"This was the third year we did it," said Abramson. "But each of the first two years were You Can Play Nights, so we kind of tip-toed into it. But this year was a full-on Pride Night. We never pulled our punches on the branding or promotion of it. ... It was like a Friday or Saturday game, just so vibrant. Everywhere you looked there were same-sex couples, showing affection. I didn't talk to a single person who was bugged by it, and I'm the complaint department. There were a lot of smiles and a lot of happiness."
Fans at the game received a Yard Goats cap with a rainbow pride logo, and the Hartford Gay Men's Chorus sang the national anthem. The Gay Men's Chorus also had a booth on the concourse, alongside a community organization called True Colors and the publishers of a new LGBT magazine.
"I had 20 or 25 people specifically say, 'Thank you for doing this, and thank you for not being apologetic,'" Abramson said. "I'm so happy with the way it turned out and very proud of the whole night. And it made me so excited, because we've got another [Pride Night] in August."
As the 21st century began, Pride Nights at Minor League ballparks were virtually unheard of. Even five years ago, they were few and far between. But, these days, teams like the Yard Goats have plenty of company. On June 3, the first business day of Pride Month, Minor League Baseball announced the official launch of MiLB Pride, "the largest documented Pride celebration in professional sports." Sixty-five teams are taking part by staging Pride Nights at the ballpark, many of them in the month of June. This endeavor is part of Minor League Baseball's Diversity and Inclusion initiative, launched in 2008, which also includes programs like Copa de la Diversión, Women in Baseball and the FIELD Program.
Per the MILB Pride press release, "MiLB Pride events will include teams holding LGBTQ-themed nights, incorporating Pride into scheduled promotions, providing discounted tickets to LGBTQ organizations, and/or engaging with the LGBTQ community both in the ballpark and beyond."
MiLB Pride was created in response to a growing industry trend. While just 19 teams staged Pride Nights in 2017, 41 did so in 2018.
"The numbers doubled by themselves, so we thought we should lend a hand," said Vince Pierson, director of diversity and inclusion for Minor League Baseball. "It's a hybrid approach, whatever option the team wanted to take. You can dive in, or dip your toe. ... We have over 20 teams doing this for the first time, so at the national level we're providing support. We're wanting to be silent partners, like, 'You may not have known, but there's this team with a similar market size and similar fan base. We can connect you with that team. We can facilitate.'"
Minor League Baseball has developed national partnerships with You Can Play and Pride Tape. The former organization "advocates for equality and respect for all who connect with sports," while the latter manufactures rainbow-colored athletic tape that players can utilize as a "badge of support from teammates, coaches, players and pros to young LGBT players and fans."
"[MiLB Pride] hopefully feeds competition and gives team a sense of calm, that they're joining a party that's already going on," said Pierson. "Now, in your local market, that might not ring as true. We don't try to sugarcoat it. That first year, you're doing something that's out of your comfort zone. It can be a loaded topic and you don't get to pick the way the conversation goes after you put it into the world. But after the first year, it's easier. You'll have some social media stuff, some fans that won't come back. But you weather the storm and take the intentional step to engage. You embrace a community that might not have always felt safe at the ballpark. You correct that stigma and feel comfortable standing on that. Give it 365 days and I guarantee that after that, it will not be as difficult of a conversation."
Pierson stresses that, from a team standpoint, Pride Nights can't be looked at as a simple one-night engagement.
"We have 150-plus local organizations as partners. That's a key element," he said. "If there are local meetings, then you can be present at that organization's local meetings and local activities. Provide education for the gameday staff and full-time staff, during the season or the offseason. We're hoping teams maximize relations beyond a single Pride Night."
Todd Hunsicker, chief director of promotions for the Reading Fightin Phils, is a strong advocate of this approach. He, along with co-workers Mike Robinson and Anthony Pignetti, first got involved with Reading's LGBT community eight years ago. They went through a training program in order to get the team TAG certified, designating it as an LGBT-friendly business. In conjunction with this, they began attending the Reading Pride Parade.
"That first year, we were the only non-LGBT business there," said Hunsicker. "It's cool to see how its grown since then. I've always said it, it's about us going to them. ... You don't invite strangers to dinner. You can't just say, 'OK, we'll have an LGBT Night, we'll just find LGBT people and tell them to come.' Over the years, we've done a nice job of building relationships with local organizations. Reading Pride is a great organization, and the LGBT Center of Greater Reading has been a huge help in planning. We put an ad in the Philadelphia Gay News, a larger publication.
The Reading Fightins 2019 Pride Night is scheduled for August 28th
"We've found that [Pride Night] brings a lot of people out to the ballpark for the first time, but we've also seen fans come out for it who were already part of our fan base. It gives us an opportunity to know them in a different way. ... If this makes LGBT-plus people and their families more comfortable coming to the ballpark, that's great. That means we've achieved our goal."
The Everett AquaSox are newer to the Pride Night scene, having staged their first in 2018.
"I've been an ally since college, after I discovered half my friends were in the community," said Jason Grohoske, the team's director of marketing and social media. "But now I have a platform to reach people."
Grohoske got the team involved with the Snohomish County Pride Fest as well as the Greater Seattle Business Association (GSBA), the largest LGBTQ chamber of commerce in America. The team will donate $1,000 to the GSBA's scholarship fund, and later this month mascot Webbly will march in the Seattle Pride Parade.
Grohoske said that he received some fan complaints about staging Pride Night, but that "it's about reaching a different community of people not used to being front and center at a ballgame."
Despite pushback from certain segments of the fan base -- negative reactions on social media are still common -- Minor League Baseball Pride Nights will almost certainly only become more common as the years go on. While the nearly 70 teams participating this season make up the largest Pride celebration in professional sports, there is still plenty of room for growth. After all, there are 160 Minor League teams.
"For Minor League Baseball, I think this is a moment in history for us," Pierson said. "It may not feel like that, and some may be uncomfortable, but once we look back on it, we can say that what we started in 2008 [with the Diversity Initiative], we're doubling down. In some areas we're forced to grow and in some areas it's a reflection of our growth. We can come to terms with both of those things and keep on charging, from one to 160, and all be better for it.
"Other than that, let's sit back and watch 2019 unfold with a rainbow tent over it the entire time. Let's be excited about what we're able to do."