2020 was an unprecedented year/season/everything, but let’s not downplay 2021. 2021 so far has played up some of the worst parts of 2020 while attempting to go back to normal…which has been anything but. And in Sacramento in April, one of the more unprecedented events took place.
Scrimmages. With fans. Lots of them. Lots of scrimmage, that is, not the fans.
COVID-19 protocols in place in March, as vaccinations were still a fairly new thing across the country, took the added protocol of delaying the entire minor league season, in order to reduce crowding among Major League camps. So minor league spring training did not start until April. The protocols then also mandated the return of the “Alternate Site” plan to keep players relatively quarantined but ready to be called up if needed, at least until the minor league season began in earnest in May (hopefully).
So much like last year, the Giants kept essentially a team’s worth of players in Sacramento. They weren’t the Sacramento River Cats, officially. But this time, rules were much less strict. And this time, the Oakland Athletics put their alternate site just down the road in Stockton. So the two teams decided to schedule a month’s worth of scrimmages against each other. The longest two-team series outside of sandlots.
And Sacramento, in light of improving pandemic restrictions, said “Why not fans?”
So fans have spent the last month trickling into scrimmages, socially distanced and mask-wearing…at least mostly. It was as close to anything resembling minor league baseball that California had seen since Sacramento was heading to the Triple-A Championship game in 2019. So what did this hybrid look like, watching the Alt-Giants take on the Alt-Athletics?
The first change hit you as you arrived, at least if you drove. They were charging for parking, but they were accepting credit cards for it. This was a rarity in 2019 and before, at any ballpark. If you didn’t have cash on you while you were in line waiting to pull in, you started asking everyone else riding with you if they had any.
Now, not only were credit cards accepted, they were the only way to pay.
Paper is out of date. Your ticket wasn’t paper: Sacramento would have texted it to you. There were no programs, or scorecards given at the gate. And there was no cash allowed anywhere, from parking attendants to concessions.
And once you used your phone to get into the park, how about those concessions? Sutter Health Field was accepting a fraction of its capacity, and the Wednesday game I attended was not even up to that reduction. The result? Many of Sacramento’s unique concession stands were closed. If you wanted the ballpark staples, like hot dogs, soft pretzels, and soda, you were going to be okay. But there were just two concession stands open, and one very-not-lonely beer cart.
If you wanted food, of course, credit cards only. The team encouraged pre-ordering, which occurs on the MiLB First Pitch app…but there were many lanes open for ordering in the moment. Much like in the Majors, adoption of pre-ordering food by an app has been about as popular as the runner-on-second extra innings rule.
If you watched the early months of Spring Training, you might have been ready for how unusual the rules of the game would be. But for the fans, the Wednesday game I attended had one obvious non sequitur: the visiting Oakland Alt-A’s were the “home” team, batting last.
This was not a callback to 2011. Since Stockton is located in San Joaquin county, one of the state’s harder-hit and one of the slowest to advance through the tier system, it was not cleared to host fans at games. Presumably due to this, some of the games that were going to be Alt-Athletics home games were moved to Sacramento, so at least someone could make some money. But the A’s remained the home squad…even if they were still wearing their road grays.
The game itself was structured for preparation rather than score. There was no box score online to follow. The lineups were announced pre-game, but were not posted. The only replays were on the center field scoreboard screen, and occasionally on the Sacramento River Cats twitter feed.
The Alt-Giants start, Shun Yamaguchi, struggled through some of his innings. The good news for him was that the innings didn’t have to be long. One inning ended after the second out. The next ended with the bases loaded and just one out. The score was on the scoreboard, but it was just a novelty. The performances here would be remembered only in memory and some scouting notebooks…not many, by the looks of things.
Mid-week day games are generally only for the most loyal of fans, or at least those who don’t absolutely have to work on those days. They are rarely sold-out affairs in normal days. This scrimmage was even more not-sold out.
Many people attending would have entire rows to themselves. Outside of pockets of denser seating near the dugouts, comprised of the loudest fans that I assume were related to those on the field, many sections of the ballpark would have maybe a dozen fans seated there. The luxury boxes in the upper deck above the playing field were mostly empty, save for two groups.
The fans themselves seemed to be a mix of hardcore fans, those wearing both MLB and MiLB gear, or very casual fans who took little notice of the game. Cheers were mostly not wild cheers, except for those coming from the dugouts. Most of the seated seemed just content to be at the ballpark again.
Between innings, Sacramento rolled out the usual mid-inning entertainment. They had a live crew going around the park, in the early innings doing more informative pieces about changes in the pandemic, but also doing entertainment. No fan contests or questions, though. What they did have was some mid-inning “Fan Cams” to let fans dance to be on screen, including a “Mask Cam”, which of course, meant you had to be in a mask to be eligible. An idea some Major League teams should consider.
For what it’s worth, I did not see any trouble. There were no fans struggling with the new rules or standards for being at a game. No complaints about not taking good old fashioned greenbacks, or groups clearly trying to break the rules and sit together.
But it was a mostly adult group of fans. A few had babies or toddlers, but other than that, maybe a half-dozen kids were at the game. Most were down deep in foul ground, waiting to chase down foul balls hit into the very empty rows down there, creating a game of human-sized plinko as the balls bounced against plastic seat backs.
It’s mostly good being back out at the ballpark, especially a minor league ballpark. And that seemed to be the prevailing thoughts of the fans in attendance. Get past 2020, get back to a new normal-ish.
As such, when the game came to an end, with the Alt-Athletics ahead going into the bottom of the ninth, there was a weird silence. Whether fans weren’t watching the inning numbers, or forgot who was the home team, there wasn’t even a cursory cheer at first. It was just a scrimmage, maybe it would go on. It took a minute for the PA Announcer to make it official, “So that’s the end of the game!”, sounding as surprised as anyone at the fact. With that, the cursory clapping and cheers, following by the teams walking off the field, and people began to leave.
It was a successful day back at the ballpark, even if it wasn’t officially minor league baseball.
The thoughts of 2020, and the season that was missed, however, still hang in the air. As you waited in line for the barely double-digit capacity at the team store to let you in, you might have caught sight of gear that was not meant for 2021: Triple-A Championship hats and shirts, decked out in golden cats. That was nearly two years ago, a celebration delayed indefinitely. A reign that will now be the longest in history, since it won’t end until the end of the 2022 season at the earliest.
And even more direct a memory of what was lost, on another wall: T-shirts for a 2020 scrimmage that was never played, between the actual Giants and the River Cats.
But that was what was lost last year. For now, minor league baseball is back. Kinda.