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Teams turn focus to community support in crisis

Four or five months ago, baseball fans in California’s Riverside County had every reason to imagine lines of cars pulling into The Diamond in Lake Elsinore in April. April is here, and — believe it or not — so is the line of cars at The Diamond.
While the Storm, Class A Advanced affiliate of the San Diego Padres, can’t be found on the field and the stands are empty, the team’s heart is beating and it is with its community. The Storm have opened their auxiliary parking lot for the county’s public health officials to run a by-appointment, drive-through COVID-19 testing center, which has been operational since March 20 and is providing an estimated 250-300 tests per day, Sundays-Thursdays.

“Our facility, like a lot of Minor League facilities, it’s a city-owned facility,” Storm CEO and co-general manager Shaun Brock said. “But the lot they’re doing everything on is our lot — it belongs to the owner of the team. [The city] wanted do it on their land, but that turned out to be a pain, so we offered up our lot for them to do it. It’s a great flow for them to do that. It’s a little bit difficult for us to get in and out, but there’s a great flow for them. They’ve got it down to a science.
“It’s challenging because it’s not what we want to be doing, but on the other hand, it’s absolutely necessary.”
During this unprecedented public health crisis, which has indefinitely delayed the 2020 Minor League season, clubs from New England to Southern California, from the Pacific Northwest to South Florida are finding ways to brighten dark days and baseball-less nights in their respective communities. As far as Brock is concerned, handing over some parking lot space is the least the Storm could do. So they’ve done much more.
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“Immediately, we opened a marketplace during the first week of the stay-at-home order, when people couldn’t go get eggs, milk, when everything was sold out,” Brock said. “Our food provider, Shamrock [Foods], all their restaurants stopped ordering. I mean, they were still doing to-go, but it wasn’t really working [on a normal scale]. We were doing to-go with [onsite restaurant] the Diamond Club, which we opened in February to be year-round. As it moved forward, we were just like, ‘Hey, we have eggs and milk from our purveyor.’
“We put containers together — eggs, rice and beans … chicken. We wanted to get it out to our community, and we had a market day where people came. We just let in 10 people at a time, into the Diamond Club, and we had refrigerators from all over the stands set up there. You could grab toilet paper, chicken, ground beef. We weren’t trying to make money. We just wanted to get the stuff out there. I think we sold it for about 10 percent above cost.”
The Storm also organized a blood drive for the Red Cross, signup spots for which filled up within 30 minutes of posting. Brock and company are working to make that a weekly occurrence on Fridays, the off-day for testing in The Diamond’s lot.

Helping how they can

For a lot of people who’ve managed to remain in good health so far, one of the pandemic’s many frustrations is the feeling of being unable to help. Staying home may be the best contribution a person can make, but it doesn’t always feel like an active and meaningful response. In a situation that demands social distancing, how do you reach out and lend a hand to somebody in need? Fortunately, many Minor League teams have long had programs and partnerships in place to provide support for families facing hardship. Finding a way to be of use as their cities and counties suffer from the myriad problems caused or exacerbated by COVID-19 is mostly about modifying or increasing existing efforts.
In Indianapolis, the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate has ramped up support for longtime partner organizations that feed the hungry and combat poverty on both individual and systemic levels. For starters, the club made a $10,000 donation through Indianapolis Indians Charities to the Shepherd Community Center, a group that, per its mission statement, focuses on the “physical, emotional, spiritual, and academic needs” of residents of the city’s Near Eastside.
“We send our staff to a poverty 101 class they have that helps you understand what it’s like in some of these more difficult areas in Indianapolis and in all cities,” Indians president and CEO Randy Lewandowski said. “We … we wanted one of our focuses to be neighborhoods. Shepherd is one of the pillars, with what they do in their community center in the Near Eastside. They’ve done great work in Indianapolis for a long time, and we’re always looking for ways we can help them out.
“[Our donation contributed] food relief, and also some e-learning programs for kids. Schools are closed, and there are kids who typically go there after school for tutoring help. Some people today might think that every family has an iPad or a computer at home. That’s not always the case. We were able to help get some Chromebooks and tablets out and help teachers connect to students. They already had some, but not enough to meet [increased] needs.”
The Indians also put together a merchandise sale wherein the team matched every dollar spent with a donation to the food back Gleaners of Indiana.
“Our fans felt like they could contribute something and get some cool merchandise out of it, too, because they knew we were matching it dollar to dollar,” Lewandowski said. “I think we’ve been in the top 25 for Minor League merchandise sales for most of the last 15 or 20 years, but in the offseason we don’t tend to do a whole lot of online business. We ended up doing $18,500 [of fundraising in 10 days] and we rounded up to $20,000 to Gleaners of Indiana.”
The Storm, in the meantime, developed a meal plan.
“We put a menu up, and you could buy it for Monday-Friday for $6.50. For every five meals people bought, we donated one to somebody else,” Brock said. “We ended up breaking even or just a little bit under, but we wanted to help give back to our community, and we were able to provide 250 free meals that way.”
In Albuquerque, Triple-A Isotopes staffers have volunteered for Roadrunner Food Bank. The Class A Advanced Bradenton Marauders donated food from Spring Training to another food bank and provided 400 pizzas from local businesses to medical personnel at Blake Medical Center and Manatee Memorial Hospital. The Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox have donated $10,000 to local organizations, given away 700 pounds of food from their ballpark and, like the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers and Class A West Michigan Whitecaps, have also donated hundreds of ponchos to doctors and nurses. If there’s a team near you, there’s a good chance it’s done something to feed the hungry, support healthcare workers or both.

The Pawtucket Red Sox made a donation of 200 ponchos to an area hospital. Pawtucket Red Sox

The Triple-A Louisville Bats were keenly aware of another issue related to food — the peril in which the restaurant industry finds itself. The Bats front office staff had been heading into the season eager to celebrate a partnership with ImagineAR, an augmented reality company, and wondered if now they could use that partnership to help out Louisville eateries. Buddy’s Curbside Pickup quickly became a reality. Bats fans can order to-go meals from a dozen restaurants with a total of over 100 locations, and, using the ImagineAR app in the parking lot, snag a picture of Bats mascot Buddy Bat and post the image on social media for a chance to win prizes (including throwing out a first pitch) and earn free tickets.
Vic Gregovits isn’t just the Louisville president; he’s also a Buddy’s Curbside Pickup client.
“In my case, what I did was I ordered online as I was heading out. I got to the Texas Roadhouse I was going to, and the greeter told me what parking spot to go to,” Gregovits said. “While I was waiting for my order to come out, I pulled out my phone and pulled up ImagineAR, and I could see there were two other restaurants nearby in the geo search that I could do it at, too. Then Buddy Bat pops up on the screen. I was taking pictures — he does a different pose for every restaurant. It was probably pretty entertaining, me trying to do a selfie with Buddy Bat with Texas Roadhouse in the background. People in that parking lot got some free entertainment.”
As much fun as onlookers may have had, the main idea is to inspire Bats fans to help ensure paychecks keep coming to restaurant workers in the community.
“We’re rewarding people for doing it,” Gregovits said. “I view us as a community asset, and at times like this, this is when we can find a way to help. We’re entertainment, but we’re not entertaining right now. But we’re a part of the fabric of the city. If we can’t play baseball, well, what can we do? We’re a release and an outlet, but we can’t do that right now. So how else can we help?”

Furry friends pinch hit

Mascots are doing more than appearing in augmented reality, of course. For example, Louisville’s winged wooer of fans is providing overworked, cooped-up parents with a little sanity. With Buddy’s Behavior Best Behavior Challenge, kids can earn a free game ticket and a chance to attend Buddy’s birthday party (date TBD) by making life easier on their families.
“With all the kids at home, they’re either doing school remotely or not in school at all, so we came up with some things for them to do. Usually, if they do well in school or do well in the reading program [they get rewards from the Bats]. But how can we reward them for being on their best behavior at home?” Gregovits said. “These are trying time for everybody, and we want to reward them for helping out by doing what their parents want them to do. We gave people a checkbox as a scorecard … and the parents check a box if you go to bed on time or brush your teeth. … We give you a ticket for doing the curbside pickup or for doing Buddy’s Best Behavior Challenge, and when we do come back, we want you there to celebrate with us.”
In North Carolina, the Triple-A Durham Bulls have put Wool E. Bull to work delivering food.
“One of my favorite things we’ve done is partner with Durham Public Schools to deliver meals to kids and families in need,” said Ben Devore, director of marketing and communications for the Triple-A affiliate of the Rays, which has also sold nearly 1,000 specially designed “Wash Your Horns” T-shirts to benefit United Way of the Triangle.
“In the first week when schools were out but there was no official stay-at-home [order] … Wool E Bull was out in the community. That was a bright spot to people in need of that uplifting energy. Things are very strict now with social distancing, so these last weeks he couldn’t engage as much, but it’s fun to see kids stick their heads out windows and see Wool E. Bull deliver their meals, with the Wool E. Wagon going through neighborhood. We have to give a big shout-out to Wool E. Bull. … He’s done a great job spreading that positive energy.”
All young Bulls fans can also participate in a digital edition of the team’s reading program, with prizes available for collection whenever baseball returns, but some children are, in particular, need of Wool E. Bull’s positive energy. The club hasn’t let them down. Duke University Hospital’s Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Family Support Program has many immunocompromised patients for whom this is an especially trying time.
“We do some of our custom jerseys throughout year with an auction program that benefits different causes and different organizations around town,” Devore said. “Duke PBMT is one of those organizations, and we knew, at the very least, the game we’d be wearing those jerseys would be postponed, so they were one of the first places we thought of to see what we could do with resources to support them, to donate to PBMT and engaging with them to source Bulls-themed materials for the kids there.”

Durham’s Wool E. Bull is among the Minor League mascots supporting their communities with meal deliveries for those in need. Durham Bulls

While Wool E. Bull is boosting young Tar Heelers with deliveries, reading encouragement and fun activities for pediatric patients, Thunder the Dog is taking it to the streets around Lake Elsinore.
“The Thunder parade — so many people were so happy about that,” Brock said. “We drove around with a sheriff’s department cruiser in front and two motorcycles behind us. You see these kids on their porch smiling and waving at him. It was social distancing — we were keeping away — but we went and hit a neighborhood right around the corner from us. We were out there for three hours, which is longer than I thought it was going to be, but we hit all of Wildomar.

“People are messaging us: ‘Go here next week!’ I don’t know where we can go next, but we’re not done with it.”
And no club is done with looking for new ways to help, either.
“We need to be out there. We, 100 percent, need to be giving back to the community,” Brock said. “They can go anywhere and spend money on a hot dog and some beer, but they want to come and spend their time with us. We want to show them we know that, and we appreciate that.”

Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB.

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