For the first time in nearly three decades, there is no professional baseball in Fort Wayne. In July, Minor League Baseball announced that its 2020 season would be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving Parkview Field devoid of summer games.
The city had minor league baseball every year since the Fort Wayne Wizards opened in the Midwest League in 1993. After the team moved downtown and rebranded as the TinCaps more than a decade ago, it became one of the best draws in MiLB.
This year, those fans who pack the stadium on warm summer nights – drinking cheap beer on Thirsty Thursdays, buying theme-night jerseys, posing for photos with mascot Johnny TinCap and staying for postgame fireworks shows – have missed the baseball experience.
Longtime fan Dan Scheib, 70, had season tickets for the Wizards in 1993 and has been going to games ever since. He waited most of his life for minor league baseball to get to Fort Wayne, and now he wonders how many more games he has left to see. TinCaps games are one of the highlights of summer for Scheib and his wife.
“Just the atmosphere and just the sound of baseball, the bat hitting the ball, or walking around in the third or fourth inning, taking a break and seeing people you might not have seen for a while,” Scheib said. “Some of the people I've gotten to know that work the games because I've been there so many times ... the beer vendors, food providers, they're like my friends, I miss them.”
“It's just been kind of depressing,” he added. “Not even the ballgames so much, which I really enjoy the games, just the fellowship.”
Jim Garigen has been a season ticket holder for the Fort Wayne franchise “as long as I can remember” and has been a host parent for Fort Wayne players in need of housing since the Wizards came to town. He was in Arizona for spring training, visiting some of the players he'd hosted in the past, when baseball suspended its preseason work in March.
Garigen gives up his seat during weekday games when small children come from their schools in droves. On those days, he runs the hot dog distribution center near the Lincoln Event Center, and he misses being able to give a free hot dog and complementary sunglasses to kids who have done enough reading at school to qualify for the prizes.
He is worried especially about players losing a year of development, as well as the impact on TinCaps employees.
The TinCaps have been selling meal kits of ballpark food and T-shirts commemorating the lost season in an effort to recoup some of the revenue.
“I've lost the entire experience, but I'm less worried about what I've lost than those I know and I love and what they've experienced,” Garigen said. “What (team president) Mike Nutter has been able to manage with the (TinCaps meal kit program) and special T-shirts that sadly commemorate what we're going through right now, any way they can to raise some revenue, has been nothing short of a miracle.”
Garigen also praised TinCaps managing owner Jason Freier for doing what he can to keep full-time team employees on staff with their salaries and benefits intact.
“You can't help but love what minor league baseball is,” he said.
Doug Rood, another longtime host parent along with his wife Eva, feels similarly.
“Not only are the fans bummed out, but I think everybody feels for the TinCaps organization,” Rood said. “Because who would have thought it was going to come to this. I know they've been scratching and trying to figure out ways to keep afloat for the year. ... It's nice that people are supporting them (by buying meal kits and T-shirts).”
The Roods miss the personal touch of getting close to the players and having the players they're hosting find them in the stands during games. They've compensated by watching as many Padres games on TV as possible and getting excited about next season. They've already made reservations to travel to 2021 spring training after being forced to cancel their trip this year.
Scheib is worried there won't be baseball next year, unsure whether the pandemic will have been contained well enough to allow fans to attend games in the numbers necessary for it to make sense.
“I'm very nervous about what the future has for any minor league franchise of any sport really,” said Scheib, who is also a Komets fan.
If there is baseball in Fort Wayne next year, however, Garigen is excited for the effect it can have on the people who live in the city.
“The competition, the baseball itself, the sport is always going to survive,” Garigen said. “But when you put a minor league team in a city, that brings so many jobs to the community. For me, that's going to be the best thing. Sitting in the stands, national anthem, first pitch, it's going to be all the folklore associated with baseball, but behind the scenes it's going to be, how many families are affected right now because those guys and gals punched the time clock.”