Every spring, Michael Limmer and the Fort Wayne TinCaps staff notice a trend.
“We talk about how people in Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana are cooped up all winter long, and they want to get out,” Limmer says. “Whether it’s the TinCaps games, or the lake, or the zoo, all of these attractions get really busy in the spring because people have been stuck inside for so long.” Limmer
In the spring of 2020, under the threat of COVID-19, the cooped-up, stir-crazy, just-ready-to-get-out season of winter is extending even longer—weeks after attractions like the zoo and the TinCaps are usually open.
The first home TinCaps game of 2020 was scheduled for April 13, but now it’s a no-go since the state is under a stay home order until May. The TinCaps players were supposed to arrive in town from spring training on April 5. Then there was supposed to be a Meet the Team event on April 7 followed by the TinCaps annual Open House on April 11, which draws about 1,000 fans to Parkview Field.
It will all have to wait, Limmer says. He got a notification on his phone last week about a staff training day that isn’t happening either, and it’s just one more thing to add to the list.
Everything is on hold. Everyone is at home, and for good reason.
Since the Fort Wayne TinCaps are sponsored by Parkview Health, the namesake of their playing field, the TinCaps staff is painfully aware of the importance of public health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. They want to do everything they can to support the city’s healthcare workers during this time, Limmer says.
He talks about the importance of social distancing and putting things into perspective.
After all, it’s only baseball, and there are actual lives at risk with COVID-19.
But the thing is, for anyone who’s lived in Fort Wayne the past 11 years—or anyone who’s attended a single baseball game at Parkview Field—it’s ultimately more than baseball that’s at stake.
It’s a six-dollar ticket to a night of entertainment for the whole family with a picnic blanket on the lawn. It’s a skyline view of downtown just over the second baseline. It’s a way-too-long line for dollar beer on Thursday nights, but who cares because you’re waiting with friends? It’s talking the whole game and only stopping to watch the innings or the Bad Apple Dancers (just me?).
The Bad Apple Dancers perform during a TinCaps game.
The point is: TinCaps games are a cultural experience in Fort Wayne; they’re a big reason so many people believe in the city, and in 2020, they could be yet another casualty of COVID-19.
The question on Limmer’s (and most everyone’s) mind is: How long is this all going to last? And even after people are allowed to leave their houses and attend public events again, what is the new normal going to look like—particularly for a Minor League baseball team?
What residents might not realize is that Minor League baseball works differently than the Majors.
While the Major Leagues are more like national corporations that can withstand a financial blow, the Minor Leagues operate more like small businesses, Limmer says. And under the stringent restrictions of COVID-19, small businesses are suffering.
“Our revenue is made on ticket sales, $10-12 dollars at a time,” Limmer explains. “Among the 160 Minor League teams nationwide, there are teams that have three to six employees, and if you look at a scenario where we were to not play an entire season, there are a lot of teams that couldn’t make it and keep folks intact.”
Parkview Field is closed to the public as part of the COVID-19 shutdown.
While Limmer has already heard about layoffs happening through the grapevine on other teams, he feels confident that the TinCaps’s owner, Jason Freier of Hardball Capital, is doing everything he can to maintain the 32 fulltime staff at the TinCaps.
“He is diving into all these small business loans, reading the regulations and the fine print,” Limmer says. “From the very first day we worked with him in 2006, he has said that Minor League teams are a part of the fabric of their communities and that their people and staff are what’s most important.”
Now, Freier is standing by his word. But navigating how to support staff and players amidst the unprecedented uncertainty of COVID-19 is no easy task.
Limmer says that Minor League teams across the nation are eager to avoid a cancelling the entire season at all costs.
“I don’t even like to talk about it,” he says.
Instead, they’re running through different scenarios day-by-day, looking for creative ways to make up lost games.
TinCaps games draw thousands of fans to Parkview Field every spring.
With April off the books, the TinCaps will be missing 13 games, for sure, so they might end up extending their season past Labor Day, Limmer notes.
But it’s all to be determined as COVID-19 and its ongoing implications unfold.
Even after public events are allowed again, Minor League teams are likely looking at about four weeks of Spring Training and preparation time before they’re ready to open the gates to fans.
There’s also the question of cross-state travel. Since baseball teams hit the road in buses of about 40 players, coaches, and staff for away games, it’s uncertain how many people will be allowed to travel together or to cross state lines.
“There are things you wouldn’t have thought twice about before, and now we’re asking: Is that safe?” Limmer says. “The safety and health of our players and fans is our number one priority.”
And when it comes to fans, Limmer is not sure how they are going to respond either.
In 2019, the TinCaps averaged 6,000 fans per game at each of their 70 home games. Their largest crowd on the Fourth of July drew a record-breaking 9,500 fans jammed into Parkview Field.
It’s this crowded atmosphere that usually makes TinCaps games so appealing, Limmer says.
“The attitude tends to be: The more, the merrier,” he adds.
But as people re-emerge from social distancing, will they want to crowd into a baseball stadium? Will they even be allowed to?
It’s all up in the air for now, and while the Majors have big television revenues that allow them to play for an empty stadium, the Minor Leagues are different.
“It’s more about the in-person experience,” Limmer says. “We broadcast all TinCaps games on Comcast Channel 81, but we don’t have a big audience there.”
TinCaps games are a popular family-friendly activity.
One place the TinCaps do have a big audience is on their social media channels, where they’ve been running some contests and promotions for fans during the pandemic, as well as offering to support Fort Wayne.
Limmer says they’re working with partners to post notifications on social media and stadium billboards about needs in the community, like food drop-off sites or donation opportunities.
His staff is also taking advantage of some extra pre-season time to boost their skills and earn certifications.
For example, since the TinCaps team is a Midwest League affiliate of the San Diego Padres, about half of the players speak Spanish as their primary language, Limmer says. Now, several staff members are learning or improving their Spanish, too.
Once the season does kickoff, his crew has a few special promotions they’re excited to launch. The TinCaps are going to be celebrating Hispanic and Latino culture in 2020 by changing their name to the “Mazanas Luchadoras” (Fighting Apples) for a series of games. Limmer says his staff has been working with a local Hispanic focus group to roll out this new celebration, which will include elements of Latino culture, like Spanish dance and a Mariachi Band.
Overall, the TinCaps staff is doing their best to stay busy and stay positive. After all, when the new normal arrives, Fort Wayne will need its most treasured forms of local entertainment to lift its spirits.
“Anyone who’s been to a TinCaps game knows that while it’s a game, while it’s a sport, it’s also a diversion from whatever you’re dealing with in life,” Limmer says. “Whatever it is you’ve got going in on, we’re offering you two to three hours of escape. We basically throw 70 parties a year. We try to be a diversion. I think more than ever, that’s going to be what we try to be this year.”