MiLB team Tortugas treat fans to movie


Daytona movie night in stadium Image: MLB

These days, Minor League Baseball (MiLB) fans aren’t able to watch players in action as the Minor League Baseball season stands canceled. However, fans were recently able to take the field themselves at Daytona Beach in Florida, US.

Minor league baseball team the Daytona Tortugas hosted nearly 600 fans for a stadium video board screening of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42. The 2016 film holds a special place in Daytona Beach, as the Tortugas play at Jackie Robinson Ballpark.

Minor League Baseball is a hierarchy of professional baseball leagues in the Americas that compete at levels below Major League Baseball and provide opportunities for player development and a way to prepare for the major leagues. All of the minor leagues are operated as independent businesses.

Jackie Robinson was an American professional baseball player who became the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) in the modern era.

The venerable facility has been named Jackie Robinson Ballpark as Robinson spent 1946 Spring Training there, shortly after signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. Robinson’s number 42 is, of course, retired across all of Major and Minor League Baseball. The Tortugas have also retired the number 9, as Robinson wore that single-digit signifier during his time in Daytona Beach.

The Tortugas’ ‘Movie Night at the Jack’ occurred as COVID-19 lockdown restrictions are easing. The Class A Advanced Cincinnati Reds affiliate (like Minor League Baseball teams across the country) has been analyzing ways to employ the ballpark in a socially distanced-yet-revenue-generating manner. Tortugas President Ryan Keur said his organization prides itself on becoming the first Minor League ballpark to reopen for a crowd of more than 500 people.

“About a month ago, we had a virtual retreat for our staff, a three-day retreat, and we talked about how we’re making a pivot to being an event company,” noted Keur.

“We’ve always been an events company, but the events were surrounded by baseball. But with no baseball, it became how to utilize the assets we have. In Daytona, two of the biggest assets we have are the ballfield, the mass square footage of that, and the video board. So, Movie Night was a relatively easy pivot, but the hard part was the schematics,” Keur added.

A crowd of up to 25 percent of its full capacity is being allowed at professional sports venues in Florida. Jackie Robinson Ballpark can fit 4,200 spectators, meaning the Tortugas could create an event for up to 1,050 fans. The team aimed for something smaller than that, however, by dividing the playing field into 219 spaces. The majority of these were 10 feet by 10 feet, with room for up to four people. Also available were 10×20 “mega spaces”, seating up to eight people. All of the available spaces were sold out, resulting in a crowd just shy of 600 people.

“We needed to have a complete reopening plan. We were very happy with our operations team, putting health and safety first and then making decisions based off of that,” said Keur.

“One of toughest parts of all this was having [an artificial] turf field. On a natural field, it would have been easier to spray-paint [seating] boxes. Our groundskeeper, Collin Tyzinski, he was in charge of laying out all the measurements. He used irrigation flags, with A-Frames [signs] throughout creating rows and directing people to go one way. He was probably out there for five days getting ready. Two-hundred-nineteen spaces, that’s a lot of flags” Keur added.

The Tortugas’ ‘Movie Night at the Jack’ announcement was followed by a detailed list of plans and procedures for the evening. All Tortugas staff wore masks, and attendees were strongly encouraged to do so as well. A ‘Movie Night Event Guide’ was emailed to all who purchased tickets, which provided information on where to park and which stadium gate to enter through.

“Concessions were open, and since we had guests on the field, we set up portables [concession areas] in the corners,” remarked Keur.

“One in right field, one in left field and in front of the first-base and third-base dugouts. We had additional staff to assist people on the field, to help them get into their space. We had bathroom attendants managing the inflow and outflow, making sure they were inspected and cleaned. …Overall, when we originally released some of our protocols, there were some who thought they were too extreme. We stuck to what we wanted to do, to convey the message that health and safety were our No. 1 priority,” Keur further remarked.

One thing that was never in doubt was the Tortugas’ movie choice, which started playing at 7:42 pm.

“It was a no-brainer [to show 42 first}. We talked about providing an experience you couldn’t get anywhere else. And sitting there at 8 o’clock, watching the movie, it made me think we made the right move. It was pretty neat. We’re on the field where Jackie broke the color barrier, right where he was in Daytona in the movie. We were there,” Keur commented.

“In our post-event feedback surveys, we heard a lot about how it was incredible to be sitting on the field, especially at a time like this. So that’s a goal as we continue. We [on staff] take for granted that we go to the ballpark every day and get to see the field, get to walk on the field. But most of our fans have never been on the surface, have never had the opportunity to do that. To have a night out in a safe environment, which was the goal, and it was not an experience that everyone had previously been able to enjoy,” he added.

The Tortugas have other in-ballpark events in the works, and ‘Movie Night at the Jack’ is set to become a weekly affair. Even without baseball, the team will keep finding ingenious ways to bring fans to the ballpark.

“We’ve got to stay nimble. To bring in 600 people in this day and age is something our staff will always remember, and I think our fans will as well,” Keur asserted.

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