WILSON — The first thing you notice is the smell.
Gone are the aromas usually associated with a night at the ballpark: the freshly popped popcorn, burgers on a grill, grass that has just been mowed. In their place is the antiseptic scent of hand sanitizer, a container of which is situated just inside the gate for fans to use as they enter historic Fleming Stadium.
Normally on a summer Saturday night in Wilson, more than 1,000 people would be in the stands to watch the hometown Tobs take on the High Point-Thomasville HiToms in a Coastal Plain League game between in-state rivals.
But nothing these days is normal thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing it has brought about.
While the game was played as scheduled, with the visiting HiToms rallying from an early deficit for a 10-7 extra-inning victory, only a sparse gathering of family and close friends was on hand to see it — creating an atmosphere Tobs general manager Mike Bell and others on hand described as surreal.
“Here in Wilson, you’ve got a lot of people that are farmers, work at Bridgestone, 9-to-6 workers that may not be able to just run off to the beach, and so they need something here,” Bell said through his yellow face mask, adorned with a Tobs logo.
“It’s tough to sit here on a Saturday or any Tobs game and not have the people you want out there and be surrounded by the people who love baseball.”
The handful of fans that are allowed to attend a game are spaced strategically throughout the stadium to avoid close contact with others.
Because of that distance, masks are not required in the seating area. They are, however, encouraged when moving around the concourse to a concession stand and beer garden that remains open.
Although music and sound effects, along with PA announcements and sponsor testimonials, are piped throughout the ballpark as always, there’s an eerie quiet while the game is in progress.
Players can clearly be heard chattering at one another, and the crack of the bat literally echoes around the nearly empty stands when a batter makes contact. Instead of a loud ovation, the second inning home run hit by the Tobs’ Jared Carr was greeted with a reaction more reminiscent of a reserved golf gallery.
“It’s very weird,” Tony Nowak, who drove down from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for the weekend with his wife Gaye to see their son Chase pitch for the Tobs, said of the atmosphere. “I never expected to be in a situation where you get to see some great baseball but you don’t have any fans. And the masks. Oh well, that’s part of the game. But thank God they let us in.”
As happy as the Nowaks and other parents like them are to be able to see their sons play, those involved in the games are even more appreciative of the opportunity to play this summer — even in an abbreviated CPL season — after their college seasons were cut short on May 12 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s been really amazing getting to play so much and to see this kind of pitching,” said HiToms infielder DeAngelo Giles, an NC State freshman this spring. “It’s good to get back into it. Going out there is building my confidence. Hopefully I can keep it rolling into next season.”
While the lack of fans in the stadium has made things “a little different,” Giles said that it’s business as usual once the first pitch is thrown and the games begin.
That includes a lack of social distancing. Although the Tobs have marked spaces six feet apart with taped X’s on the benches, players still sit shoulder-to-shoulder when they’re not in the game. There are also still meetings on the mound and congratulatory handshakes, high-fives and hugs among teammates.
Those are about the only instances of business as usual in the CPL this summer.
The wood bat league, which is an outlet for college players to get extra work and be seen by pro scouts during their schools’ offseason, was originally supposed to have 15 teams scattered from northern Virginia to south Georgia.
Because of the pandemic, many of those teams have opted out.
The Tobs and HiToms are the only two of North Carolina’s five CPL franchises that are still operating. The other active league teams are the Martinsville Mustangs and Peninsula Pilots in Virginia, the Lexington County Blowfish in South Carolina, and the Savannah Bananas and Macon Bacon in Georgia.
In addition to games against one another, the teams have also picked up games from other, lesser college leagues in the region.
“It’s definitely different not playing a 52-game schedule this summer, but we’ve got about 35 games and we’re going to go out there and play hard,” Tobs coach Harry Markotay said. “Our front office has done a good job of getting us games.
“The schedule has changed a handful of times, but our guys don’t mind. They’re just happy to be here.”
They’re so excited that Markotay and his counterpart with High Point-Thomasville, Mickey Willard, had no trouble filling their rosters. While a few players chose not to play because of COVID concerns, even more inquired about openings after other leagues — including the prestigious Cape Cod League — canceled their seasons.
“These guys know now that anything can happen,” Markotay said. “Even when they’re done here for the summer, nothing is set in stone for their school season. They’re not taking anything for granted.”
Giving those players that opportunity, Wilson GM Bell said, is one of the main reasons why the Tobs decided to go ahead and play this season even though the inability to sell tickets — and with them, concessions and merchandise — will lead to a significant financial loss.
“We’re committed to these boys that are wanting to play baseball,” he said. “We didn’t want to tell them at the last minute, ‘Sorry, you can’t play.’
“It’s just a really awkward year. People are doing everything they can to survive. Even if it means our ownership taking a little bit of a hit, I know that we have the backing of the community, the backing of baseball and the backing of the people that mean so much to us so that we can continue to exist moving forward.”