Throughout this extended offseason of 2020-21, Minor League ballparks continually have been utilized for civic-minded purposes. Representative initiatives thus far have included naturalization ceremonies, early voting and COVID-19 testing. On Saturday, the Hartford Yard Goats achieved a significant Minor League Baseball first in this regard, as their home of Dunkin'
Throughout this extended offseason of 2020-21, Minor League ballparks continually have been utilized for civic-minded purposes. Representative initiatives thus far have included naturalization ceremonies, early voting and COVID-19 testing. On Saturday, the Hartford Yard Goats achieved a significant Minor League Baseball first in this regard, as their home of Dunkin' Donuts Park was put to use as a vaccination site.
On Saturday, 190 people aged 75 or older were vaccinated at the downtown ballpark as part of Connecticut's implementation of Phase 1b of its COVID-19 vaccination distribution plan. Dunkin' Donuts Park joined an ever-expanding list of professional sports facilities being used for that purpose, including many within Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Stadiums are seen as ideal sites given their spacious settings, large parking lots and proximity to public transportation. Dunkin' Donuts Park will continue to be used as a vaccination site on Saturdays, with the parameters subject to change as the state moves into different phases of its distribution plan.
"Throughout the whole summer, whenever I would see [Hartford mayor Luke Bronin], I'd tell him 'Let us know what you need," said Yard Goats president Tim Restall. "We're not playing baseball, but we've continued to host community events at the ballpark. Things like American Red Cross blood drives and Turkey Tuesday, a fundraiser for [local food bank] Foodshare. It's about keeping the staff and the ballpark busy. Doing the right thing and giving back. So when the city reached out and asked if we'd be interested in being a vaccination site, it was 'Absolutely, yes.'"
The arrangement between the team and the city was announced at a Jan. 21 press conference. Bronin said he believed the Double-A facility "was a very important part" of Hartford's overall vaccine distribution strategy, because "it's accessible, easy parking, it's smack in the center of the city, people know it."
At that press conference and again while speaking with MiLB.com, Restall emphasized the team was "just a small part" of the overall vaccination effort. Yard Goats personnel are on hand as support staff, primarily dedicated to helping visitors navigate the process.
"We're strategically placing sanitization stations, propping doors open, limiting the amount of people in elevators, maintaining a one-way flow, making sure the walkways are clear of snow and ice," said Restall. "All of those things had to be in place. At one point, one of the [vaccination] stations needed gloves, so I went and got them. It's nothing when compared to all the things you have to do during a ballgame."
Those receiving vaccines at Dunkin' Donuts Park pass through three levels of the ballpark. The field-level batting cages have been converted into a waiting room, while registration takes place within the main-level Aetna Community Center. The vaccinations are given in the upstairs YG Stadium Club, which normally serves as a drinking, dining and gathering area for suite and premium season-ticket holders.
Getting vaccinated within the midst of a prolonged global pandemic is obviously a far different experience than attending a Minor League Baseball game. But Restall said the same customer service philosophy applies. The team distributed team logo stickers reading "I got my COVID-19 vaccine," while health care workers and volunteers received Dunkin' Donuts gift cards.
"At Yard Goats games we're in the business of putting smiles on people's faces," said Restall. "So if you're coming to the ballpark because you want the vaccine, even though you're wearing a mask we want to see the smile on your face. One of the nurses said 'Thank you so much' for doing this, but l told her 'This is nothing. You’re the ones changing lives and making a difference. We're turning the lights on and opening doors. It's comes down to whatever they need. That's our mantra with the health department: 'Yes.' If they have question, the answer is yes."
On Saturday, Bronin told the Hartford Courant that Dunkin' Donuts Park was "one piece" of the larger vaccine distribution puzzle. Restall and the Yard Goats plan on playing this supporting role for as long as it makes sense to do so, opening the ballpark for Saturday vaccinations and then expanding the operation as needed.
"We've offered up our entire ballpark, working around the baseball schedule," he said. "It's designed to have thousands come in and watch a game. We can utilize the seating section, the concourse, the PA system. It makes sense to continue to utilize the ballpark as the weather gets warmer."
Restall concluded, perhaps inevitably, with a baseball analogy.
"We're finally getting to the point where we're seeing the score change, where we can take the lead. On Saturday, there were 200 people here helping to change the score. We're pulling ahead, getting back to some level of normalcy, getting back to baseball being played."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.