Q&A: Chiefs GM Looks Forward To Having Team, Fans Back At Dozer Park
Professional baseball is less than a month away from returning to Peoria after an extended absence.
After the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out last season, and an overhaul of the minor leagues over the winter saw some teams lose their Major League Baseball affiliation, the Peoria Chiefs will return to Dozer Park next month with their status as a St. Louis Cardinals farm club intact.
Last month, Chiefs general manager Jason Mott announced the team will be able to have fans in attendance with 20% capacity in the seating bowl. Additional health precautions also will be observed to assure fans’ well-being.
Now playing in the High-A Central division that replaces the former Midwest League, the Chiefs open the regular season May 4 at Cedar Rapids (Iowa), with the home opener set for May 11 against Wisconsin.
Mott recently spoke with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon about the tumultuous past year and the outlook for the season ahead.
Joe Deacon: How thrilled were you to announce the Chiefs would be able to have fans back at the ballpark this season?
Jason Mott: It’s definitely exciting, you know. The first step was getting baseball back, and now next step was getting the fans. So, you know, obviously, we’d love to be able to put a lot of people in here but safety comes first. So we're excited for anything that we can get at this point.
What work or discussions led up to the decision to allow fans back even at a reduced capacity?
Mott: It’s based on the guidelines set by the governor, working with the department of health, going through and writing protocols on how we expected to do things. This was kind of what they had outlined for where we’re at in the phase that we're in right now. This was something that they kind of outlined for stadiums was 20%. And we're like, “Hey, well, we'll take it.” We'd love to have, you know, 50 or whatever. But you know, at this point 20 is better than zero.
Are you hopeful, then that capacity could expand at some point in the season? Or are you taking precautions in case it could potentially roll backwards?
Mott: I don't think it'll roll back. You know, I think our expectations are that it will increase as a year (continues). I mean, that's the hope I think with the vaccines rolling out. They've always said since this all started that they would open back up the state whenever there's a vaccine, and we're in the middle of that now. So hopefully, that day is sooner than farther away.
What are some of the steps or guidelines that will be taken to ensure fan safety, when the ballpark opens?
Mott: Up on the suite level, we will have 10 people per suite; that is going to be the number that's allowed, at this point. In our party areas, we're going to make sure that our outfield picnic areas and stuff like that, that tables and everything are 6 feet apart. There'll be a limited number of people at each table, just to make sure; I think the max number of picnic tables, six is what it's looking like.
Then in the seating bowl, we're going to create pods. So it's we're going to set the diagram and this is what we're going to have, at least to start, and people will have to kind of choose from that. We just got done moving season ticket holders around to make sure that we had a couple seats spaced in between everybody. Then we'll go in next and kind of build our diagram from there; we will do every other row at this point. Yeah, pods are going to be the way it's done for now and (we’ll) just try to do the best we can. The hope is that everybody understands, you know, we're doing what we've got to do to have fans. It’s, we're not doing this because we want to; this is the way to make sure fans are here,
How about at the concession stands? Will steps be taken to make sure there aren't groups of people gathering?
Mott: We've got a new, we'll call it a new program where people can order from their seats. I think the lines obviously, probably won't be as long as they've had in the past, when you think of 20% capacity. That's a lot less than what we would normally have. So I think that will take care of some of the lines. But a lot of it's just going to be we lay it out like anywhere else you go; there's the markers for 6 feet. We're going to do it and kind of lay it out and do our best to show people “Hey, this is how we need to socially distance.” I think at that point, it kind of falls on the fan to follow those guidelines, and wearing masks around the concourse and all that will be in effect just like anywhere else while you're walking around.
What kind of response have you heard from fans about being able to get back to Dozer Park?
Mott: You know, it's been exciting. I think a lot of people were just eager to get out. It's been a long time since we've been able to do a lot of things, and I think there's an eagerness there for fans to come out. We get tons of calls each day (and) I'm getting emails from people just checking in. There's definitely a lot of excitement and that's great to see. That was always the hope that when we come back, that people are excited to come back. I mean, we're going to do our part to make sure people are safe and feel comfortable coming here.
We're just excited to get back. You know, 2020 was … I hope that's in the rearview mirror, and we don't ever have to look back at this point because it was not a fun year. And I'm looking to, as I told somebody yesterday, it’s time to do “double the fun in ’21.”
This offseason, Major League Baseball restructured the minor leagues, and some teams even lost their affiliation. Were you ever worried about the Chiefs’ status for the season? And also, how will the move up from Low Class A to Advanced Class A affect the club?
Mott: From my standpoint, I mean, obviously, there's always a little bit nervousness until they announce it. But we were confident; I was confident in our relationship with the Cardinals. We’re their closest affiliate, we've got a great relationship. So there was still that, you know, there's always that doubt in your mind until you physically see your name, or you get that email confirmation.
The Cardinals have told me multiple times throughout the year that nothing was changing, and it was more just a formality. That definitely was that sigh of relief when they got the email that said, “Hey, here's your, your name.” Our name was never brought up (for contraction), from what I understand. So, we weren't even anywhere near the discussion on that, which is a good thing and we need to make sure it stays that way.
But going forward, I think the biggest thing that we'll see is just it should be a better product. A lot of times when you think about Low A, it’s kind of that last chance. You’ve either got to prove it to move up or you're going to get cut when they’re at that level. So I know we'll see some players that we had here in 2019; they're going to be moving up to High A and brought back to Peoria. So, you know, that'll be unique that we'll see probably some of the same guys. But we’re definitely going to expect a better product in the field.
Certainly not playing last year took a financial toll on the club. What is the financial outlook for the Chiefs heading into this season?
Mott: Obviously, you know, we went through and made changes last year that we had to do; you know, the goal was to get to ’21 and we achieved that. That was the Number One goal, and I think the outlook to 2021 here, you know, I think it's going to be to be financially smart. Going out and doing 23 firework shows doesn't make a lot of sense at 20% (capacity); doing a ton of giveaways doesn't make sense at 20%.
So, it's just being smart in how you operate, and that's going to be our plan going forward: it’s to do everything we can but also be financially responsible to the organization and make sure that, you know, now the goal is to get though ’21 and make it to ’22, and, you know, ’22 will look different than ’21 obviously; it should be, hopefully, knock on wood, that that's the case. But obviously, I think, going forward that's just going to be the way we look at it.
We learned a lot in 2020, some things that we can do that maybe we haven't done in the past, maybe doing some things differently than we have. That's going to be kind of exciting to see, and that's not only from the baseball side, but even from the events side, you know, doing more events here at the ballpark. I think that'll be the one thing that we're going to focus on, is using those off days and weekends to have events and try to drive revenue. Every little bit helps at this point.
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