By John Bohnenkamp
The biggest challenge, Tad Lowary said, was the unknown.
No one knew what to expect on May 30, when the Burlington Bees had their home opener against the Clinton LumberKings.
The Bees lost their affiliation with Minor League Baseball in December when Major League Baseball reduced the number of affiliates. Instead of a full season of Class A baseball, the Bees would be part of the Prospect League, a summer league of college players. Instead of 70 home games of major-league prospects, there would be 30 scheduled home games featuring a team of local players, and players from around the nation.
Lowary, who became the Bees’ manager of operations in April when general manager Kim Parker left to become the West Regional Supervisor for MLB, knew that it was a scramble to get ready for the season. MLB’s announcement came in December, which left the team not much time to put together a roster.
Plus, it had been almost 21 months since the Bees had played a home game — the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out all of the 2020 minor league season.
“There was a pretty short time frame,” Lowary said, “to figure it out.”
None of that mattered on that Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend, when Lowary looked out and saw the line for tickets stretching to the far end of the parking lot.
“It was insane,” Lowary said. “The line was all the way across our parking lot for several innings. The lines at the concession stands were clear across the concourse for the entire game.
“Having seen that, we were like, ‘This might work out. This is going to be good.’ It kind of eased our minds a little bit, that this might turn out well.”
A few hours before the Bees played their season finale against the Quincy Gems on Wednesday night, Lowary thought that, indeed, it had turned out well.
“For all of us in the office, on the staff, we’re really happy with how it went,” he said. “The overall support from the community has been outstanding.”
The Bees drew 2,897 fans for the opener. The final attendance for the season was 25,080 fans in 28 dates, an average of 896. That ranked seventh among the 16-team league.
Community Field had noise again, and it was something everyone noticed.
“I can’t get over the fan support,” Bees manager Gary McClure said after Wednesday’s game, which had an official attendance figure of 3,200 on a night where there was free admission. “We had great crowds all year that were into it. They were a part of (the game). It was exciting for the players.
“Even this last game tonight didn’t really mean anything. But all of those people show up, you feel a responsibility to go out and win the game.”
“The crowds have been more enthusiastic, I think,” Lowary said. “Part of it, I think, is being cooped up for the last year and a half. But part of it has been the way these guys play baseball. What you see on the field, how they cheer on their teammates, that feeds into it as well. Even the hard-core fans have said, ‘Hey, this is fun to watch.’”
If anything, Lowary said, the season has provided a foundation for the future.
The organization was left in limbo as MLB let the clock run out on the Professional Baseball Agreement with the minors at the end of September, 2020. Fall is usually the time when minor league teams begin selling advertising and ticket packages for the coming season, but all the Bees’ front office staff could do was wait for the decision they knew was coming.
“We were in such a holding pattern,” Lowary said. “I mean, we were sure, but not having anything official with Major League Baseball, we just couldn’t do anything.”
Once the decision came, the organization had to find a new league, and once an agreement was reached with the Prospect League, there was a scramble to put together a roster and sell a schedule to businesses and fans in the community.
“We were kind of forced to do things in a short window,” Lowary said.
Now, the window is already open for next season.
“It gives us a blueprint going into next year — these are the things we need to do, these are the things that went well, these are things that didn’t go so well,” Lowary said.
The short time frame also led to a scramble to find players.
“You do the best you can,” McClure said. “But we got some good players in here.”
Lowary and his staff treated game nights as if they were Midwest League games, and visiting teams noticed.
“You would see players out there on the field, taking pictures, things like that,” Lowary said. “I thought we did a good job of making this a good place for baseball.”
The Bees could get financial help from the Minor League Relief Act, a yet-to-be-passed bill in Congress that would provide professional teams grants of up to 45 percent of their total 2019 revenue because of the lost 2020 season due to the pandemic.
“I don’t know what the dollar amounts would look like at this point, or what the status (of the bill) is at this point,” Lowary said. “Any amount is going to help.”
There will be baseball at Community Field throughout the rest of the summer and fall — several weekend tournaments are scheduled, and Southeastern Community College will play its fall schedule at the ballpark. SCC will also play its spring schedule at Community Field next season.
One season for the new-look Bees was gone, the offseason was ahead.
But Lowary said he would take a deep breath of relief first.
“And then we’ll get started on next year,” he said, laughing.
The unknowns were long gone.
Photo: Fans fill Community Field for last Wednesday’s season finale for the Burlington Bees. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)