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Tough decisions as more play launches in 2020

As many summer-collegiate teams launch a limited season this week, the issue of how to manage fans is a big issue: just because teams can allow fans into the ballpark to watch the action, should they?

The issue came up in the Florida Collegiate Summer League as the league planned for a launch this morning with games at Leesburg’s Pat Thomas Stadium and Sanford’s Sanford Memorial Stadium. Both are fine, classic ballparks loved by ballpark aficionados: Pat Thomas Stadium, for example, opened in 1937 as Baseball Island of Venetian Gardens (a WPA project) and once served as a Philadelphia Phillies spring-training facility. (That’s Pat Thomas Stadium at the top of the page.) The FCSL is a modest endeavor, with a focus more on player development than on big crowds; both Davey Johnson and Frank Viola have coached in this circuit.

With Minor League Baseball shut down and Major League Baseball not resuming until July 23, summer-collegiate and indy ball are the only games open to fans—and even so, on a very limited basis. Bismarck Municipal Ballpark has hosted a three-team pod for the past few weeks before socially distanced crowds, but most summer-collegiate teams are launching this week with limited travel schedules.

Originally the plan in the FCSL was to launch play today with fans in the stands, but over the weekend the Board of Directors revisited the issue and voted to begin play without fans. Then the directors revisited the issue on Saturday and voted to allow in a “minimum” number of fans, screened by thermometer checks and encouraged to wear facial masks. Now, you can wonder exactly what kind of crowds were expected at a day/night doubleheader in central Florida with 96 degrees expected by 1 p.m., so the decision may be a little academic.

And teams, to their credit, are grappling with the issue. Today the Sugar Land Skeeters (independent; Atlantic League) announced today that Opening Day for the Constellation Energy League will be delayed until July 10.

“Due to the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks, and based on advice from our medical advisors, we believe it is prudent to delay the start of the season one week,” said Skeeters owner Kevin Zlotnik. “This is not a decision our organization entered into lightly. We have spent weeks meticulously preparing for the schedule we had initially set forth and we look forward to a successful season. But our overriding priority is the safety of our players, fans and staff.”

But a larger issue looms: the launch of summer-collegiate play is predicated on teams meeting local guidelines for crowds. But with positive tests and positive rates for COVID-19 skyrocketing in Florida, Texas and Wisconsin—three states where plenty of summer-collegiate play is scheduled—the question becomes whether the local guidelines are enough. Just because teams can accommodate crowds of 25 or 50 percent of capacity, should they? And will fans show up? Those are the questions facing all sports now, and ones that will be present for months to come.

This article first appeared in the Ballpark Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Ballpark Digest newsletter.

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