The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, September 15, 2021 1:00 am

Staff gives all for fans, TinCaps

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Sixty is more than zero.

After the TinCaps saw their entire 2020 season canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down all of Minor League Baseball for the year, employees of the team that calls Parkview Field home were excited to be back at the ballpark this year for the 60-game home schedule.

Though there were fans in the stands at the downtown stadium, this season – the 12th for the TinCaps and 28th for the Fort Wayne franchise – was far from normal. The team suffered from the same problems that have gripped other businesses during the pandemic: labor shortages, supply chain issues and capacity restrictions. The TinCaps played their final home game of the year Sunday, completing a season that put higher than usual strain on the team's staff.

“This isn't one of those stories about walking uphill both ways to school,” TinCaps president Mike Nutter said. “By a lot of measures, it's been another very, very, extremely successful season. At the same time, it's been exhausting.”

The season began with restrictions on attendance from May 4 to June 30. As crowds grew, so did the labor involved in making sure everyone was taken care of and getting the ballpark back into working order for the next game. That proved difficult because the TinCaps had trouble putting together a complete staff of part-time workers.

The club offered higher-than-usual wages and incentive programs, but it still struggled to fill all of its open spots for concession vendors, ushers and cleaning crews. At a full-capacity game, the TinCaps usually have 200 to 250 people working. On Saturday, the final home night game of the season, they expected barely 150 to be available, despite calls to temp agencies.

“There are people who just didn't feel comfortable enough to go back out and work in a place like this,” Nutter said.

The lack of part-time workers meant full-time workers often had to pick up the slack.

“I don't know that I've ever been more impressed with people stepping out of their comfort zone,” said Tim Burkhart, the team's director of facilities.

“If you're a ticket sales guy, how likely are you to want to pick up trash? Your job is to sell tickets. Watching 20 full-time staff members go out and pick up trash in the bowl, change the garbage bags in the trash cans, was an all-out full-team effort. It was incredible.”

The staff also struggled at times to get equipment for facilities repair because ordering parts from the original manufacturer was often impossible, Burkhart noted. 

Instead, the team adopted what Burkhart called a “junkyard mentality.” They would try to get replacement parts from other businesses in the area or make do with temporary fixes – he told of fixing the plumbing on a food cart with PVC pipe and glue – that will have to be updated during the offseason.

“People are so understanding,” Burkhart said of the fans. “They're like 'We know what you're going through.' I think because we all experienced it. If you go to a department store and can't get anyone to help you it's because they don't have anybody.”

On the baseball side, radio broadcaster Mike Maahs was unable to watch batting practice from behind the cage or do his usual Sunday interviews with manager Anthony Contreras because of protocols put in place by Major League Baseball. During road games, Maahs and TV broadcaster John Nolan would call games from Parkview Field, watching the action from afar on monitors.

“It's been culture shock, there's a little bit of frustration in there,” Maahs said. “But on the other side of the coin, ... I don't like the alternative of catching COVID-19. So if we have to give up something, at least for the short term, you bite the bullet and do it.”

Despite the early-season restrictions, the TinCaps finished third in the league in attendance, drawing more than 219,000 fans. Usually, Fort Wayne finishes second to Dayton in league attendance, but this year it was also 9,000 short of second-place West Michigan, which opened its LMCU Ballpark to full capacity about three weeks earlier than the TinCaps.

Nutter said he expects the campaign to have been a profitable one – or, at least, not a huge loss. The TinCaps had significantly less revenue than usual because of fewer home games (60 instead of 70) and the restrictions on attendance. There were also extra expenses like personal protective equipment and extra buses on road trips.

The franchise is part of a lawsuit to try to recoup some business interruption insurance for the lost 2020 season, but that case has not yielded any money. Fort Wayne Professional Baseball LLC did receive about $1 million in Paycheck Protection Plan loans in March, according to a ProPublica database of such loans.

Nutter emphasized the season was far better than the alternative: another lost campaign.

“I know it sounds cliché, but I couldn't be more proud (of the staff),” he said. “I could count on one hand complaints (from workers). We just missed it so much last year, being able to work the games and do what we signed up to do.”

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