Isotopes Park, just a short drive from the University of New Mexico, has been opening its doors to more and more visitors as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gradually lifts COVID-19 restrictions. Just across the street from University Stadium and The Pit, this minor league team is playing in front of crowds again.
The Isotopes returned for their home opener on May 8, over 200 days since they were last able to play at Isotopes Park due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The current season, which is set to run through the end of September, is operating at 75% capacity with the ability to host up to 9,000 fans. This number is up from what was originally anticipated — a max capacity of 3,175 people — because, the night before the home opener, the governor changed the color-coded COVID-19 restriction for Bernalillo county from the medium-risk green level to the low-risk turquoise level.
Kevin Collins, the public relations director for the team, said this was an exciting surprise amid all of the work that had been put into getting the stadium ready for fans.
“We had over 7,000 people here on opening night, and just a week before we thought our capacity was going to be somewhere around 3,000, so it's more than double,” Collins said. “Which from a business standpoint is fantastic, but also from a personal, mental standpoint it was really nice to see that many people in the ballpark.”
UNM student Charley Bickel, who works for UNM athletics, sees sports as a great way to get the community back together.
“I’ve seen firsthand the unifying effect that sports can have on a community and I think as a city and a state, that sense of connection is something we’ve been missing during the pandemic,” Bickel said. “I know there’s concerns about spreading COVID but I think hosting events outdoors like baseball games are a great way for people to enjoy sports while also staying COVID-safe.”
However, the staff is prepared to alter regulations at any moment if the governor changes the state’s COVID-19 safety procedures.
“I would anticipate that there's going to be continual changes,” said John Traub, the general manager for the team. “I would say that the process is fluid and we just have to stay alert to everything.”
Collins said precautions include month-to-month ticket sales, as opposed to purchasing tickets for any point in the season ahead of time which fans could previously do. Tickets are sold in ‘seating pods,’ meaning individuals attending a game together can purchase up to six tickets in a pod. Masks and social distancing are still being enforced if attendees are not fully vaccinated.
While seating may look different, Collins said fans can still expect all of the normal festivities that are sought after at a ballgame.
“You're still going to have hot dogs and cold beers and souvenirs and the mascot, all that stuff,” Collins said. “But maybe now instead of putting your arm around a mascot, you'd have to take a slightly socially distant picture.”
Collins said June will be “jam-packed” with special events at the ballpark, including a pride night, a hispanic heritage night and giveaways.
UNM student Kaeli Blas sees the return of baseball to Albuquerque as the beginning of a return to normalcy.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing for them to be returning. It’s almost as if we are getting back in the ‘swing’ of things, if you will,” Blas said. “Hopefully this brings some sense of normalcy to those playing and in the stands. I hope everyone stays safe and takes precautions if needed.”
Traub said the baseball season is an important milestone for the Albuquerque community coming out of the pandemic and that, despite the revenue losses due to the limited capacity, it is as important as ever.
“The attendance numbers, the revenue numbers — the metrics that we use to judge our success from a business standpoint — will pale in comparison to the importance that the season provides to the community,” Traub said.
Madeline Pukite is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @madelinepukite