NEW BRITAIN – Baseball is officially back in New Britain.
After a lengthy delay and a general uncertainty about any sort of season due to the coronavirus outbreak, the New Britain Bees and the Futures League announced on Monday morning that the 2020 season would indeed happen, with the Bees opening up New Britain Stadium to 25 percent capacity when the season begins on July 2.
“We're really excited about it,” Bees general manager Brad Smith said. “We have full approval from Mayor [Erin] Stewart and health director Sergio Lupo to open up the gates and play at 25 percent capacity, which is around 1,500. We're following all of the guidelines from Gov. Lamont.”
Mayor Stewart had met with the Bees earlier this month, around when the team began holding workouts to prepare for a potential season. The protocols they came up with included closing off every other seat and every other row in the stadium, which holds just under 6,200 people. Markings will also be made in the concourse areas to direct flows of traffic, and markings will be made at concession stands to keep fans six feet apart while waiting in line. When play resumes, Smith and the Bees will be asking fans to wear a mask while in the concourse areas at all times.
“With a 6,200-seat stadium, we can keep everyone safely distanced,” Smith said. “We're really excited and am extremely confident that we can keep everyone in the stadium in a safe environment.”
Tickets to Bees games will be $7, and parking will be free. Tickets will be general admission and are on sale now as the start of the 38-game season nears. The season was originally set to begin on May 28 before it was delayed indefinitely, but as the state has begun to gradually reopen while coronavirus cases decline, the league’s patience in waiting on making a decision was rewarded.
“That's why we waited so long,” Smith said. ‘We wanted to give it every chance we could. It was a little easier because the footprint of our league is so small, and our furthest trip is something like two hours. It does get a little difficult when you have to deal with three different states and six different towns with different rules and regulations. That's why we waited as long as possible, and for our case specifically in Connecticut and New Britain, the rules opened up in our favor as far as allowing play on the field and with fans.”
On the field, the game will operate as normal, but there will be a number of safety measures put in place off the diamond. Players will be asked to stay six feet apart in the dugout and to wear masks, while coaches will be asked to wear masks at all times. The dugout will hold position players only, with pitchers being spread out in the bullpen beyond the outfield wall and in the picnic area adjacent to the bullpen. Team clubhouses will be closed for the year, and players will not travel to road games on a team bus. Instead, they will take their own transportation to avoid being packed into one vehicle.
“We're basically copying the youth leagues and American Legion models,” Smith said. “These kids show up in their own car, get out and play baseball, get back in their car and drive home.”
The roster has also been slightly adjusted to include only Connecticut residents, as a few players from out of state were unable to find housing.
“If kids needed a host family and couldn't find a family member or friend in town, we unfortunately had to part ways,” Smith said. “But we were able to pick up an all-Connecticut roster, so we'll be able to keep our kids very safe. We're fortunate we're able to keep the kids in the so-called bubble.”
The roster will also boast a level of talent that might not have been available in other years, but with other summer leagues like the NECBL and Cape Cod League being canceled entirely, Smith was able to pick up players from those higher-level collegiate leagues that were suddenly in need of a new place to play. Smith is hoping to have that same fortune in terms of fans who will be looking to enjoy summer baseball, and the Bees just might be the only source of baseball around. The Bristol Blues won’t be taking the field in 2020, while the Hartford Yard Goats’ season is expected to be canceled. MLB is still struggling to agree on a 2020 campaign, and spring training facilities were shut down last week after a number of players and team employees tested positive for COVID-19. So, when the gates open on July 2, it will be the Bees and the Futures League providing the bulk of live baseball entertainment.
“We realize we're the only game in town, so we're going to do everything we can to make sure when the fans come out, they have the best time possible,” Smith said. “The product on the field this year is going to be great.”
First pitch for the Bees’ season opener, which will be against the Worcester Bravehearts, is scheduled for 6:35 p.m. Five of the Bees’ first six games of the season will be at home, and the regular season is scheduled to end on Aug 19, with the postseason slated to run from Aug 20-25.
The league has yet to make an official announcement, but Smith confirmed to the Herald that the Futures League All-Star Game, which was scheduled to take place at New Britain Stadium, will no longer be held.