In preparing for this summer’s West Coast League baseball season, Ridgefield Raptors General Manager Gus Farah has felt like a batter seeing nothing but curveballs.
Every month has brought new state or local rules and guidance for what games will be like at Ridgefield Outdoor Recreation Complex.
But as the Raptors’ June 2 opener approaches, Farah feels confident this season will be a hit.
And after the WCL sat idle during the summer of 2020, just seeing fans in the stands will feel like a home run.
“We’re really excited,” Farah said. “We can’t wait for the reunion with our community here in Southwest Washington. I think there is a high level of energy from fans to get back to the ballpark.”
Initially, the ballpark experience for fans will be a little different than 2019, when the Raptors averaged about 1,200 fans per game in their inaugural season.
Farah said the bleachers on the third-base side will be reserved for vaccinated fans and will have no social distancing. The first-base bleachers will be for unvaccinated fans and include distancing.
The grass berms down the foul lines and behind the right-field fence will be painted with distanced 10-foot circles for up to six people each, available on a first-come basis.
The Raptors will initially welcome up to 50-percent fan capacity. But with Gov. Jay Inslee announcing a June 30 target date for most restrictions to be lifted, it’s possible 19 of Ridgefield’s 35 home games could have the full capacity available.
“We want to err of the side of following the rules, keeping everyone safe and offering a fun environment,” Farah said.
Another change fans will notice is a new a touchless concession ordering system. Using an app called FanFood, fans can order and pay for concessions from their phones. They will receive a message when their order is ready at a pickup window.
Along with COVID safety, Farah said using that app will hopefully reduce lines for concessions. The team eventually hopes to offer food delivery to seats.
Farah said most customers who bought season tickets for the 2020 rolled over their tickets for 2021.
As fear and uncertainty around COVID has dissipated, ticket sales have perked up. Farah said interest first began to trickle in around the holiday season, but has steadily increased as the season has grown nearer.
Building a team
The West Coast League offers a chance for collegiate players to improve their skills in a setting that mimics minor-league baseball, complete with use of wood bats.
In a normal year, the Raptors would be among 15 teams in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alberta.
But five Canadian teams are taking 2021 off, meaning the Raptors will play 51 games against nine opponents during a regular season that ends Aug. 12. Ridgefield will play an additional six exhibition games against club teams.
That means it will be a busy summer for players on the roster, which currently lists 33 players with more to come. That includes several with local ties, such as Daniel Copeland (Skyview), Grant Heiser (Camas), Jack Fletcher (Clark College), Riley Sinclair (Camas), Ryan Pitts (Skyview) and Spencer Andersen (Ridgefield). Manager Chris Cota will return, as will assistant and Ridgefield High coach Nick Allen.
Farah said he’s had no problem getting players to sign on for the Raptors.
“The interest might even be higher now because most of these kids missed a whole year,” Farah said. “They can’t wait to have normalcy in their baseball careers.”
Getting host families to sign up, however, has been more difficult than in the pre-COVID era. Farah said the team still needs families willing to offer room and board this summer.
“We can’t operate without host families,” Farah said. “They’re the heart of our team. But there has been some apprehension. We’ve had a lot of private discussions about having an unknown kid in the house.”
Farah said the Raptors will encourage, but not require, players to get vaccinated. The West Coast League has a COVID committee comprised of team officials who will monitor any reported cases, as well as implement policies for avoiding exposure at ballparks, during travel and at hotels.
If all goes will, this summer’s baseball season will mark a transition from the COVID age to post-COVID normal.
“What we’re looking for is a season where everyone looks forward to being outside and watching the Raptors,” Farah said. “If we can get through the season with healthy fans and players, we’ll be happy.”