By John Bohnenkamp
They came to see the new show.
It was Opening Night at Community Field on Sunday for the new edition of the Burlington Bees.
The line to get tickets stretched to the end of the parking lot at one point. The final attendance total — 2,097.
It had been 21 months — 639 days — since a Bees team had played here.
It was a different world on Aug. 30, 2019, when the Bees lost to the Clinton LumberKings 6-3. No one knew it at the time — although certainly the rumblings were beginning — but it would be the last time a Burlington team would be a Major League Baseball affiliate.
In the time since then, the COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2020 Midwest League season before it could begin. It had become clear that winter that MLB’s plan to contract Minor League Baseball to 120 teams would include the Bees — it also took fellow Midwest League teams Clinton and Kane County — and once the season was canceled it robbed the fan base, and the community, of a chance to say goodbye to something that had been part of the city for more than a century.
So, they came on Sunday night to say hello to the new Bees, now members of the Prospect League, a summer league of college players who would be spending the next couple of months getting a taste of what life in the minors would be should they get that far.
It certainly was a performance. The Bees came back from an eight-run deficit to win 15-9, and there was an appreciation for the atmosphere created by the near-capacity crowd.
“It was pretty electric,” designated hitter Austin Simpson said. “That’s all I can say. It was pretty awesome.”
Simpson had been in those grandstands many times before. He grew up in nearby Fairfield, and he remembered coming to games.
Now he was a player.
“It was a pretty fun experience to be here and be in a Bees uniform,” Simpson said.
Bees manager Gary McClure, a southeast Iowa native, also came to plenty of games when he was younger. His son, Alex, played for the team in 2010 when it was affiliated with the Kansas City Royals.
So McClure said he was “a little embarrassed” when a couple of defensive mistakes opened the way for Clinton to build a 9-1 lead after 3 1/2 innings. He knew the importance of the game, not just for his team, but also for a fan base who came to see a new level of baseball.
“We’ve got 3,000 people, or whatever we had, we’ve got a great crowd,” he said. “You want to show those people something so they’ll come back. We kicked the ball around a little bit. They didn’t get a lot of earned runs.
“But hey, we came out and started swinging the bats.”
The Bees got six runs in the bottom of the inning. They would bat around twice in the game, and after building a comfortable lead going into the ninth inning, closed the game behind reliever Reece Wissinger, a Burlington High School graduate who, like Simpson, grew up coming to games at the ballpark.
They heard the roar on the final out in an old ballpark that had regained its baseball articulation after so many months of silence.
There was uncertainty back in December, when MLB made the contraction official. The Bees organization found a league, found players.
The fan base found the team again. A summer of baseball, one that was missed in 2020, was ahead.
“I think it was tremendous. They were fired up,” McClure said. “That many people to come out to the ballgame to support you, it’s great.
“I just wanted give them something to come back for.”
Photo: Burlington Bees shortstop Mason Land doubles during Sunday’s game at Community Field. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)