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Bringing baseball back | How the Toledo Mud Hens are knocking COVID-19 out of the park

To get you prepared, we asked the Mud Hens' director of strategic planning for a look at the measures in place and the rules to follow for fans to stay safe.

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.

Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
Except for recent MLB spring training games, the seats have been empty for almost 600 days. Ahead of Opening Day, there were more than a few cobwebs between rows of seats.

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."

Credit: Tim Miller/WTOL 11
One of the tables where fans will have to sit, not stand, in the outfield.
Credit: Roxanne Elias/WTOL 11
Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
Just one of the dozens of tables available to reserve for up to six people on the Right Field Patio at Fifth Third Field. Decals on the ground direct traffic flow through the area.

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.

Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
Yellow ropes mark off seats to keep a safe distance between groups of ticketholders at Fifth Third Field.
Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
Drink rails in the outfield are closed in favor of individual, reserved tables.

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.

Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
Seats are roped off between groups of ticketholders for distancing. Tickets can be purchased in sets of up to six for families and "trusted friends" to sit together in the lower bowl.
Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
How suite it is! Patio Suites come with six tickets, so you and your group can enjoy the game and your food and drinks in a space just for yourselves.

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.

Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
Six Patio Suites will be available per game. The Patio Suites are like a cabana at a pool, but will serve as your seats for the game. Each Patio Suite comes with six tickets for $125.

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.

Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
Floor graphics are in place at congestion points like concession stands and bathrooms to direct traffic and distancing, just like shopping in a store.
Credit: WTOL
Hand sanitizer dispensers, like this one, are set up all over Fifth Third Field and inside The Swamp Shop.
Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
Concession stands have Plexiglass shields as well as arrows directing traffic flow. Hand sanitizer dispensers are located by the registers.

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.

Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
Someone will be stationed at the entrances to The Swamp Shop to make sure it doesn't get too crowded. Floor graphics show traffic flow, with one way in and one way out.
Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
Custom floor graphics encourage social distancing in the checkout lanes at The Swamp Shop.

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.

Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
A "masks required" sign on the door of The Swamp Shop in Toledo, stating that anyone entering without a mask will be asked to leave. (April 13, 2021)

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. 

Baseball's back. 

Credit: WTOL 11 First Alert Horizon

For additional, up-to-date information on the Mud Hens safety guidelines, check out their Know Before You Go guide at this link.

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