While all of minor league baseball (the affiliated version) has been canceled for 2020, the American Association is pressing forward amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The season kicked off Friday night, and a crowd of 1,522 descended on the Birdcage to watch the Canaries beat the Saints 9-4.
It felt pretty much like a normal Canaries game, for better and worse.
The team looked great. Jabari Henry, making his return to the Birds after setting the Canaries’ single-season home run record in 2017, walloped one over the left field fence in his first at-bat of the season. That was the first of four homers the Birds hit on the night – Alay Lago, Andrew Ely and KC Huth also went deep.
Starting pitcher Tyler Herron was solid for five innings and the bullpen did its job. There were a handful of spectacular defensive plays made by both teams, particularly a diving catch in center field by Huth and a spinning, tumbling catch in right by Mike Hart. Any fans attending their first American Association game had to be impressed with the caliber of play, but the acrobatic defensive plays served as stark reminders the Birdcage lacks a video board capable of instant replay.
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The weather couldn’t have been much better, with a gametime temp of just over 80 degrees and almost no wind. They did the beer batter promotion. There were postgame fireworks and they were good. And between innings entertainment from new media director John Gaskins that seemed to go over well. Gaskins embodied the Harry Caray impression we often heard on his KWSN radio show in the form of ‘Harry Canary’ – who led fans in ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ during the 7th inning stretch, and took the mic to sing ‘Sweet Caroline’ in the 8th as ‘Doug Diamond’, announced as Neil’s nephew.
When Doug altered the lyrics to ‘NOT touching hands/NOT touching me/NOT touching you’ it elicited legitimate belly laughs from the crowd.
But it was also, ironically, one of the only noticeable nods to social distancing. If you’re not especially concerned with COVID-19, you’d have fit right in on Friday. If you’re nervous about venturing out in crowds right now, I wouldn’t recommend coming to a game just yet.
The Canaries advertised social distancing protocols that included prohibiting seating in every other row, but it didn’t appear that was being enforced at all. In the section next to mine there were fans in every row. I had purchased two tickets in the middle of the first row behind first base, and a couple from St. Paul (sidenote – there was a great turnout of Saints fans) sat in the seats immediately next to us. It’s possible those weren’t the seats they paid for, but either way it seems like putting a seat or two between parties is at least as important as blocking off rows, and there needs to be someone making sure fans aren’t sitting where they aren’t supposed to. People were clustered together in close quarters all around the stadium.
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Per American Association rules, all three umpires were wearing masks. There might have been more umpires wearing masks than fans.
And when the fireworks ended, a hundred fans all tried to exit the small right field gate at the same time. Most fans were unconcerned, but several clearly stayed back and waited for the herd to dissipate before leaving.
The FanFood app that allows fans to order concessions from their seat was a mixed bag. It’s definitely convenient, but I couldn’t find everything I wanted (couldn’t get sunflower seeds or a side order of fries to go with a hot dog), and it wouldn’t let me order a beer, even after checking a box certifying I’d show ID when picking up the one I’d selected (a $7 Bud Light).
You don’t have to use the app, though, so I just walked down to the concession stand behind home plate and got everything I wanted (and saved the convenience fee). The hot dog was seriously outstanding and the fries were good, too.
The seats in the front row of the grandstand don’t have cupholders, so you have to set your drink on the ground in front of you. I accidentally kicked an empty beer can onto the field, and a few minutes later, Hart, after grounding out, saw the can on the ground, jogged over and picked it up and set it back on the pavement on his way back to the dugout.
What a guy. Maybe they can get the slugging outfielder to make sure fans sit where they’re supposed to while he’s at it.