It was 82 degrees at first pitch on May 6 — an unusually late date on the calendar for a season opener for Triple-A baseball in Albuquerque.
There were nerves, excitement, some uneasiness, and a genuine sense of curiosity as, for the first time in well over a year, everyone was back at that ballpark.
The Albuquerque Isotopes, who successfully ushered New Mexico sports fans back into action that Spring night in May 144 days ago with the state’s first large-scale public gathering of 7,171 fans, put a bow on the home portion of their 2021 season on Monday night, defeating the Reno Aces 5-2 in front of an announced crowd of 4,922.
Monday’s game, and the return of baseball after a 2020 season canceled by a pandemic that hasn’t gone away, was indeed a win.
“I would say there has not been a more important season in our history,” Isotopes Vice President and General Manager John Traub, looking over a solid school night crowd enjoying a Mariachis de Nuevo Mexico promotion.
“When we started in (2003), everyone was excited. Baseball was back (in Albuquerque after two years without a team). But this, this had more meaning. It was more meaningful for the community, right?”
Less than a week before the season opener in May, there were still no fans allowed in stadiums in New Mexico. That changed in the days leading up to the opener and throughout the first couple months. It was a fluid season of ever-evolving mask mandates, social distancing, new contactless ticketing and mobile concession ordering.
And none of that even takes into account the hurdles in front of the actual on-field product — the players on the Isotopes roster — who had strict Major League Baseball protocols that prevented, at least early in the season, any fan autographs or interaction on the field or in the clubhouse with any fans, media or stadium employees, leading to such things as the popular on-field chile pepper races not being allowed for the first few months of the season (they went virtual with a video edition half the season).
The team started rough — a Triple-A worst 15-33 record at the end of June — before being the hottest team in all of baseball for six weeks going 27-9 from July 1 through Aug. 16.
“The way we fought every day (early in the season) — we played a ton of one-run games and we lost a lot of them,” said Isotopes 36-year-old first-year Triple-A level manager Warren Schaeffer. “We fought hard every night and we never gave in. As a manager, I’m telling you, that’s all you can ask.”
And in the stands, the fans came back. The Isotopes had more than their share of big nights and promotions, including a July 4 game with an announced attendance of 13,035 — the largest Minor League crowd in the country this year.
“The public was tremendous in their understanding of everything that we had to deal with,” said Traub. “And they were just so grateful to be able to come back out. I’ve heard that daily, this season — more so than probably any other year, people saying ‘thank you’ or being appreciative for the ability to come back out and just kind of get away from life’s travails and just enjoy a night out.”
By the (home) numbers
Some noteworthy numbers for the 2021 Isotopes home season:
• 7,171: Announced attendance May 6, Opening Night and the first large-scale public gathering in the State of New Mexico since COVID-19 restrictions first went into place in March 2020;
• 4,922: Announced attendance Monday night, the home finale;
• 13,035: Announced attendance on July 4, the largest attended Minor League Baseball game in the United States this year;
• 329,295: Total attendance through 64 home dates (there were 65 home games, one date was a doubleheader);
• 35-30: Home record at Rio Grande Credit Union Field;
• 15: Races won by “Red” in the nightly chile pepper mascot race, followed by “Green” with 13 and fan-favorite “Taco” with a disappointing third-place finish at 10;
• 196: Days until the Isotopes’ April 12, 2022, home opener.