TOLEDO, Ohio — Excitement is building for the Toledo Mud Hens home opener on May 4, but the season wouldn't be happening without sacrifices from fans.
Like many other sports in 2020, COVID-19 threw the Mud Hens a curveball.
Fifth Third Field has so many beautiful scenes and places to watch a game, but one thing has been missing for months: the fans.
Except for recent MLB spring training games, the seats have been empty for over 600 days.
But that will change at the Mud Hens home opener.
To get you prepared, we asked Mud Hens director of strategic planning Mike Keedy for a behind-the-scenes look at all the changes fans will see and the rules they will have to follow.
There are the ones you'd expect, like wearing a mask while walking around or when you're not eating or drinking at your seat and maintaining six feet of social distance.
But there are many others.
The Mud Hens have to follow guidelines not only from the Ohio Department of Health but also Major League Baseball, or no games can be played.
"I think our group has really become experts on what we have to do in order to open," Keedy said.
This year, bag restrictions will be in place to reduce the time it takes for fans to get past the gates and interaction between staff members during bag checks. Small clutch bags under 4.5'' x 8'' will be permitted, along with diaper and medical bags.
Beyond that, you'll have to take it back to your car.
One of the biggest changes is no more standing room only in the outfield.
Instead, you will buy tickets to sit down at one of more than 100 tables around the outfield fence.
"Now this is brand new. So people have never experienced this at the ballpark before," Keedy said, "but this is how all of our tables beyond the home run wall will be reserved."
Your "regular" seat experience will also be different.
Seats are sold in groups of one to six people.
A maximum of six family members or what they call "trusted friends" can sit together, and yellow ropes mark off the seats that no one can sit in.
"We have to come up with a seating plan for groups of up to six, and we have to make sure there is six-feet distance between each group. We call them pods. Pods is the new hit term when it comes to event seating right now," Keedy said.
The pods, in varying forms, replace general admission and standing room only tickets.
The actual capacity will vary throughout the season depending on the number of pods purchased per game. A 30% seating capacity was approved by Gov. Mike DeWine in February for Ohio sporting events. The Mud Hens anticipate to have 2,500 to 4,000 tickets available per game, which may change based on health guidelines.
During a normal full season, the Mud Hens average 8,000 fans per game and 10,000 fans on weekends.
You can find what seats are available on the Toledo Mud Hens website.
More seats will be released on a rolling basis throughout the season, and you can sign up for text alerts to receive notifications as soon as tickets go on sale.
Plus, tickets are moving digital and will be scanned from your smartphone at the gate. You can also print out a ticket from home before you head to the game, but ticket stubs are out for this season.
The pandemic might actually make for a more fun experience this year. The Mud Hens set up six "Patio Suites" throughout the stadium concourse. Patio Suites come with six tickets, so you and your group can enjoy the game and your food and drinks with plenty of space. No cupholders necessary and the table means there's room for soft pretzels and hot dogs.
When you roll up to your favorite concession stand, you'll have to distance from others.
Floor graphics are in place, just like shopping in a store, and the Mud Hens will have more points of sale open, to keep fans spread out along the concourse.
Fans will also see hand sanitizer pumps all over the ballpark. 150 are located across Fifth Third Field and inside The Swamp Shop.
Unfortunately, player autographs and on-field fan experiences and contests won't happen - at least for now. MLB protocol currently says fans and employees can't participate in promos on the field.
Also following protocol, players can't sign autographs or throw items into the seating bowl. So for things like baseballs, you'll have to grab a souvenir one from The Swamp Shop.
There's plenty more great Mud Hens gear options to cheer on the team. Someone will be stationed at the entrances to The Swamp Shop to make sure it doesn't get too crowded.
Just don't gather too deep around a particular display or cool jersey.
At the registers, there are more floor graphics, Plexiglass shields and hand sanitizer dispensers.
"It's more about managing the number of people in at a time. The good thing is The Swamp Shop is a really big store. I think it's the biggest in all of minor league baseball," Keedy said.
While the season may be starting with a different look, it'll still be the same Toledo Mud Hens. So grab your mask, some peanuts and Cracker Jack.
For additional, up-to-date information on the Mud Hens safety guidelines, check out their Know Before You Go guide at this link.