One of the annual benefits possessed by Chattanooga Lookouts president Rich Mozingo and his staff is the building of relationships with the team's manager, coaches and players, including those destined for stardom in the big leagues.
Not this year.
Due to Major League Baseball's COVID-19 guidelines implemented before the season that remain in place as Chattanooga's schedule barrels toward Labor Day, a sizable barrier exists at AT&T Field between those who work and those who play. For Mozingo, that barrier is as strange today as it was in the spring.
"I have not been into the clubhouse this year to visit with (manager) Ricky Gutierrez or anyone else down there at all," Mozingo said. "That has always been a daily stop for me during the regular season. I will stick my head into the manager's office every single day and just make sure everything is going in the right direction.
"That part has been very difficult. Ricky has been fantastic, and we've had a lot of phone conversations and text conversations, but there just hasn't been any face-to-face stuff."
The Lookouts had four home games canceled against the Tennessee Smokies due to COVID-19 protocols but still have two homestands remaining this season, including one starting Tuesday night against the Birmingham Barons.
MLB's restrictions this season have not only limited the ability for Chattanooga's front office to familiarize itself with the Lookouts but for Chattanooga residents to get to know them as well. Only interviews via Zoom or phone have been conducted between Lookouts players and the media, and Lookouts players have not been able to participate in community events.
"That's been a big difference, because our guys are usually really good about getting out there and doing lots of things with our community," Mozingo said, "but they've been told not to even sign autographs this year. Things like that have been the weird ones for us this season. Players have not been signing autographs, and earlier this year, we had three buses that went everywhere.
"We had three buses that went to Madison, Alabama, and that's like an hour and 45 minutes away. Earlier in the season, we were also wearing masks everywhere."
Mozingo added that the Lookouts take two buses on road trips now, and that's largely because the traveling party is close to 40 instead of the roughly 30 who would ride on one bus a generation ago.
The Lookouts didn't start their 120-game schedule until early May, and they are scheduled to finish Sept. 19. While Mozingo remains busy with this season, he already has made inroads into 2022.
"The assumption is that we're going to go back to kind of the way it's been done in the past, when we get that early-to-mid-April start and that we end right at the beginning of September," he said. "We're planning on that right this minute, and we're still planning on playing 70-ish games in our ballpark. We're looking at what that could mean for us as far as entertainment acts and fireworks shows and those sorts of things.
"We're looking at when season ticket renewals start and when sponsor renewals start, so those are the kinds of things we're already looking at right now."