The seats were empty again Wednesday morning at the newly renamed Fairfield Properties Ballpark in Central Islip, home of the Long Island Ducks. It was a familiar sight on a dreary late-May day, and for the nearly 600 days that preceded it.
But ‘those days’ are about to end and a truly new era of Ducks baseball is about to start. For one thing, there will be Ducks baseball, and that’s something unseen in an obscene amount of time, a period that sometimes seems like a lifetime.
The Ducks open their 21st season Friday night in Central Islip against the Lexington Legends, formally a Class A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals and one of the three new teams to join the Atlantic League this season. It will be the first time the Ducks have played a meaningful baseball game on Long Island since October 2, 2019 – Game 2 of the last Atlantic League Championship Series.
The Ducks did not play last year. They attempted to play a 70-game schedule, but had to scrap those plans after numerous unsuccessful attempts to gain exemption from the state’s decision not to allow fans into professional sports venues.
That left their 2019 Atlantic League Championship celebration on hold – a banner unhung, a roster of players without baseball homes, and manager Wally Backman with more summer free time than he’s ever dreamed of.
"Missing all that time, it kind of sucked," Backman said Wednesday at a Ducks Media Day news conference at the ballpark. "…To take a whole year off was different. I did a lot of fishing."
With Ducks baseball comes Ducks fans. Unlike Major League Baseball, where teams have big time television contracts and other revenue streams, the Ducks were not able to play without fans in the ballpark. Those fans, some known as the ‘Faithful Flock,’ return Friday night.
The 6,002-seat ballpark will be filled at approximately 50-60 % capacity to start the season, with separate sections for vaccinated and unvaccinated fans, said Ducks president and general manager Michael Pfaff.
Vaccinated sections will be available to be filled at 100% capacity and unvaccinated, or ‘socially distanced,’ sections will be filled at 33% capacity. The split between vaccinated and unvaccinated sections will vary by game, Pfaff said.
"We’re looking forward to the restrictions being completely lifted like they were in New Jersey and then being able to really do what we’ve always done," Pfaff said.
But, until that happens, Pfaff said the Ducks are prepared to follow all CDC guidelines, including having social distancing protocols throughout the ballpark.
"Obviously, part of those guidelines is people that have been vaccinated don’t need to wear masks outside and don’t need to present tests to come in," Pfaff said. "So, a lot of the big barriers that were there for people to come out and enjoy a game have been lifted and we’re looking forward to giving people a good time on Friday night."
The Suffolk County police department will be offering vaccinations to fans Friday night. The first 250 fans that get vaccinated will receive a voucher for tickets to a future Ducks game, Pfaff said.
The Ducks will embark on their title defense – albeit a year late – with former major leaguer Mike Bolsinger on the mound. Bolsinger, who played parts of four season with the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Blue Jays, is one of 13 former big leaguers on the Ducks roster.
"Being able to see that (2019 championship) banner finally go up and being able to see fans here and enjoy the night with them is going to be nice because, obviously, last year we didn’t get that chance," said outfielder Daniel Fields, a former Tiger. "Friday night should be special…I’ve been excited since I’ve been here and I can’t wait to get on that field and play."
Another of those former major leaguers, 44-year-old Lew Ford, returns for his 11th season with the Ducks, the most in franchise history. He is also the team's hitting coach. Other notable returners include former National Steve Lombardozzi, who worked on a potato farm last summer, and L.J. Mazzilli, son of former Met and Yankee Lee Mazzilli.
The Ducks signed two notable former Mets in the offseason – Ty Kelly and T.J. Rivera – but they have already had their contract purchased by major league organizations.
Despite already losing multiple players to big league organization, there is excitement about the on-field product. It’s been two years since baseball and two years since championship glory, but Backman thinks it can happen again.
"We’re going to be good," he said.
WHAT TO KNOW
Game time for Friday's opener: 6:35 p.m.
Gates Open: 5:20 p.m. for season ticket holders. 5:35 p.m. for non-season ticket holders.
• The 6,002-seat ballpark will be filled at approximately 50-60 % capacity to start the season, with separate sections for vaccinated and unvaccinated fans. Vaccinated sections will be available to be filled at 100 % capacity and unvaccinated, or ‘socially distanced,’ sections will be filled at 33% capacity
• The Suffolk County police department will be offering vaccinations to fans Friday night. The first 250 fans that get vaccinated will receive a voucher for tickets to a future Ducks game.
• Unvaccinated or immunocompromised fans should wear a mask while in the ballpark, Ducks said. Concession stand staff will be wearing masks and gloves.
• The Ducks will raise their 2019 Atlantic League Championship banner before the game.