Spitting Distance

Baseball in Northern Michigan is happening. Better yet, ballparks there are allowing fans to attend.

Best of all, my live-sports-deprived eyes were on hand to soak in nine innings.

Last week, on a road trip to help some family move into a new home (and escape Chicagoland for a few days), my mom and I realized we were only about an hour drive from Traverse City, Mich.

As we’re both lifelong baseball fans, we knew that Traverse City was not only the home to the famous National Cherry Festival, but also the Northwoods League’s Traverse City Pit Spitters.

The festival was a COVID-19 casualty in early May, but the Pit Spitters hung on and were finally able to start 2020 play July 19.

I bought our tickets online—$10 a piece—to avoid any lines at the ticket office and was pleased with their comprehensive COVID guidelines and regulations. With my dad a pediatrician, we knew not to mess around with possible virus exposure.

Pit Spitters GM Mickey Graham handed out bobbleheads differently than we’re all used toJack McCoy

The seat map of Turtle Creek Stadium showed seats staggered in groups of six with three seats blocked off on the ends of every section of every row. There were also four person tabletops available to reserve. Their ticketing program was not only easy to use, but it accounted for the new seating arrangements without any hiccups.

Like everyone else I have talked to, I’ve been craving real sports in person for a while now.

Watching my University of Illinois alumni “House of Paign” team upset top seeded “Carmen’s Crew” in The Basketball Tournament after months of nothing was a godsend. Next came the return of the NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS, which have all been great distractions. Outside of outbreaks on some teams, postponed games and a whole lot of uncertainty, the use of bubbles has allowed these leagues (other than MLB, of course) to get back to playing.

Bathrooms were clearly marked, yet still confusing at the same time: how does one know there aren’t too many people in there without going in?Jack McCoy

It would be near impossible to create a bubble for Northwoods League teams to compete in, so the Pit Spitters simply split their team in half and created the “Great Lakes Resorters” to play against. (The original plan in June called for three teams, with the third being the “Northern Michigan Dune Bears,” but after several players tested positive for COVID-19, officials cut back to two squads.) Each team would simply alternate who was the “home team” for three games and they deemed it “A two team kind of summer” on their site and social media.

I was excited to watch some baseball in person and also curious to see how the Pit Spitters would operate and make people feel safe enough to come out and watch, in reality, an intrasquad baseball game.

Tickets secured, we made the drive up to Turtle Creek Stadium – stopping at a roadside stand to grab some fresh cherries, of course.

A beautiful evening for a ballgame–as long as you wear your maskJack McCoy

When we arrived, all employees were masked. An announcement came on over the PA as we entered stating although masks were not mandatory it was advised that if you were walking the concourse you should wear your mask and “maintain spitting distance” from others.

There was ample signage around the park and on the concourse reminding fans to keep a safe distance from one another. Signs were posted at the team store entrance as well as restroom doors with the capacity for each one. I wondered how one was supposed to know how many people were in said restroom without having to go in and check first.

The Pit Spitters’ COVID procedures made us both feel safe and relaxed as one should feel at a ballgame. In order to get our bobblehead giveaway, we had to walk down to customer service to pick them up ourselves instead of being handed one at the entrance. This was new to me but felt was a good idea in the midst of a continued pandemic.

“Tweet Your Mask” was also promoted as an incentive to wear your mask and tweet at the Pit Spitters for a chance to win tickets to future games sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Turtle Creek Stadium’s beverage selection was fantastic, highlighted by “Pit Spitter Punch” at the “Spitoon Saloon,” a concoction featuring cherry vodka, lemonade, grenadine and of course (maraschino) cherries. The ballpark also houses the “Craft Beer Clubhouse,” which is sponsored by local Shorts Brewery and features a wide selection of local Michigan craft beers on tap.

It was too bad the “Beer Batter” of the game went 0-for-4—with a hit I would have received half off a Miller Lite or a fountain drink for the next three outs.

The food on the other hand was a pretty standard ballpark concession lineup at reasonable prices.

The Beer Mitten Map at Turtle Creek Stadium’s Craft Beer ClubhouseJack McCoy

Formerly the Traverse City Beach Bums, this would have been the Pit Spitters second year in the Northwoods League. (Incredibly in 2019, the Pit Spitters went on to win the league championship in their inaugural year.) We could tell that the team was still somewhat in the midst of rebranding and renovating.

Thanks to the blue and yellow Beach Bum colors that remained in some places, plus what looked like a lifeguard chair still sitting in left center field, the stadium reminded me of a watered down Victorian-style beach house motel, if that makes any sense.

Décor critiques notwithstanding, the baseball was fun, with teams made up of all college players, with recent Los Angeles Dodgers fifth round draft pick Gavin Stone the starting pitcher for the Resorters.

The coronavirus-modified in-game promotions were fun, whimsical and got the sparse, err, socially-distanced, crowd not just involved, but kept us entertained. The Pit Spitters went up big late and even had a combined no hitter going in the eighth when a Resorter batter laid down a successful bunt to break it up down 13—a bush league move in this reporter’s eyes.

Unwritten rules aside, both myself and my mom felt safe and really enjoyed ourselves during the game. It was terrific to watch to some sports in person again, and it further supported my opinion that if we all want to go to live games together again soon, we need to wear our masks—and keep our spitting distance.

Kudos to the Pit Spitters and Turtle Creek Stadium staff: we enjoyed a beautiful night for a ballgameJack McCoy

Jack McCoy is a research analyst for TMR. Past work includes Chicago Dogs and Schaumburg Boomers.