Don’t be fooled when the tears start to flow for Albuquerque Isotopes employees at Thursday night’s long-awaited Opening Night of the 2021 season.
Finally getting back to baseball after a 616-day wait since the final out was recorded in the Isotopes’ 7-1 victory over the Las Vegas Aviators on Aug. 29, 2019, is without question a joyous occasion. To John Traub, the buzz around Rio Grande Credit Union Field at Isotopes Park, with employees and players back, is palpable.
“You know, there may be some changes, and it may be weird in some sense, but it’s gonna be a heck of a lot better than it was last season,” Traub said.
But the emotions will be twofold as Albuquerque’s nearly two-decade-old baseball franchise ushers in the state’s first official professional sporting event in more than a year when first pitch between the Isotopes and the Sugar Land Skeeters is thrown at 6:35 p.m. For all the celebration and symbolism of what appears to be heading back to some semblance of normalcy, there will also be a rather large void.
Part of Thursday’s Opening Night ceremony will include a tribute to beloved Isotopes Vice President Nick LoBue, a pillar of the franchise for the past two decades who died of COVID-19 complications in November.
His passing came at a time when the tight-knit Isotopes family, with many regular employees already having been furloughed and several dozens of seasonal employees having missed the entire season, was seemingly being hit hardest by the “emotional toll and a depressing toll” the pandemic and the uncertainty their situation as a franchise were facing, said Traub:
“Nick had a way of bringing people together – people who had all kinds of differences, people from all different walks of life. He brought people together. When he passed away, I want to make sure I say this right, but it seemed like it brought people together again emotionally – his spirit, if you will. We know that he’s looking over us as we’re getting ready.”
LoBue’s 11-year-old granddaughter, Avery Greene, will sing the national anthem during pregame.
And while the Isotopes family may be emotional about more than baseball Thursday – something LoBue would surely give them all a hard time about – there is also no denying they are ecstatic to be putting on a show for the city again, even in new, challenging circumstances.
“I feel like I’ve always had perspective,” said radio play-by-play announce Josh Suchon, who never officially left the organization, but spent much of the past year calling sporting events for the University of Nevada in Reno.
“I’ve always felt like sports is the toy department, right? So I didn’t need a pandemic to remind me how much I love what I do and how much I love my coworkers and how much I appreciate how the fans of Albuquerque embrace the Isotopes. But when it gets taken away from you, it just makes you that much more eager to go do something that you love doing.”
Getting in, getting fed
There are several COVID-Safe protocols and policies in place aimed at health and safety measures for fans and employees alike at the ballpark, all of which can be found on a link titled “Know before you go” at the team’s website (ABQIsotopes.com).
The now-normal social distancing and mask mandates utilized most everywhere are in place. Spectators must wear masks unless actively eating or drinking. There are no high fives allowed for players on the field, and common-sense social distancing in lines and on the concourse are requested.
Game tickets are now sold in pods so families, friends or groups can still sit near each other. Mobile ticketing – saving your tickets to have scanned at the gate – to enter the stadium is encouraged to reduce contact.
Fans are allowed to bring in one clear backpack with belongings and/or nothing larger than a clutch purse that is subject to search. Medical or diaper bags are allowed, but are also subject to search.
Once inside, Traub notes, there are ways to buy food and beverages from your seats with links on the ‘Topes website or QR codes for smart phones that can be scanned from the site or at the park to browse options, order and pay.
“People can order from their seats and pay from their phones and not have any direct cash or credit card transactions at the concession stands at all,” Traub said.
“We know that’s not necessarily practical for some people. So people still can purchase food and beverage, and retail, and tickets for that matter, using cash and credit cards. But for the safety of the fan and the safety of the employees, we’re trying to encourage people to go as cashless and touchless as possible.”