Luther Williams Field is home to Georgia’s Macon Bacon, a member of the Coastal Plain League. (Courtesy Macon Bacon)

Summer league for college players to play ball July 1

The reemergence of live sports will shine on rustic ballparks in the Southeast when the Coastal Plain League, a summer wood-bat league for college baseball players, starts its season July 1 with fans in the stands.

The CPL, whose roots date to 1937 in North Carolina, is among the few sports leagues ramping up during the pandemic. It will open its doors to the public with attendance restricted to 50% of capacity.

In general, the spotlight could shine even brighter on independent leagues if Major League Baseball owners and players can’t come to an agreement and cancel the 2020 season. As of mid-June, both parties remained at an impasse over salaries and other revenue streams. Plus, it’s unlikely Minor League Baseball will be played in 2020, resulting in fewer organized baseball organizations playing this year.

“I’ve been doing a lot of consulting work for teams and they all said, ‘Hey, we’re watching you. Don’t screw it up,’” said Steve DeLay, owner of the CPL’s Macon Bacon and a veteran minor league baseball executive. “I thought, ‘Great, the pressure of the entire sports world is on our shoulders; we have to make sure we do this right.’”

Fifteen teams across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia make up the current version of the Coastal Plain League, which was resurrected in 1997 and whose alumni include current major leaguers Justin Verlander and Ryan Zimmerman. 

In mid-June, the Macon Bacon, plus the Savannah Bananas and the Lexington (S.C.) Blowfish, were set to play games in front of smaller crowds after getting final approval from local and state governments, according to DeLay. Teams in Georgia and South Carolina are a little ahead of the game after governors in those states were among the first to lift restrictions after the global shutdown of public assembly venues.

One CPL team, the Florence (S.C.) Red Wolves, canceled its season. They play at Francis Marion University’s Sparrow Stadium and the school shut down its facilities for the summer, according to local reports. In North Carolina, the Gastonia Grizzlies, situated just a few miles from the South Carolina border, remained unsure what would occur in July with large-scale gatherings.

The Savannah (Ga.) Bananas salute their fans at Grayson Stadium. (Courtesy Savannah Bananas)

“We’ll need to have a clear path to host up to 500 people to make the numbers work,” said Matt Perry, president and co-owner of  the Grizzlies. “All we can do is wait until we have more information and prepare for playing if given the nod. It could be a real scramble. We’d like to host games as long as we can do it safely.”

Other CPL teams such as the Wilmington Sharks in North Carolina, also co-owned by Perry, are preparing their ballparks and staff for 20 to 30 home games. League dates are set but opponents have yet to be confirmed.

“In South Carolina and Georgia, we can have crowds of more than 25 people provided we can provide social distancing and sanitation, among other steps,” DeLay said. “Georgia, so far, so good. It’s been pretty safe and steadily declining on (positive) cases.”

The Bacon play at 90-year-old Luther Williams Field, which underwent a $2.5 million renovation two years ago before the team’s first season in 2018. Pendulum Studio designed the upgrades. The historic ballpark has been home to multiple minor league teams over the years and has been featured in three baseball-themed movies, plus the television show “Brockmire.”

DeLay is the team’s sole owner after he bought out former co-owner Jon Spoelstra’s share in the spring of 2018. DeLay spent 12 years as executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the old Mandalay Baseball Properties, which owned up to eight minor league clubs.   

Luther Williams Field’s capacity is 3,300, with 2,800 fixed seats in the bowl and the remaining 500 distributed among six outdoor suites and other group hospitality areas. For the 2020 season, the park’s capacity will shrink to about 1,300 to protect fans during the COVID-19 crisis.

“We’ve gone through and measured section by section, seat by seat,” DeLay said. “We reset every single account based on how long they’ve been with us. If they have two seats, we make sure there’s 6 feet between them and the next (group). It’s been a laborious process for us, but we made sure to take care of season-ticket holders and stagger space to make it work with social distancing.”

Most of Macon’s 26 home games were nearing sellouts. Fewer than 5% of season-ticket holders opted out of their plans for 2020, DeLay said.

“Fans are chomping at the bit just to go to games,” he said. “They can’t wait to go out and do things. The people who did (opt out) were mostly in a high-risk category and felt it wasn’t a smart move for them. The bulk of them deferred to next year as opposed to asking for a refund.”

The park’s two party decks, the 175-person PMC Party Deck and 75-person Bacon Box, were both reduced to 60% capacity. Dining tables are spread out, similar to what restaurants do now. All staff, including food service workers, will wear face coverings and they’ll all wear gloves as they did in the past, DeLay said. Buffet-style service has been eliminated for the all-inclusive decks. Workers will serve food and hand plates to customers.

The jungle gym, part of the kids zone, will be closed this summer because it’s too difficult to sanitize. The whiffle ball field will be open, though, and staff will clean bats and balls between use, DeLay said.

Team officials don’t plan to have thermal screening at the gates. Emergency medical technicians will be stationed at entrances to keep an eye on things, and anyone in line who is coughing and looks sick may be pulled aside and screened, DeLay said.

The Macon Bacon will distribute a five-page document inside the gates with details on all of the protective measures taken to ensure fan safety. In addition, signs will be posted with messages stating that if fans don’t feel well or believe they are in a high-risk category, they shouldn’t attend the game.

In terms of liability, fans won’t be required to sign a waiver. DeLay discussed the situation with the team’s legal and insurance people and was told that as long as the Bacon are doing everything businesses such as groceries and retail stores should be doing during the pandemic, waivers are not necessary.

The Wilmington (N.C.) Sharks play at Buck Hardee Field at Legion Stadium. (Courtesy Wilmington Sharks)

DeLay said communication is key. “If you just pay attention and go through the process and think common sense, it’s not hard to set this up, where you can protect the fans and be safe and still deliver a really good product for them,” he said.

In Savannah, where the Bananas have an 88-game home sellout streak dating to their inaugural season in 2016, the team got to work preparing for 2020 soon after officials recognized it wouldn’t start as scheduled on May 28 and not knowing how things would unfold over the summer.

The Bananas play at Grayson Stadium, which opened in 1926. Seating at the 4,000-capacity ballpark will be cut in half for the coming season. The park has mostly bench seating with 500 chairback seats, said team President Jared Orton. The team has 400 season-ticket holders and sold more than 3,000 miniplans last year.

Bench seating and hospitality areas are more conducive to social distance regulations, Orton said. His staff is going through extra training to avoid “cross-contamination” between handling food and payment transactions with cash and credit cards, he said.

The cleaning and sanitation aspect is something Orton thinks teams should already be vigilant about as part of ballpark operations. Before the virus, it was “pretty standard stuff” required by the local health department and the federal Food and Drug Administration, he said. 

“The things people are asking for aren’t anything new,” Orton said. “For us, it’s double down on training and execution to make sure all of our operations staff and new folks have done more training to make sure we’re up to snuff. With digital transactions … we don’t do a lot of cash transactions anyway and that’s a big help.”

In Wilmington, the Sharks play at Buck Hardee Field at Legion Stadium, among the CPL’s smaller venues. Team officials are preparing to play this season, pending North Carolina entering phase three of its COVID-19 plan, which allows entertainment venues to open with limited capacity. There was a possibility the third phase could take effect June 26, although recent spikes in the state’s positive cases of coronavirus, among the nation’s highest increases, put that date in question. 

“The virus seems to have its own plans,” Perry said.

Last year, Wilmington’s “sellout number was just shy of 1,800” with plenty of general admission and standing room seats, said General Manager Carson Bowen. This season, total seating will be cut in half, limiting reserved bleacher seats behind home plate to five rows. Six rows were killed for social distance purposes, Bowen said. 

As a result of the pandemic, the Sharks picked up a higher level of sponsorship after signing a deal with Restoration 1. The regional cleaning company receives signage and printed assets at the ballpark and will clean the facility after games. Previously, Restoration 1 limited its commitment to buying game tickets in a picnic area.

“We reached out to them,” Bowen said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep people safe here, such as only seating people together from the same household. We don’t look at other leagues canceling and think that we’re going to pull the plug too. We’re willing to make this thing work and be as flexible as possible.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was originally posted.