Season preparations were well underway for the Indianapolis Indians organization when players reported to spring training in February. It signaled the unofficial start of the baseball season, even though Opening Day for Major League Baseball was over a month away.
The Indians were on schedule for their Opening Night on April 9 vs. the Toledo Mud Hens the week President and General Manager Randy Lewandowski made the trip to Bradenton, Fla., in mid-March. Giveaway items were stored away, tickets were sold to longtime fans and Victory Field was near ready for professional baseball. The only thing out of the ordinary was the rising cases of the novel coronavirus across the country.
It was before what would be the last major league game of spring training when rumors of a two-week delay to the season started to float around LECOM Park, the Pittsburgh Pirates training facility. The whispers of a potential season delay resulted after the National Basketball Association halted its season the previous night when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the first player from any United States-based sport to be diagnosed with COVID-19.
“You didn’t know what the reverberations would be to the diagnosis,” Lewandoski said. “It was surreal, and then for the world to come to a complete stop over the next couple of months, it’s been hard to grasp.”
Shortly after MLB announced its season was going to be delayed by at least two weeks, Minor League Baseball made a similar announcement about its respective season.
It was a shock to the system for anyone involved with the game. The postponement still provided some hope that the season was going to happen — somehow, some way. That feeling was fleeting.
There was no clear-cut path for the future of the season. COVID-19 cases were rapidly rising, and it was deemed unsafe to be in public, much less in large gatherings, without personal protective equipment. The Indians front office made the quick transition from working within Victory Field to the solace of their homes just days after the announcement. The new work setting complied with stay-at-home orders to help flatten the curve, but the effects of COVID-19 to surrounding communities couldn’t be ignored.
“Our season was going to follow behind the major leagues and what they were going to do in regard to a schedule. I think we all looked around and thought ‘Well, how can I help if we’re not going to have games?’” Lewandowski said. “We pivoted really quick from baseball to COVID relief.”
Indianapolis Indians Charities, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that was established last September, led the charge in the Indians giving back to Hoosiers. Within a week of the season’s official postponement, IIC launched its first charitable campaign for COVID-19 relief. The campaign consisted of IIC matching every dollar that was spent online through the Indians team store during a two-week period.
“We sold about $18,500 worth of merchandise and we went ahead and ran that up to a $20,000 donation to our local Gleaners,” Community Outreach Manager Jo Garcia said.
Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana was one of the first outreaches that IIC made in the pandemic. The success of the campaign put the ball in motion, and the path was clear: help the community in any way possible.
A previous commitment of $10,000 to Shepherd Community Center was going to need a new purpose. As schools transitioned students into homeschooling for the remainder of the academic year, there was an unforeseen need for technological assistance.
“At the Shepherd Academy Program, they have kids celebrate spring break by doing a couple of different city activities, which one of them probably would’ve been meeting our players,” Garcia said. “But Shepherd came to us and said ‘We would love to move your $10,000 donation away from spring break activities to e-learning abilities,’ so tablets, Chromebooks and food security for families became a part of it.”
As weeks passed without direction regarding the MiLB season and the pandemic impacting communities day by day, IIC continued its support to local food banks and frontline workers. Through a partnership with Huse Culinary, IIC donated 500 St. Elmo Steak House meals to nurses in local Indianapolis hospitals after Huse Culinary created a meal donation program during National Nurses Week.
More than $50,000 has been committed to COVID-19 relief efforts through IIC and it doesn’t intend to stop there. Its next event, an American Red Cross blood drive at Victory Field on July 7, joins an expanding schedule of non-professional baseball events at The Vic.
IIC isn’t the only sector of the Indianapolis Indians helping fill the gap. Front office members volunteered their time over the last two weekends in June as the sounds of baseball echoed in Victory Field for the first time since September 2019. The ball hitting the back of the first baseman’s glove and the yells of the third base coach reverberated in the concourse. The setting didn’t quite compare to what the Indianapolis Indians had on their June 2020 regular season schedule, which would’ve involved a three-game set against the Durham Bulls. Instead, as numerous 15- and 16-U baseball teams took the field in consecutive Pastime Tournaments, the Indians front office staff sanitized railings, seats and bathrooms every couple innings.
“We're just glad we can help out to be a resource and provide a pretty cool experience for some of these high-school age kids to play some of their summer travel tournaments here,” Lewandowski said. “It's just always great to see the game being played and kids enjoying it, and just seeing a few fans in the stands to take it all in as well.”
In two four-day weekends, the Indians hosted the equivalent to roughly 29 percent of their regular season slate of games. The Indians field operations staff has maintained the field to a game-day standard in the three-plus month baseball hiatus. But the Pastime Tournaments flipped the script on them. Instead of preparing the field once a day during a game day, the crew found themselves preparing the field five times a day for four consecutive days in back-to-back weekends.
“It felt like we were still in the offseason up until we started having those tournament games. Honestly, until the weather started getting warm, it still felt like it was February or March,” Field Operations Director Joey Stevenson said.
In the midst of summer, it still feels like early spring for the Indians front office, and it will probably stay that way as players report for a second spring training on July 1 with MLB Opening Day slated as early as July 23.
But the cancellation of the minor league season has turned Victory Field into a full-functioning events venue — with social distancing measures and sanitization practices in place. Events like the Grand Slam Auto Show on Sept. 5 and IndyHumane Mutt Strut on Sept. 26 are some of The Vic’s headliners for 2020.
“In the last couple of weeks, events are starting back up as people are being open to the idea of social distancing. We’re being creative in the space that we have to keep those practices in place,” Stadium Events Manager Paige McClung said. “The rest of the year is pretty much booked with events. People are wanting to come out to the stadium and see what their options are for entertainment.”
The seats will eventually fill with cheering fans as the Tribe take the field under the bright lights of Victory Field. But until then, the Indians will focus their efforts on providing enjoyment and assistance to the Circle City and neighboring communities.