After not having any season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chattanooga Lookouts will return early next month, and tickets are available for the first third of the team's schedule.
"Great seats are still available, but tickets are going fast," because the team will fill the stadium to under 50% of capacity for the first 18 home games, Rich Mozingo, president of the Lookouts, told the Kiwanis Club of Dalton during a meeting at the Dalton Convention Center. He said the best way to get tickets, which start at $8, is at www.milb.com/chattanooga, the team's official website.
AT&T Field in downtown Chattanooga seats nearly 6,400, but capacity will be limited to roughly 2,900 for the season's first 18 games due to COVID-19. Seating pods are available in groups of one to six seats with six feet between each pod to facilitate social distancing, said Mozingo, who has been involved with minor league baseball in various capacities for nearly three decades. Masks will be required in the park, per Major League Baseball rules, and no one will be permitted on the field except team members, as that field is "their bubble," he said.
Only tickets for the first 18 home games are currently on sale, with tickets for the second half of the schedule, June 22-July 25, available in roughly a month, and tickets for the final third of the schedule, through Sept. 19, to be made available in mid-to-late June, he said. Though he'd like to see more fans in the park later in the season and believes that will happen as more Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19, "first and foremost for us is fan safety."
Minor league baseball is family friendly, with inexpensive tickets and heavy on promotions, although the Lookouts will likely offer fewer giveaways at games this year due to the pandemic, Mozingo said. It's also an outdoor game, key during the pandemic, as being outside is generally considered safer than being inside.
"It's been a weird 20 months, and we'll have gone 21 months in between pitches at AT&T Park" when the Lookouts open their season May 4, a month later than usual, he said. "It's a huge hole to climb out of, but we're climbing out."
With no games last year, revenue was almost nonexistent, but the amount of people who have bought tickets and packages already for this season, or who essentially donated money, has been "humbling," he said. Several corporate sponsors allowed the team to keep the money they'd given for advertising last season, even though there were no games, and then re-upped again this season, too.
Players will be tested for COVID-19 at least twice a week, and "we have one trainer who will do nothing but testing protocols all year," Mozingo said. Community water jugs are not allowed due to COVID-19, so Monzingo will have 15 to 17 cases of Dasani bottled water for players each game.
On road trips, the team will use three buses to keep players separated, so busing will cost $120,000 more than in a typical season, and the Lookouts will also play about 10 fewer home games due to the later start to the season, he said.
The ticket process will be digital, due to COVID-19 protocols, but "this will make it easier to share tickets, because you can just email them to people," Mozingo said.
Despite the challenges of playing during the pandemic, Mozingo is grateful Chattanooga still has a minor league baseball team, as MLB restructured the minors this offseason, cutting the number of affiliates from 160 to 120 — four for each of MLB's 30 teams.
"It's a different world, but exciting to play baseball this year," he said. When the proposal to restructure and downsize the minor leagues first gained traction last year, "it was out of left field (for us), and we were in panic mode,'' but the Lookouts spent months working with the Cincinnati Reds, from whom Chattanooga is the Double-A affiliate, and "we feel we're really in a partnership with the Reds."
"Thank goodness we're on this side of the ledger, but it's a tough time for those on the other side" who lost their minor league affiliates, he said. "It's fantastic for us, our community, and (this) region, but crushing" for those left out of the reconfigured minor leagues.
The Lookouts, the nearest minor league club to Dalton, are joined in the Reds organization by Louisville, Kentucky (Triple-A), Dayton, Ohio (High-A), and Daytona, Florida (Low-A), according to ESPN. The nearest major league team to Dalton is the Atlanta Braves, whose affiliates are Gwinnett (Triple-A), Pearl Mississippi (Double-A), Rome (High-A) and Augusta (Low-A).
MLB has "taken over minor league baseball," which is why MLB has ultimate approval over how many fans minor league clubs can allow in their parks this year, said Mozingo, who has been president of the Lookouts for the past decade. "I don't think (MLB) would let us go" 100% capacity right now even if the team petitioned for it, but capacity can increase as the season progresses.
Fans who attend Double-A games this year will see a couple of new rules, which are being tested in the minors for possible future adoption in MLB, he said. During the first half of the season, all infielders must have their feet on the dirt when a pitch is thrown, attenuating the major defensive shifts that have become prevalent in baseball in recent years, and in the season's second half, no shifting will be permitted at all.
Mozingo hopes pitcher Hunter Greene, who was the second overall pick in the 2017 draft by the Reds and is considered one of the top prospects in all of minor league baseball, will join the Lookouts at some point this season.
There's "a decent chance" of that, Mozingo said. "It will be fun to see him if we get the opportunity."