted to learn on Monday that Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest health and safety guidelines allow them to expand seating capacity with designated COVID-19 vaccinated sections for each of the first six home games. That gives the Rainiers the ability to reach 50% of capacity at Cheney Stadium, though that might fall short on this homestand as they work through the logistics.
“Really, Cheney Stadium will be the first place, or one of the first places, in this state where vaccinated people can go and feel normal and to some extent rewarded,’’ Artman said.
“Our mission is to make Cheney Stadium as full as possible,’’ he added. “So we’re really not drawing a line in the sand or making a political statement about vaccinations. The fact of the matter is vaccinated people don’t require social distancing. And so we can get a lot more of them into the stadium, all other things equal, than we can non-vaccinated.
“We understand the perspective of those who aren’t vaccinated yet or do not want to get vaccinated. But from a realistic standpoint, it’s a math equation for us. We can fit thousands more vaccinated people than we can non-vaccinated.”
After all the consternation over MLB’s takeover of minor-league baseball, both Tacoma and Everett are happy with how it shook out. And more than ready to get back to their primary business.
“It was just very strange, somewhat numbing,’’ Artman said of 2020. “We weren’t able to do what we do, whether it’s business or whether it’s providing something for the city that they can be proud of.
“Were incredibly grateful that we get to start a season on Thursday. We don’t know where it’s going to end as far as how many people we will have out here or where the pandemic will be. But we do know that we’re having a 2021 baseball season from now through mid September, and that’s about as good as it gets right now.”
Everett will start the season at 25% capacity when it returns home next Tuesday, which means about 1,000 fans. That total figures to be in flux as the guidelines evolve throughout the season. The AquaSox are adjusting to life as a full-season team (“we’re embracing it,’’ Tetzlaff said), rather than starting play in June after the draft. It’s a new reality that will require working with the Everett School District on coordinating scheduling at Funko Field, which is also used by Everett Community College and high-school baseball teams in the spring.
But all the logistical challenges are welcome compared to the misery of facing an empty ballpark.
“During the shutdown it was doom and gloom,’’ Tetzlaff said. “And now we see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a train coming at us. I think we’re headed in the right direction.’’
For someone like Kelenic, whose road to Seattle is getting shorter and shorter, the right direction is onto the field at Tacoma, where he can finally show he’s ready for The Show.
“Kel’s a great kid,’’ said Kris Negron, Tacoma’s first-year manager. “He’s focused on his preparation and his work. No matter where he is, once those lights turn on, he’s ready to go.’’
On Tuesday, the minor-league lights were shining again.