When the Greensboro Grasshoppers received the go-ahead that the 2021 minor league season would happen, it came without the off-field equivalent of a full spring training.
So president and general manager Donald Moore and vice president of baseball operations Katie Dannemiller relied on a foundation that had developed for more than a decade to pull it all together.
“It has been a strange couple of years,” Moore said. “I think a lot of it was perseverance and hoping for the best. It was better than my wildest dreams.”
By summer, First National Bank Field was hopping again with excitement. As a bonus, the High-A East affiliate of the Pirates was stocked with prospects, including first-round picks Quinn Priester, Nick Gonzales and, briefly, Henry Davis.
But the off-field successes might have been what allowed the Grasshoppers to stand out. Because of that, the club was named the Class A winner of the Freitas Award, honoring excellence on the business side of minor league operations.
“All things considered, we had a fantastic year,” Dannemiller said. “Thanks to our fans who trusted us.”
It was a chore on all fronts, but the front office staff pulled together resources and built on loyalty and support that came in several manners.
A full-time staff of 19 had been reduced to five people for about eight months in 2020 because of furloughs during the pandemic.
“When the first of the year rolled around, we weren’t sure if we were going to be in existence,” Moore said.
For the 2021 season, there were 13 full-timers.
“It was definitely a quick collaboration,” Dannemiller said. “To have so many come back, that’s a testament to how well our ownership group has treated our staff through the years.”
There was a ballpark that needed to be refit to meet capacity restrictions when the season began in May. There were tickets to be sold with a new system. There were issues with game-day staffing.
It began with safety.
“How are we going to make this a safe environment for our guests?” Dannemiller said. “That was a huge undertaking . . . We literally zip-tied every seat not to be sold.”
Fast forward to weeks later when North Carolina governor Roy Cooper announced the lifting of certain restrictions. That came hours before the Grasshoppers played that might.
On that humid afternoon, Moore sent word to staff that capacity would increase. So those zip ties had to be “cut, cut, cut,” Dannemiller said.
Through all this, much of the details away from the field fell to Erich Dietz, the director of ticket sales and services. Greensboro transitioned to digital ticketing in what amounted to an ever-changing situation.
Yet again, the Grasshoppers turned the uneasiness of a new system for fans into a positive.
“While it was such a tumultuous time for everybody, there were some good things that came out of the pandemic,” Dannemiller said. “We had to go to digital ticketing. We found out that the fans like that.”
Various factors played into another boost for the Grasshoppers. Group sales were naturally down, because many businesses paused on gatherings. Ballpark picnics were smaller, but Greensboro’s walk-up sales were off the charts.
Moore said half to two-thirds of nightly ticket sales routinely came through walk-ups.
It didn’t hurt that the team experienced just two regular season home rainouts, both on Wednesdays. “You need some luck and we had some good luck,” Moore said.
Yet there was a different vibe for Moore, 65. In the past he had interacted daily with the field staff and players, yet that part was off limits in 2021. So was on-field entertainment, so that was tough for a franchise that helped introduce bat dogs to the minor leagues.
The entire concept of bat-retrieving dogs in the minor leagues took off when Moore’s black Labradors were part of the regular scene. There was Master Yogi Berra, Miss Babe Ruth and Miss Lou Lou Gehrig.
For 2021, in-game promotions and marketing were largely shifted to the videoboard and a secured area on the concourse. The Grasshoppers found a way through it.
“It goes to show you how we’re known in the community as a place of fun,” Dannemiller said. “Everybody was so understanding at a time that not everybody was understanding.”
Since the Grasshoppers moved into their new ballpark in its downtown location in 2005, the area around it has grown up.
“It took a while for things to get going, but I feel like we play a big part of it,” Moore said of the downtown development. “It creates an ambience. It has given it a more urban feel. I think it’s the hottest part of the town.”
Apartment complexes have changed the scene. More recently, a $27 million, nine-story office building went up along the first-base side. Another project—with a price tag perhaps hitting $170 million—is set to launch within months.
By then, another season should be in full swing.
“Even with some skepticism about what kind of restrictions we were going to be up against, I think we have a good product and people wanted to come out,” Moore said. “We’ve always said we’re going to have fun with affordable family entertainment.”
The appreciation spread to all corners of the ballpark.
“To me, this was the best year we had yet,” said scoreboard operator Don Tilley, who has known Moore since they were teenagers. “You consider all the hoops we had to jump through. … It’s just a good bunch of people. Donald, Katie, Tim (Vangel, the assistant GM), they make you feel like family. They make you feel comfortable. When you get there, you don’t want to leave.”