With daylight becoming a bit more prevalent and with February just around the corner, it won't be too much longer before baseball returns to the sporting landscape.
The Baltimore Orioles have scheduled Feb. 16 as their date for pitchers and catchers to report, which is the earliest among the 30 Major League Baseball teams, but most big-league clubs list "TBA" as their starting point for a 2021 season that will launch amid the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 outbreak last March halted baseball during spring training — it didn't resume at the MLB level until July — and the virus shelved the entire year for the Chattanooga Lookouts for the first time since professional baseball returned to the city in 1976.
Chattanooga's seasons at AT&T Field typically start the same week as the Masters golf tournament in early April, but the coronavirus has yet to release its grip on the country and could therefore alter a second straight year for the Class AA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. Lookouts president Rich Mozingo expects to receive a 2021 schedule from the MLB offices in New York by the end of next month.
"I have a great level of optimism that baseball is going to be played at AT&T Field in 2021," Mozingo said. "When you say April, that's when my level of optimism goes down. There is still so much going on right now with the coronavirus, and we're all dealing with it, and until we have a greater number of people who have received the vaccine — I just think April might be a bit aggressive.
"I'm kind of pointing my target to an early May start. That would be my best guess."
April is always a banner month at the AT&T Field gates, with a whopping 46.6% of Chattanooga's 228,662 spectators in 2019 having attended games before Memorial Day in a season that stretches to Labor Day, but Mozingo is quick to realize it's a "beggars can't be choosers" situation.
After all, the University of Tennessee of Chattanooga men's and women's basketball teams have been playing home games so far this season in an empty McKenzie Arena, while Tennessee's teams are competing in front of roughly 4,000 spectators inside the 21,678-seat Thompson-Boling Arena. No more than 150 people can attend a high school competition in Hamilton County this winter, a figure that includes the coaches, participants and referees.
"What's frustrating is that it's a moving target," Mozingo said. "Where we benefit compared to the Mocs right now or the Volunteers up in Knoxville is that we play in an outdoor stadium. Will our numbers be increased because of that? We're hoping so, and we think it will be that way.
"We have plans in place for small amounts of crowds, bigger percentages of crowds and full crowds."
The Lookouts open all five of AT&T Field's concessions areas every game, whether it's a packed house for "Used Car Night" or a significantly smaller gathering for a Sunday afternoon game in August. The difference, Mozingo said, is in the amount of staffing, so less personnel could be the norm in 2021 should the Lookouts play in front of socially distanced crowds.
Mozingo said ticketing would be implemented in a way to keep spectators safe and that fans likely would have to wear masks until they are seated.
"That would be my assumption at this point," Mozingo said. "We really have no idea what Major League Baseball is going to tell us to do, and I don't know if that goes away once the schedule comes out. We have plans, contingency plans and next-level plans for what we think is everything that Major League Baseball can throw at us."