Woodpeckers, drilled by pandemic, return

Fayetteville’s Carolina League team had a successful inaugural season only to see COVID-19 cancel the 2020 campaign

Baseball returned to Fayetteville when the Woodpeckers hosted the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers on May 11 at Segra Stadium. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

FAYETTEVILLE — A cheer went up when the gates to Segra Stadium opened about an hour before the Fayetteville Woodpeckers took on the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers in their first home game in more than a year last Tuesday.

It wasn’t the usual ovation associated with a sports venue, though.

This time, instead of the fans doing the cheering, the paying customers were the ones being saluted by members of the team’s staff.

“It was great to have fans back and being able to hear the sounds and smell the hot dogs,” said Pete Subsara, the Woodpeckers’ assistant general manager and director of operations. “Our ushers cheered at 5:30 when the first fans came through. It was an awesome sight, an awesome atmosphere and we’re super happy to be back in business, playing some baseball.”

It had been 605 days since the Woodpeckers had last taken the field in their sparkling new ballpark, and everyone involved was anxious to get back into the swing of things.

While the layoff was similar to the one felt by teams of all levels across the country, it was especially long for a fledgling organization that was just starting to gain a foothold in its community when the 2020 season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Woodpeckers were coming off a successful debut in 2019 in which the team advanced to the Carolina League championship series on the field while establishing its brand as one of the most marketable in baseball in terms of online sales.

But instead of building on that excitement, the Class A affiliate of the Houston Astros was forced to watch helplessly as its momentum slowly slipped away.

Subsara and his staff did what they could to stay relevant by holding non-baseball functions such as a Drive Shack style golf event and a beer festival. Still, there were no guarantees the fans would embrace the team in the same way once it came back, especially because of the transient nature of the Fayetteville/Fort Bragg area.

“You definitely have concerns when you watch the news and you have loved ones getting sick. It was scary for our staff,” said Victoria Huggins, a former Miss North Carolina and Fayetteville native who now serves as the Woodpeckers’ community relations director. “But now we are back, and we’re stronger than ever.

“To be able to see all those fans and then have the challenge of 2020, as so many people did with the pandemic, and not having a season, it’s really emotional for us to be back because there were so many that wondered if we would ever get back to any sort of normalcy and have baseball again.”

As hard as the shutdown was on the Woodpeckers, including the furloughing of most staff members last November, they were able to weather the storm better than many minor league organizations.

That’s because the team is owned by the Astros, an arrangement that provided financial resources that weren’t available to locally owned competitors.

It also helped that a majority of season ticket holders and sponsors — who had gone nearly a decade without affiliated minor league baseball in their town before the Woodpeckers arrived — decided to stick with the team rather than bailing and asking for refunds.

“When (last) season was canceled, we were like, ‘What are we going to do?’” Subsara said. “We’re super grateful that 98% of our season ticket holders and sponsors continued to support us through the last year. They are the backbone of our business.”

Even though that business is back up and running, things aren’t completely back to normal.

The sellout crowd that attended last week’s opening game, a 10-1 win over the Cannon Ballers, totaled only 2,100 fans in a ballpark with seating for just under 5,300. At the concession stands and in the luxury suites, there are now prepackaged food options available for those still concerned about the spread of COVID-19.

The product on the field has also gone through some changes.

Thanks to the controversial reorganization of minor league baseball, the Woodpeckers have gone from being at the advanced Class A level, where many of the top prospects begin their professional careers, to the lowest level on the organization ladder.

It’s a change that will undoubtedly affect the quality of play, though, as avid fan Frank Britt suggested, that really doesn’t matter.

“It’s a little disheartening because we probably won’t see as many people from the team make it to the bigs as we might have, since this is the lowest level there is,” Britt said while watching the game from the popular beer garden beyond the right field wall at Segra Stadium. “But minor league baseball is about having a good time. It’s not about the players or how well they do. I don’t like the fact that they moved down a level, but most of the people that come to these games won’t even notice the difference.”

Season ticket holder Keith Davis, who attended the opening game with his family, is one of those people.

“I consider baseball therapy,” he said. “You have a stressful life, you have a stressful job, but you come out here, relax and have some family fun. Baseball is a slow pace, it’s very soothing.

“Life just went on without it last year. Everything just kept piling on and there was no relief, so to be able to come back out here to this awesome place is really sweet. This is a lot of fun.”