No ceremonial first pitch. No on-field promotions. A national anthem sung from the stadium bowl.
If the Norfolk Tides begin their home season as scheduled on May 18, baseball at Harbor Park will have a different look and feel by any measure. But Tides general manager Joe Gregory remains confident there will indeed be baseball, and that at least a limited number of fans will be able to watch it.
“I feel good,” Gregory said Wednesday after a series of meetings regarding reopening protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think the vaccination numbers are trending in the right direction.
“I feel like there’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic that we’re going to open up as we’re currently scheduled.”
The club’s delayed season, originally set for early April, is scheduled to start May 4 at Jacksonville, part of the South Division of the newly created Triple-A East. If it does, Gregory and his staff will have two weeks to see how other clubs around the circuit handle COVID requirements.
As it stands, the state will allow outdoor venues to hold events at 30% capacity. But the city currently plans to require the Tides to keep pods of masked fans at least 10 feet apart, and not the 6 feet required for outdoor events statewide.
That restriction means the Tides can’t reach the 30% threshold; they’ll operate at around 20% capacity, so the 11,856-seat venue will accommodate just shy of 2,400 fans.
It calls into question whether the club, which drew an average of 5,304 in 2019, can make money.
“There’s so many variables,” Gregory said. “Are the people at the ballpark buying food and drink? Are they buying merchandise? It’s tough to say. If we do break even, it won’t be by much.”
Even the players will be affected by the distancing limitations. Though Major League Baseball is reportedly trying to reach an 85% threshold for player vaccinations, only a quarter to a third of them will be allowed in the clubhouses at the same time.
Clubhouse buffets are on hold, replaced by grab-and-go meals to be consumed outdoors. Even postgame showers, a tradition as old as the game, are being discouraged, Gregory said.
Fans will notice that the field won’t house ball boys, and teams will forgo another age-old tradition: the bat boy. Anything to maximize the safety of the players, many of whom represent significant financial investments for the parent Baltimore Orioles.
One constant will be Harbor Park’s lush playing surface. Longtime head groundskeeper Kenny Magner has spent the year and a half since the Tides last played at Harbor Park maintaining its dirt and grass for about four hours a day — that is, when the avid outdoorsman hasn’t been hunting or fishing.
The surface was trimmed to a half-inch recently, and Magner and his crew are tweaking the mound and plate while manicuring the bullpens.
Magner, the team’s head groundskeeper since 1978, said the field is in the exact shape it’s normally in a month out from the home opener.
Still, after months of mowing and edging alone in an empty ballpark, getting back to full-time duty will represent a change in lifestyle.
“My wife did say, ‘If this is retirement, you’re not doing it,’ Magner said, laughing. “I was driving her nuts, she said.”
Gregory spent part of Wednesday afternoon presenting a 43-page reopening plan to the city health department and the city manager’s office. The plan is heavy on signage, floor stickers and people-funneling bicycle racks designed to make baseball with fans ― the only way it can exist in the minor leagues ― a reality.
“I believe it went well,” Gregory said of Wednesday’s presentation. “But it’s good that we’re opening on the road.”
David Hall, email@example.com