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Lansing Lugnuts prepare for new season and a lot of changes in minor league ball

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Noah Hintz
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The Lugnuts, like all minor league baseball clubs, have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and a sweeping reorganization from Major League Baseball. The good news is, the Lugnuts feel poised to welcome happy fans to the ballpark.

This year’s Opening Day is a return to normal for most minor league baseball teams. It’s the start of another season of games, workouts, ups and downs, and the day-to-day grind.

But for the Lansing Lugnuts, it’s that return to normalcy that highlights the fact that the past few years have been anything but: the Crosstown Showdown on April 6 and opening game on April 8 will mark the first time since April 30, 2019 – over a thousand days ago – that they’ll be playing baseball in April.

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Noah Hintz
/

Over the course of the past three years, a lot has changed for the Lugnuts. The team has weathered a massive overhaul of the minor leagues, almost all of which took place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s certainly been a whirlwind couple of years,” said Tyler Parsons, general manager of the Lugnuts. “As we lead into 2022, we’ve had a great chance to reminisce a little bit about the last couple of years and just the rollercoaster of emotions … a lot has changed.”

The organizational reshuffling that occurred can be attributed to the expiration of the Professional Baseball Agreement in 2020, allowing MLB to make broad changes to its minor league system.

The reorganization, which eliminated about 40 teams and two classes from the minor league system, moved the Lugnuts one level closer to the Majors. The Lugnuts were promoted from the Low-A Midwest League to the High-A Central, which is now rebranded as the Midwest League.

Unlike most other teams, the move also meant the Lugnuts would be working with a new affiliate: the Oakland Athletics. Their 15-year partnership with the Blue Jays was a casualty of the shakeup, as realignment meant, among other things, both the Lugnuts and Toronto’s Short-A team, the Vancouver Canadians, were moved to High-A. MLB wanted to keep the Canadians – the only Canadian team in the minors – with the Blue Jays, and since MLB teams can only have one High-A affiliate, the Lugnuts needed a new partner.

“In the end, Vancouver won out, so thank goodness the Oakland Athletics came in and said, ‘We want to be affiliated with the Lugnuts,’” said Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, the Lugnuts’ radio broadcaster and media relations coordinator. “That could have gotten pretty dicey … look at how many teams ended up on the outside.”

MLB asserting full control over the minor leagues also meant that the Lugnuts stadium — renamed Jackson Field in September 2020 — needed some upgrades to comply with MLB’s new facility standards. New LED field lights were installed this past season and team and crew facilities were expanded, including kitchen spaces and a women’s locker room.

There are changes to the on-field product, too. Minor league teams now play in six-game series, with a dedicated off-day on Mondays, rather than the traditional three- or four-game sets. The minors will also test out some of the rules MLB looks to implement in 2023, such as the use of a pitch clock, bigger bases and the elimination of defensive shifts.

The reorganization of the minor leagues by MLB, however drastic, would have happened anyway in 2021. But such changes were also made against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic — which brought along its own set of issues to work through.

Some of those issues linked directly to the minor league reshuffle; the Lugnuts were asked to work with a new organization as everyone navigated a new COVID-based reality.

“We were still able to have some in-person meetings, but there probably wasn’t as much travel from major league clubs to affiliates last year on the administrative side as there normally will be,” said Parsons.

And the pandemic also meant there were new wrinkles in the physical reshuffling, as well: the Lugnuts had to send all the Blue Jays’ equipment at Jackson Field to Vancouver, needing to comply with Canada’s more strict rules about entering the country.

There’s also the logistics of trying to operate a baseball club when baseball is canceled. Unlike other professional or college programs that may have T.V. deals or other media rights contracts, the Lugnuts rely primarily on attendance to generate revenue. The Lugnuts did run events at Jackson Field, but not to the scale of the usual baseball games.

“Most of 2020, we were really restricted to having 100 people or less for events,” said Parsons. “And yeah, it definitely made for a tough business model … but I think one thing we did as a staff here … we all kind of got together and said, ‘Hey, we owe it to this community to try and do whatever we possibly can.”

One way the Lugnuts aimed to provide help and entertainment in 2020 was through the Lemonade League, a 20-game summer wood bat league featuring local college athletes. The league, featuring yellow baseballs and 7-inning games with home run derby tiebreaker, was so well-received that the Lugnuts hope to turn the experience into an annual college classic game. The club also hosted movie nights and private events, as well as did charity work with organizations such as the Greater Lansing Food Bank, Potter Park Zoo and Ele’s Place.

The start of the 2021 season saw Jackson Field restricted to 20% capacity – about 2,200 attendees – with pod seating and mandated masks; but two weeks into the season, the ballpark was allowed to run at its full 11,000-person capacity. It was good news, but not without a caveat — the Lugnuts now had to ramp staffing up to accommodate more people at the park. (The club is still determining what guidelines will be for the upcoming season.)

Parsons said flexibility was the key to getting through the twists and turns the pandemic brought on.

“You have to be willing to pivot and make changes … you can have dramatic changes week by week,” said Parsons. “It just all goes back to being flexible and being able to work through those changes.”

Much has changed since the last time the Lugnuts played baseball in April – new leagues, affiliations and rules; a renamed stadium and facility upgrades; and the entire COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, the goal of the Lansing Lugnuts has not been altered.

“We always tell people our overall mission here … is to bring our community together, and it sounds cheesy and it sounds cliché, but that’s what it is,” said Parsons. “I would argue … it’s probably even more important now.

“We’re finding ways to bring more people to downtown and to bring our community together, and that’s something that we’re really proud of and we’re going to continue to push.”

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