Play ball: NJ minor league teams set to return after 2020 hiatus
Following a year in which the Major League Baseball schedule was sliced by more than 100 games, with no competitive Minor League games at all, the road to the Majors is opening back up again this spring, and New Jersey will play a key role.
It's going to be different for many reasons, most related to COVID-19, but also because the very landscape of New Jersey minor league baseball has shifted since 2019.
The New York Yankees have moved their AA affiliation (two steps away from MLB) from the Trenton Thunder, which had been a Yankee partner since 2003, to Bridgewater's Somerset Patriots, who've been around since 1998 but were never before connected to a Major League team.
The Thunder will still operate as part of the newly formed MLB Draft League, designed to be a showcase for top college prospects.
But to start the minor league season, Trenton Thunder Ballpark will host the Buffalo Bisons, the Toronto Blue Jays' AAA affiliate, as the Blue Jays and Bisons continue to renovate Sahlen Field in Buffalo.
That park was used exclusively as the Blue Jays' home stadium in 2020, owing to Canadian travel restrictions; Toronto is currently playing home games at its Spring Training site in Dunedin, Florida, but plans to return to Buffalo later this year.
In Lakewood, the BlueClaws continue as a Class A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies (now considered High-A), as they have been for 20 years, but even they've made a change: They'll now be known as the Jersey Shore BlueClaws.
The BlueClaws, Patriots, and Bisons all have Opening Days in New Jersey scheduled for Tuesday, May 4.
And in the independent Frontier League, the New Jersey Jackals in Little Falls, and Sussex County Miners in Augusta, start their seasons a few days after Memorial Day.
Unlike the stipulations set forth by New York state, under which fans going to Mets or Yankees games this season must present proof of either a negative COVID test or full vaccination to gain entry, guests at New Jersey minor league games are asked to use the common sense we've all been keeping in mind for more than a year.
That means keep your distance, and if you feel sick, pick a different day to come out to the ballpark.
"COVID was that moment where the real world has to come inside, in the sense that we have to have protocols in place," Joe Ricciutti, BlueClaws president and general manager, said.
Teams will try to preserve the unique fan experience of a minor league baseball game while still mandating continuous mask wearing, except when eating or drinking, and keeping six-foot markers at ticket and concession queues.
At those concession windows, Plexiglas barriers have been put in place, and ballpark staff will all be masked.
The BlueClaws say they will try to be as cashless as possible (although cash will, of course, still be accepted), and encourage patrons to buy their tickets in advance.
For anyone able to make it to a game, those tickets may be hard to come by early in the season, given current capacity limits. Patrick McVerry, Patriots president and general manager, expects about 1,600 to 1,800 fans maximum to start.
Both the Patriots and BlueClaws, similar to many Major League teams, are selling tickets in two-, four-, or six-seat, socially distanced "pods."
"It's baby steps, but it is certainly a step in the right direction, and we couldn't be more happy to be a part of that," McVerry said.
Longtime minor league devotees will be glad to know that some beloved hands-on activities away from the field, miniature golf or the "speed pitch" contest to name two examples, will be offered right from the beginning of the season.
"You'll see a little bit of difference in our in-game promotions," McVerry said. "We won't be doing things on the field, at least initially. We'll be doing most of our in-game promotions via the scoreboard or in the stands."
For the BlueClaws, gates at FirstEnergy Park will open on game days a half hour earlier than in years past.
There's a specific, and also COVID-related, reason for that, Ricciutti said.
"Some seniors, or folks who still may want to come to a game and may have a medical condition, we want to give them an opportunity to get through lines really quick and really easy," he said.
The minor league teams say they look forward to welcoming fans back in increasingly larger numbers as the 2021 season progresses, as the COVID vaccination campaign continues and capacity limits, hopefully, are eventually lifted entirely.
But for right now, they are just happy to give baseball fans a minor portion of their normal lives back.