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Minor League Baseball Is Back, But Not Without Obstacles

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Grab your hot dog and foam finger because minor league baseball is back. Those teams sat out last season. And as their ballparks begin to reopen, it's a whole new experience with social distancing and other pandemic rules in place. Here to talk about that is Todd "Parney" Parnell. He is the CEO of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. And he joins us now from Richmond, Va. Hello.

TODD PARNELL: Hello. Hello. Hello. Good morning. And baseball is back. And I'm so happy about that.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am, too. I can hear the joy in your voice. What's it feel like to be back?

PARNELL: Lulu, there's really no words to describe it. I mean, for a whole year, our stage was taken away from us. And a big, gaping hole was left in all of our hearts. And just the fact that we're back and we're playing and the fans come to the ballpark - that overrules everything...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

PARNELL: ...As far as anything that's different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let me ask you this. Did the players put on some pandemic pounds, or were they...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Able to sort of keep in shape?

PARNELL: The COVID 19?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

PARNELL: You can see the bounce in their step, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

PARNELL: And just when they walk into the ballpark, you know, they're walking a little faster. And I think this pandemic has taught us all to not take the everyday things for granted, you know? So a Tuesday night game now, which might have been taken for granted in 2019 is, like, Game 7 of the World Series to us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How are fans reacting?

PARNELL: So here in Richmond, our capacity right now is 3,448, I believe it is. And we've sold every ticket that we've been able to sell except for one game so far. I've been saying for a long time now that the ballparks all across America in the minor leagues are going to be part of the healing in each of their communities as people come out of this pandemic. And we're seeing that right here in Richmond, Va.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Parney, talk to me a little bit about that. What role do you think baseball and especially sort of minor league baseball, which is so community-centered, can play in sort of healing people and bringing them together?

PARNELL: I think that no one else brings a community together, particularly in the sports world - no offense to everyone else - like a minor league team does in a minor league community. And we're seeing that - the joy that people have when they walk into the diamond and what they say to us - hey, thank you for being back. Thank you for showing movies in the outfield during the pandemic so we could get out of the house safely. And I think that the ballparks really are important to the community with or without the baseball. But thank God we have baseball now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let me ask you this. How is the team doing so far? Because, yes, it's all about the feels. But it's also about the scoreboard.

PARNELL: Well, we've been great. We had an eight-game winning streak early in the season, the longest winning streak in Squirrels history. And then last Thursday night, I believe it was, we had four pitchers combined for a no-hitter in Harrisburg, Penn., against the Harrisburg Senators, the first nine-inning no-hitter in Flying Squirrels history. So I think it's been a smashing success.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about what's happening in between the innings and that kind of engagement? I mean, how is that looking now? Because, you know, that personal contact is such a big part of the ballpark.

PARNELL: Well, I'll tell you I lost a little bit of sleep about that leading in to the season starting because people were so used to seeing things in between the innings on the field. But I've been absolutely delighted some of the things that we've done in the past, you know, like, our Mixed Nut Race, because we are the - we're the Flying Squirrels. Our staff actually put on the costumes and filmed about probably 25 or 30 different Mixed Nut Races. And then we interact with the fans by picking people out of the stands. These people that are selected are shown on the scoreboard. And they pick which nut they want to cheer for. And then we show the race on the video board. And it still gets the same reaction from the crowd. So we've adjusted. We've adapted. And we're still entertaining.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question, Parney. What does this sport mean to you? What have you realized, you know, in this pandemic about your relationship with minor league ball?

PARNELL: Lulu, are you trying to make me cry? Because you're going to make me cry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

PARNELL: Well, I've been doing this for 32 years. And I've always felt like this was a - you know, a huge part of who I am as a person - and not only that but my family. And, you know, when something is taken away from you, you know, it really hits you at your core. And that's what happened with me. And, you know, I appreciate even the bad times now. Even when I'm stressed out, I appreciate it. I mean, I can't tell you how many people have asked me if they can hug me. Hey, Parney, are you vaccinated? Because I'm vaccinated, and I want to hug you because I'm so happy to see you. And, you know, those are the things that it means to me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Parney Parnell is the CEO of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Thank you very much.

PARNELL: Have fun. Go nuts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: One ball, one strike. Here is the 1-1 pitch. And it's a bouncer back to the mound. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.