“Get your 6-foot poles here!”
So goes the unspoken cry at unpacked JetBlue Park, a message that also serves as the unofficial motto for the spaced-out odyssey that every Red Sox player, fan, and employee must endure for spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., to be staged successfully during this pandemic.
From the moment players get their temperatures taken after walking in from their parking lot, to the 75 percent-plus fewer cars and fans driving in with prepaid parking passes to create one more touchless transaction point, virtually nothing will be the same.
And everyone will have all the room they’ll need to savor the changes.
“Working in this environment the last 11 months, it’s required a lot of patience and creativity,” said Jonathan Gilula, Red Sox executive vice president/chief operating officer. “We’re reimagining physical spaces and we’re being forced to redefine operational procedures so that people can enjoy their experiences in the safest way possible.
“That’s our objective, and we’re hopeful that the amount of effort and thought that’s gone into the planning will come to fruition here.”
For the approximately 75 players prepping for a 162-game season and the 75 staff members charged with meeting their every need, the task was to turn a spacious clubhouse essentially inside-out, and into a tent city that’s taking shape behind the ballpark.
Where the players lounge. Where they eat. Where they go to the bathroom. Where they get tested, examined, and treated by the medical staff. Where they get their massages. Where they condition. Where their food is prepped. It’s all being moved outdoors, where virus particles are less transmissible.
Some space in the 10-tunnel outdoor batting cages is being repurposed for strength and conditioning equipment. The extra-wide bullpen that can accommodate a half-dozen pitchers and catchers at once will not be nearly so crowded.
Coordinating the movement of players to maximize their talents and hone their skills while minimizing close contact involves a brand-new caliber of coordination.
“We’re fortunate to have an Ivy League grad in that role this year,” joked Pete Nesbit, senior vice president of baseball operations, referring to new bench coach Will Venable (Princeton, ’05), who is overseeing the spring training plan. “The coaching staff is doing a ton of work on the scheduling side, working with the medical team to make sure we’re not overloading any of these spaces. That’s a huge, critical piece of the puzzle.”
Inside the spacious major league clubhouse, the idea is to spread everyone out and create less indoor density. Lockers will no longer be side-by-side. They’ll be spaced 6 feet apart, separated by plexiglass partitions.
Players squeezed out will find their lockers in other areas of the structure that houses the clubhouse, which sits underneath and behind the left-field wall and seating area of the main ballpark.
Spring training 2020 was shut down in the middle of last March, and JetBlue Park has been getting ready to reopen pretty much ever since, according to both Brennan Whitley, Red Sox senior manager of Florida business operations, and Jay Fandel, senior manager of Florida ballpark operations.
Fandel visited Tampa for the Buccaneers-Chiefs regular-season NFL game in late November at Raymond James Stadium, which helped form a vision for what it would take for the Red Sox to duplicate the effort on a smaller scale. Stadium employees at every level wore face masks constantly — fans at times were not as diligent, Fandel said — with touch points in the stands constantly being wiped down.
Ushers at JetBlue will be packing Lysol wipes and, like everyone else who enters the stadium, wearing masks at all times, (slipping it off while eating and drinking is allowed.)
There will be no ticket-takers; tickets will be fully digital, with fans scanning phones to get in. No bags other than diaper, medical, or small purses (about 5 by 9 inches) will be permitted, keeping lines moving.
Once inside the gates, fans will have the opportunity to buy from a spread of local food vendors — no hawkers — and they will have to eat at their seats. There will still be a 50-50 raffle, but it will feature a single prize at the end of the spring, with tickets sold at a single booth rather than in the stands.
Cash will be discouraged, with every merchandise or food vendor accepting credit cards, Apple Pay, and Google Pay.
Milling and standing around before entering the seating bowl will not be allowed, and there will be no picnic tables to sit at and no classic rock or Jimmy Buffett-inspired combo to listen to pregame. There will be a national anthem, but it will occur via video, a different singer for each of the 15 home dates.
In the bathrooms, every other urinal and sink will be blocked off.
Access to the back fields, a favorite activity of many fans, will not be happening. Neither will open houses for assorted groups or ballpark tours. A 12-foot barrier — basically two rows of empty seats — will be established between fans and dugouts/bullpens, and fans will be seated in small pods, with approximately 75 percent of the 10,000-plus seats zip-tied shut.
Aside from that, everything else — what’s left is basically the warm weather and that it still takes three outs to retire the side — will be exactly the same.