Looking for a sense of normalcy? You can find it at Lansing's Cooley Law School Stadium, where the hometown Lugnuts are regularly playing in front of sold-out crowds.
Granted, just about any description of "normal" these days comes equipped with an asterisk heavy enough to slide off the page due to its sheer symbolic weight. A sellout crowd at Cooley Law School Stadium is currently 100 fans, less than 1 percent of the ballpark's 11,000 capacity. This smattering of baseball boosters are restricted to socially distanced tables situated throughout Good Hops, a ballpark bar and restaurant overlooking left field. The Lugnuts on the field, meanwhile, are wholly independent of the Midwest League, despite the fact that Lansing -- ordinarily a Toronto affiliate -- remains a member in good standing of the venerable Class A circuit.
The 2020 Lugnuts are in fact "Collegiate Lugnuts," comprised of players from a variety of Michigan-centric institutions of higher learning. The Collegiate Lugnuts' sole opponent, and ballpark co-occupants, are the "Collegiate Locos." The Locos, utilizing an identity originally created for Lansing's entry in Minor League Baseball's Copa de la Diversión program, also are comprised from a pool of local collegiate ballplayers. They are the Washington Generals to the Collegiate Lugnuts' Harlem Globetrotters, or perhaps it's the other way around.
The strangeness doesn't end there, because the strangeness has just begun. The Lugnuts and the Locos, who debuted on July 23 and are 11 games into a 20-game schedule that concludes on Aug. 22, exclusively play seven-inning contests. Tie ballgames are settled via a one-on-one home run derby, but this, unfortunately, has yet to occur. Also, all the baseballs are yellow. Welcome to Lansing's Lemonade League which, for better or for worse, is as normal as baseball in a Minor League ballpark is going to get in 2020. It's all about finding the sweet within the sour.
According to Lugnuts general manager Tyler Parsons, brainstorming for what became the Lemonade League began in mid-May, as he and his staff were "reading the tea leaves" and preparing themselves for the coronavirus-caused cancellation of the 2020 Minor League season. The Lugnuts -- and, indeed, all of Minor League Baseball, America and the world -- had been given lemons. It was therefore time to make some lemonade.
"One thing about Minor League Baseball, you become proactive with worst-case scenarios," said Parsons, a Michigan native who joined the Lugnuts in late 2017. "Even in a normal season, things are constantly changing. Sometimes it's just the weather that can really make a mess of things. I spent time working in the [summer collegiate] Coastal Plain League, so I was familiar with the model and had some connections there. And we had recently hired [director of stadium events] Greg Kigar, who was a huge asset and one of the architects on the player personnel side."
The Lugnuts found ample interest in their proposed league from local college coaches and players, many of whom had a desire to return to the field following the unceremonious cancellations of their regularly scheduled seasons. Chad Roskelly, a former Michigan State player and current coach at Detroit-area Oakland University, signed on as the Lemonade League's Director of Baseball. Roskelly, Kigar and a quartet of coaches with local ties -- Cam Vieaux, Riley McCauley, Pete Romsek, and Cullen Turner -- compiled the rosters via what Roskelly called a "mini-draft" of available players. Eighteen colleges are represented within the Lemonade League, with Saginaw Valley State University (eight players) and Lansing Community College (five) leading the way. Safety is, of course, a primary goal. Players must wear masks at all times, on the field and in the dugouts. Another goal was to create as much on-field parity as possible.
"We have players competing alongside their in-state school rivals and against some of their own college teammates. It will make for some great competition and bragging rights," Roskelly said in a Lugnuts press release. “The great part about the Lemonade League is that if we find out that the teams aren’t equal, some trades will be taking place. It will be an experience most of these guys have never been through before.”
Big picture, it's an experience no one has been through before. When Lemonade League brainstorming began, Parsons initially hoped the ballpark would be allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity. As time progressed, safety concerns forced him to continually adjust his expectations downward. He and his staff have been in touch with local health officials throughout the process, including Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail. She visited the ballpark for the Lemonade League's inaugural ballgame on July 23, praising it as a way "we can get people out and doing things."
"With only 100 fans allowed in, the question became 'Does this make sense?'" said Parsons. "But you know what? 2020 was supposed to be our 25th anniversary season. Our field is in great shape. Our stadium is in great shape. We owe it to the community to put our heads together and do something, if we can do it safely. We owe it to the community to give this a shot."
Tickets to Lemonade League games, which cost $12 and include a nightly giveaway item, largely were snapped up by preexisting Lugnuts season ticket holders given purchasing priority. These fans, seated at private outdoor tables, have a variety of food and drink options to choose from (including new specialty items and, perhaps inevitably, an array of lemonade-based cocktails).
The crowd is bolstered by those who watch the game for free from the elevated porches of the adjacent Ballpark Outfield Loft apartment complex; additionally, several hundred more "fans" soon will appear via "Face in the Crowd" cardboard cutouts.
"The fans have had a lot of fun with that," said Parsons. "We've got Waldo, we've got the Cookie Monster, all ready to go behind home plate."
Sentient or not, the likes of Waldo and the Cookie Monster are among a very limited number of partisans who can enjoy Lemonade League baseball in person. But the online audience, like everything regarding the internet, is theoretically limitless. Lugnuts lead broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler and his assistant, Adam Jaksa, provide the call for Lemonade League games streamed onto screens via Facebook, Vimeo, YouTube and Twitch.
"The biggest eyeopener for us has been the [streaming] numbers we've been getting," said Parsons. "In Minor League Baseball, the mind-set is getting people to show up. We haven't fully made a dive into digital and how we can monetize it. This is causing us to pivot, to fast track that, to look at every option we can to monetize and add value through digital."
It's simply a matter of finding the positives amid the negative. Of, yes, taking lemons and making lemonade.
"The Lemonade League, its name tells the story of what it is and why we're doing it," said Parsons. "And we've been selling a ton of Lemonade League merch, so we're going to be thinking of ways to keep the brand going. The yellow baseballs have been a fun touch, and I can't wait until we have a home run derby to decide a game. It's been weird, but everything is weird. Weird is the new normal."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.