Excited crowds flocked to Franklin Field for the first two games of a season-opening series between the host team, the Milwaukee Milkmen, and the Chicago Dogs, their cross-border rivals.
After splitting the first two games over the Fourth of July weekend set, anticipation mounted for the rubber game scheduled for Sunday. Avid baseball fans, near and far, fixed their eyes on the action at the sparkling suburban Milwaukee stadium. With other minor leagues having scrapped their seasons and Major League Baseball agreeing to play an abbreviated slate in empty stadiums, six teams in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball launched their seasons with a rarity in the COVID-19 era – fans in the stands.
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But as those fans arrived at the ballpark for the early afternoon tilt, confusion reigned as stadium employees informed ticketholders that the game had been postponed due to a “health issue” involving one of the teams, which turned out to be positive COVID-19 tests for a pair of Milkmen players.
A few fans stood near the entrance, appearing stunned as it set in that baseball wouldn’t be played on the scorching afternoon. Others checked their phones where they found a social media message from the team stating that the postponement stemmed from “circumstances outside of our control” and that their tickets would be good for a future game.
Despite the contest being called off, Milkmen personnel welcomed fans into the stadium, telling them that there would be free brats and hot dogs. Concession stands remained open and music blared from Franklin Field’s public address system.
A few Milkmen players continued to warm up on the field, including two who played long toss across the vast outfield, as some fans trickled into the stadium while others returned to their cars. No Chicago players appeared on the field as the strange scene played out.
The stadium remained open for one hour from the time of the scheduled first pitch before being cleared so that it could be cleaned and sanitized. Initially, around 100 fans scattered throughout Franklin Field before later making their way to the exits.
Milkmen owner Mike Zimmerman told a Milwaukee Magazine writer at the ballpark shortly before the game was scheduled to begin that the postponement stemmed from a positive COVID-19 test. Zimmerman wouldn’t reveal the identity of the player or players, citing medical privacy concerns, but he insisted that the organization took the appropriate step in postponing the game and said players would be retested.
Zimmerman stressed that an “overabundance of caution” was used in deciding to postpone the game.
“Operating in the COVID environment for us is brand new. That comes with its own struggles at times,” Zimmerman said. “I think we are doing a pretty good job. We are continuing to make tweaks every day.”
The league issued a statement later Sunday afternoon confirming that the game had been postponed due to a positive test for COVID-19 and that the Milkmen organization followed appropriate protocol and made contact with local health departments and medical providers.
Despite the positive coronavirus tests, Zimmerman expressed confidence that the two teams would play their scheduled game on Tuesday at Impact Field in Rosemont, Illinois, after a scheduled day off on Monday.
“Absolutely. We’re playing in Chicago on Tuesday,” Zimmerman said.
Dogs spokeswoman Alexandra Jakubiak said Monday that final preparations are being made for Tuesday’s game in the 6,300-seat stadium, which will be limited to 20 percent capacity, she said.
Jakubiak said that the Dogs were made aware of the situation “fairly early” on Sunday and that “extra precautions” were taken by the Milkmen franchise to protect players and fans.
She said it is regular protocol to have players tested weekly but that all players would be tested before Tuesday night’s game.
The season-opening series at Franklin Field had drawn considerable attention because the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball is the only professional baseball league playing games with fans in the stands. Major League Baseball teams began a second “spring training” over the weekend as they prepare to launch an abbreviated 60-game schedule later this month in empty stadiums.
Fans streamed into Franklin Field on Friday night as the season got underway. The crowd roared at Nathan Davis laced the first hit of the season for the Milkmen. However, the Dogs went on to win 2 to 1. The Milkmen won the following day 4 to 3. On Friday, all 1,600 available tickets were sold, while nearly 1,300 attended Saturday’s game
In another sign of the times, Milkmen manager Anthony Barone was ejected from Saturday night’s game for violating social distancing requirements while questioning an umpire’s call.
“People got to taste what they haven’t tasted in a long time,” Zimmerman said in assessing the opening series. “All the eyes were on us. In minor league baseball, we don’t get that attention. It feels great to have the spotlight for a bit.”
The American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, which has no formal affiliations to Major League teams, announced last month that a six-team, 60-game season with fans in attendance would begin on July 3, with Franklin Field among the sites hosting season-opening games. Teams participating in the 2020 season were based on geography and being located in cities that allowed fans to attend games. Six other teams in the league are not participating in the season.
The American Association initially announced that it would operate out of three hubs this season, with games hosted by the Milkmen, the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and the Sioux Falls Canaries. The Dogs were initially set to play home games at the Franklin Field hub, with the Winnipeg Goldeyes playing at the Fargo facility and the St. Paul Saints sharing the Sioux Falls site.
Plans changed shortly before opening day when Illinois moved into the next phase of its COVID-19 guidelines, which allowed for outdoor spectator sports to resume at limited capacity. This meant that the Dogs could shift their home schedule back to Impact Field.
Each team and stadium had to submit and enforce COVID-19 readiness plans approved by local health departments and government officials. Ballparks have had to limit capacity to allow for safe social distancing. Franklin Field, which opened in 2019, has a normal capacity of 4,000.
The situation with the Milkmen highlights the struggles that professional sports teams at all levels face in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, with seasons being either cancelled altogether or significantly delayed.
The Milwaukee Brewers opened their second “spring training” at Miller Park over the weekend. On Monday, the team announced that two players – infielder Luis Arias and pitcher Angel Perdomo – tested positive for COVID-19, but prior to the start of training camp.
The Milwaukee Bucks announced Sunday night that they would be closing their practice facility in downtown Milwaukee after a round of COVID-19 testing on Friday. The facility won’t reopen before the team travels to Orlando on Thursday as it prepares to complete a the NBA season, which has been halted for nearly four months.