FORT MYERS, Fla. — Back in mid-November, during a surge of COVID-19 cases across the state with thousands more people getting sick by the day, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz had a message he hoped would resonate: If we stay safe and take the necessary precautions now, we can return to Twins games in the spring.
“The idea of sitting in that stadium on a warm April day and watching the Twins play while you eat a hot dog and talk to your brother-in-law and your next-door neighbor … the ability to be able to do that lies within us,” Walz said in an address to Minnesotans as he announced new COVID-19 restrictions for the state.
Months later, as COVID-19 cases in Minnesota drop, that possibility has started to come into focus. Both the Twins and the Saints have submitted a readiness plan for the Walz administration and Minnesota Department of Health to look over. Signoff on the return of fans won’t be those entities rubberstamping their plans — it’ll be a change in guidelines at the state level from the governor for large venues.
The Twins are hoping for a return of a little more of 10,000 fans, slightly upwards of 26 percent capacity of Target Field, team president and CEO Dave St. Peter said. Those seats would be broken into pods of two or four with ample distance between each pod. The Saints hope they’ll be able to seat about 2,750 fans, a little less than 34 percent of CHS Field, general manager and executive vice president Derek Sharrer said. They would sell tickets in pods that range from two to six fans.
“We still have a long ways to go, so we’re realistic, and one thing that COVID has taught all of us is that you make decisions when you have to make decisions, right? So I don’t think anybody from the state is going to be in a rush to make this decision,” St. Peter said. “They’re going to let the science ultimately guide the decision.”
While the state might not be in a rush to make a decision, the Twins and Saints are both hoping to hear at least a few weeks before their home openers — the Saints’ first home game is April 6 and the Twins’ is two days later on April 8 — so they can ready their ballparks with proper COVID-19 protocols in place, sell tickets, communicate with fans and do a number of other things necessary to host a large crowd.
As of right now, the state currently allows for crowds of 250 people at outdoor venues. At that number, the teams say it’s not financially viable for either of them to open up and sell tickets given all the costs it takes to run and operate a stadium.
The Twins, like all Major League Baseball teams, went all of last season without the general public in the stadium. Their only crowds of spectators all season came during their two playoff games when they let a small number of front-office members watch from the stands.
While the Twins don’t know what numbers the dials will move to — if they move — St. Peter said if it’s below the 10,000 range, they would have to “take a look at it and see if it makes sense for us.”
“It hopefully will and we’ll be able to move forward,” he said.
Last season, the Saints, then an independent-league team and now the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate, operated six 250-seat pods using separate entrances, restrooms and concession stands to welcome a maximum of 1,500 fans per game into CHS Field. Though Sharrer said they were glad they were able to welcome fans into games and do not regret doing so, 1,500 spectators was not financially viable and they hope to see an increase moving forward.
Both are looking forward to hearing from the governor. Whether or not they get to their target number by Opening Day, they both expect that the number of fans allowed will continue to increase throughout the season as more people get vaccinated and case numbers drop.
“Governor Walz is eager to get back to Target Field. If Minnesotans continue to work hard to keep the virus under control while vaccinations ramp up, we’re optimistic we can get fans back in the stands in some capacity this season,” Walz spokesperson Teddy Tschann said in a statement. “The Administration will remain in close communication with the Twins.”
Desire on both ends
Within 30 minutes of spring training tickets going on sale to the general public at Hammond Stadium on Wednesday, the tickets were gone, snapped up by fans excited to watch live baseball.
The Twins will play their their first spring training game on Sunday at their home field in front of slightly more than 2,400 fans, about 28 percent of the stadium’s capacity after getting approval from Major League Baseball and Lee County.
The team on the field appears just as eager to have fans back as some fans are to return.
“The stadium’s too big to have nobody in there,” catcher Mitch Garver said. “I don’t care if they’re booing me or cheering for me. Like, somebody would be better than nothing.”
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said the empty stadiums throughout the 2020 season affected players in different ways. Perhaps it was less focus or less energy or less adrenaline, he said. While players often create their own energy — remember back to former Twins reliever Sergio Romo “testing the acoustics,” as he called it, by hooting and hollering at Target Field last summer — fans also bring a lot of energy to the ballpark that players can draw from.
“We’re really looking forward to seeing people back in the ballpark. It’s not just words,” Baldelli said. “It changes the game for all of us on the field, and I know every player is thinking that when we can safely do that, we’ll be waiting for it patiently.”
While some fans might be apprehensive to return to the park with COVID-19 still circulating and contagious new variants surfacing, St. Peter said the club has been polling fans every month and receptiveness toward returning to the park has been tracking in a positive direction, something they expect to continue to improve as times goes on.
Since the pandemic began, St. Peter has talked often about baseball helping bring normalcy back to people after a trying year. He sees a way where both the Twins and the Saints can play a role in helping their respective downtown areas reopen.
“I understand fans will have some trepidation and I expect it won’t be for everyone, but I do know there’s a lot of pent-up demand, there’s a lot of interest in our teams, both here in Minneapolis and, of course, the Saints in St. Paul,” he said. “I know a lot of fans are looking for some path towards normalcy whereas there’s probably not going to be a lot of normalcy coming to a ballgame having to wear a mask. It may be sitting socially distanced from other fans, (but) I do think watching Nelson Cruz hit a home run at Target Field is going to bring a lot of joy.”
The Twins also can see some of that pent-up demand in the way season-ticket holders have responded over the course of the past year.
The club has retained 90 percent of its season-ticket base, senior vice president of ticket sales and brand partnerships Mike Clough said, which he attributed to a loyal fanbase excited to see the product the Twins put on the field.
“We’ve been doing surveying all along just to get a gauge of fan sentiment, if you will, and for the most part (it’s) really positive,” Clough said. “ … Until people know exactly what that plan is and what their options are, it’s incumbent on us to explain how we plan to return fans safely to the ballpark here at Target Field to put people in a position to feel comfortable with those options to come back.”
How they'll do it
Every Wednesday at noon, senior vice president of operations Matt Hoy hops on a call with his counterparts from about a dozen MLB teams. There isn’t much of an agenda each week — they just discuss some of the challenges they’ve faced as they plot their way back and some of the solutions for those problems.
In putting together a plan to return fans to seats, the Twins have drawn from the Saints’ experience, as well as European soccer teams and NFL teams. Last fall, the Texas Rangers hosted fans for the National League Championship Series and the World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, and Hoy said they shared just about everything they could with other teams around the league.
Other teams’ findings have helped shape a readiness plan that the Twins have been working on since last year. They’ve focused a lot of time on ingress and egress in an effort to make sure fans avoid crowding around the entrance and exits.
The current plan for entrance to Target Field has the Twins using every other turnstile so they can spread people out as they enter. They’ll be using only digital ticketing. They’re going to limit bags with the exceptions of diaper bags, medically-necessary bags and purses no bigger than 9 x 5 to avoid having the security team touching fans’ items.
All spectators will be required to wear masks except while eating and drinking. Tickets must be purchased in twos and fours, and seats will be spaced out with what Clough called a “checkerboard approach.”
The ticketing team spent hours walking through the stadium mapping out seats to make sure there was at the very least six feet of distance in between each pod. They will skip rows when appropriate and fans will not be seated immediately behind or in front of another person. There also will be an MLB-mandated buffer zone to make sure fans are distanced from areas where players are located.
Seats that are blocked off for sale will be zip tied off so nobody can sit in them. On Monday, Hoy and his team had a “socially-distanced zip tie party,” to get Hammond Stadium ready for spectators on Sunday.
In their efforts to make Target Field safe for fans, the Twins have teamed up with Maplewood-based 3M, a partnership that Hoy said will help the Twins in a variety of ways as they look to adhere to CDC guidelines.
“To have an internationally renowned top-of-the-world company that is in this space whether it’s cleaning and sanitizing or protective equipment, we have experts in our backyard, so to be able to have a partnership with them, I think is very meaningful and they will help advise us in all kinds of areas that we maybe have some knowledge but they have much more expertise than we do,” Hoy said.
Another recently announced partnership with Venuetize will help the Twins create a contactless experience at Target Field, allowing fans to purchase food, drinks and merchandise on the MLB Ballpark app, the same app fans will use to get their tickets scanned to enter the park.
After successfully hosting fans at 21 games last season, the Saints’ plan is fairly similar as they move away from the six separate 250-person pods and towards a system that they believe would allow them to use more of the footprint of CHS Field.
“We learned that it is possible to entertain fans safely in an outdoor venue like ours during a pandemic,” Sharrer said. “I think the things that we learned lead us to have a higher level of comfort than the opposite.”
Both plans, Sharrer said, hit on five elements that the governor’s office and Minnesota Department of Health are looking for, which he said included communication, a controlled and predictable environment, masking, social distancing, and health and wellness protocols around spectators, employees and on-field staff.
The hope now is that all that planning will pay off and fans will be back in seats enjoying their favorite baseball team sooner rather than later.
“I’m really optimistic we’re going to have fans in the ballpark this season,” St. Peter said. “I’m hopeful that we’re going to have fans in the ballpark on Opening Day, April 8, and I think that there’s a lot of things that are happening around COVID that tell us that we’re moving in a really positive direction.”