The calendar shows that it’s nearly one week into summer, but the Milwaukee Brewers are preparing for a second “spring” training in anticipation of a 60-game schedule that will begin in late July.
“It’s exciting for all of us to be able to talk about a season,” Brewers President of Baseball Operations and General Manager David Stearns said in a video conference with reporters on Friday.
“We know it’s going to be an unusual season, but it’s going to be a baseball season, nonetheless. That’s something that is really meaningful for all of us. There are going to be many challenges that we face going forward to get through this season, but this is a really positive start.”
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This time, players will report to training camp at Miller Park starting on July 1 for intake testing and physical exams. About 45 players are expected to participate. The first full-squad, organized workout will take place on July 4, with workouts staggered throughout the day, unlike during the team’s traditional spring training sessions at American Family Fields of Phoenix, which tend to take place in the morning.
“This will create slightly longer days for our coaching staff, but from a workload perspective, we think it will be very productive and efficient,” Stearns said.
All of the players who will be attending camp at Miller Park “have a real chance” of making the Brewers 30-player Opening Day roster or be available to provide depth over the first few weeks of the season, Stearns said.
The Brewers had been nearing the end of spring training in Arizona preparing to start the regular season on March 26 with a highly anticipated opening day matchup at Miller Park against NL Central division rival Chicago Cubs when the COVID-19 pandemic put the season on indefinite hold.
The Major League Baseball season now is expected to get underway on July 23 and 24, with teams awaiting a formal schedule to be set.
The Brewers also plan to open a secondary camp by mid-July at Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton, home of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Milwaukee’s Class A Minor League affiliate. Workouts there will be for another 15 players who aren’t taking part in the Miller Park training sessions.
“Clearly, the proximity to Milwaukee is a huge benefit for us,” Stearns said.
At this point, no players have opted out of reporting due to personal or family reasons, according to Stearns.
He added that a “small number” of individuals in the organization have tested positive for COVID-19, with all being asymptomatic.
The 2020 season will begin without fans in the stands, a scenario that could continue throughout the season over ongoing concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
Rick Schlesinger, president of business operations for the Brewers, said current health and safety regulations for the city of Milwaukee prohibit fans from attending games.
“If there is a way to accommodate some fans, we would absolutely love to do it,” Schlesinger said. “I don’t anticipate that we’re going to have an opportunity to have the stadium full in 2020, but even if we have a limited number of fans through appropriate social distancing and other health and safety protocols, it certainly would be an aspirational goal of ours.”
The Brewers drew nearly 3 million fans to Miller Park in 2019, so playing in an empty stadium will have “substantial negative impacts” for the franchise, Schlesinger said.
“The loss of that revenue is severe and impactful and 2020 is going to be an extremely difficult financial picture for our organization,” Schlesinger said.
Schlesinger said he’s not worried about the long-term stability or health of the organization but admitted that it’s too early to project what effect this season’s lost revenue will have on the franchise going forward.
“The key variable for us will be our ability to have our stands full,” he said.
Some revenue streams are set to come back, with the Brewers team store set to reopen on Tuesday. Miller Park’s on-site restaurant, located in the left-field corner of the ballpark and known as Restaurant To Be Named Later, will open some time in July.
The team also is working with its broadcast partners on “virtual signage” opportunities during telecasts.
Also under consideration are personalized fan cutouts that would fill some of the ballpark’s empty seats.
“It’s certainly intriguing, the idea of having images of our fans in the stands,” Schlesinger said. “If they can’t be here physically, I do think our fans would appreciate the opportunity to have their image in the stands. We have a lot of fans who have not missed a game in many, many years. Having their image here would be something that would be fun to do and honor their streak of consecutive attendance at Brewers games.”
A change in naming rights for the stadium for the 2021 season continues “full-speed ahead” despite this year’s truncated schedule.
“The ballpark will have a new name next year and new signage,” Schlesinger said.
The stadium, known as Miller Park since it opened in 2001, will become American Family Field under a 15-year naming rights deal with Madison-based American Family Insurance.
Without the traditional sellout crowd and pre-game tailgate parties in the parking lot, Opening Day will have a completely different feel, Schlesinger admitted.
“The stands will be empty and only essential personnel will be here. Frankly, I don’t anticipate a lot of pomp and circumstance,” he said.
Once the games begin, the Brewers schedule will be focused on National League Central Division opponents.
“It’s like we’re waking up in the middle of the season on July 24 and it’s a five-way race for the Central Division championship,” Stearns said. “That’s probably not too dissimilar than what we thought it was going to look like at the front-end of the season. We thought this was going to be a very hotly contested division. We’ve got an exciting pennant race coming up.”
At the same time, Stearns said he doesn’t view the shortened schedule as a “mad dash” to the finish line.
“We understand that every game is going to take on more importance because there are fewer games, but we also recognize that 60 games is a lot of baseball,” he said.
New rules will also be implemented, including having teams begin each extra inning with a runner at second base.
“I really like it. It’s something that I’ve advocated for a while,” Stearns said. “We’ve seen it in the Minor Leagues, we’ve seen it in International play. It creates a really exciting scenario. From a baseball operations and personnel management perspective, some of the more challenging things we deal with is recovering from a 15-inning or 18-inning games. They can impact you for weeks after that.”
Stearns is convinced that fans will eventually embrace the change.
“Fans, once they get used to it, are really going to enjoy it because it does provide immediate excitement and immediate action and presents a whole lot of interesting strategic questions for teams and managers to digest,” he said.
The return of baseball is an important move, both inside and outside the sports world, Schlesinger insisted.
“This is a crisis that has affected all of us,” Schlesinger said. “I think we, as participants in this pastime, have an obligation to the country and the fans to provide this game and enjoyment and bring connectivity to people who may differ vastly politically but who love baseball. This is an opportunity for baseball to shine.”