BISMARCK — More than almost anyone, baseball players are creatures of habit.
They greet teammates with elaborate handshakes, hold close-quartered meetings at the pitcher’s mound and spit the empty shells of sunflower seeds onto the dirt floor of the dugout. Over the years, the rituals have become as much a part of the game as foul balls or base hits.
But even the staunchest hand shakers, mound visitors and seed spitters can change their ways if the alternative is no baseball.
About 90 college players seem willing to make the necessary behavioral adjustments this summer to play ball while trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The players are part of a makeshift three-team league in Bismarck that became one of the first in the nation to begin playing in front of paying fans when it kicked off its 72-game schedule on Monday, June 15.
“We’re the big show in the country for at least the next couple weeks,” said Mitch Gallagher, the manager of the newly formed Bismarck Bull Moose.
The road to opening night
The sights, smells and sounds felt right for a baseball game when 440 fans walked into Bismarck Municipal Ballpark on Monday. While the grounds crew put the finishing touches on an immaculate diamond, workers handed hot dogs to patrons and the PA announcer eagerly read ads for local sponsors.
Apart from the masks and gloves worn by workers and the signs all over the park encouraging social distancing, the opener between the Bismarck Larks and the recently conceived Mandan Flickertails seemed like any other ballgame in June.
But maneuvering the winding path that led to opening night was the kind of feat that Larks General Manager John Bollinger jokingly says might land him a book deal someday.
"It’s been quite the journey," Bollinger said. "I feel like we just finished a season."
The idea that the Larks would even play a season seemed far off when the NCAA canceled the rest of the college baseball season on March 12. The Larks play in the Rochester, Minn.-based Northwoods League, which normally comprises 22 teams of college players from around the country. The other teams play out of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and Ontario, Canada — all places where the threat of COVID-19 looms larger than in North Dakota.
With the understanding that a normal season likely wasn't in the cards, Bollinger and his staff started devising back-up plans. Some of the ideas involved playing games, while others centered around non-baseball, socially distanced entertainment and activities, Bollinger said.
Larks staff spoke with city and state officials about starting up a modified season, and when Gov. Doug Burgum announced reopening guidelines for large venues in May, Bollinger said he was all in on making a season happen.
Just two and a half months after the country's sports calendar was wiped clear indefinitely, Bollinger announced, with the Northwoods League's blessing, the Larks and two new teams would play a round-robin-style schedule out of the ballpark in Bismarck.
Just like that, the Flickertails and Bull Moose were born.
The players who now make up the Flickertails were due to play for the Thunder Bay Bordercats in western Ontario until the pandemic hit and the border closed to non-essential business. When Bollinger announced the new squad, it also carried the Bismarck name, but after some lobbying from the other side of the Missouri River, the team became Mandan's own. Though it won't play any games in the city, the team is put up in the Mandan's Baymont Inn & Suites for the summer.
The Bismarck Bull Moose club includes mostly players whose summer plans were dashed when other leagues around the country canceled their seasons.
Gallagher, a former Larks player who had planned to serve as an assistant coach for his old team, was cast as the manager for the Bull Moose. The 25-year-old and his friend, assistant coach Joey Cooper, filled the roster by calling up trusted college coaches around the country and asking for hard-nosed, mature players who could handle the strange situation. With so many players looking for opportunities, Gallagher said it only took about a week to recruit a full team.
The group is staying at the Bismarck Ramada, while Larks players live with host families as they have in prior seasons.
Bollinger, who now playfully refers to himself as "the commissioner," secured COVID-19 testing for all the players as they began arriving in town. Once they were cleared, players and coaches held a few practices before playing games the following week.
The idea of creating a "bubble" where the teams don't have to travel across the region to play each other is meant to cut down on the chances of an outbreak of COVID-19, but Bollinger said he's operating as though a player, coach or team employee will test positive for the illness at some point. In that event, Bollinger said the league will work with health officials to identify close contacts of the infected person and isolate anyone who was exposed.
To prevent the virus from spreading, players and coaches are instructed to keep a distance from each other, avoid high-fives, spit into cups and refrain from touching their faces during games. Team personnel will also be subject to regular temperature checks and answer screening questions, Bollinger said. But much like Burgum's approach at the state level, Bollinger has preached personal responsibility to those in the organization, telling players the season is in their hands.
Although players cannot be financially compensated by their summer teams due to NCAA rules and, in fact, foot a $300 bill to play the league, the potential payoff in exposure and playing time is a "pretty awesome value proposition," Bollinger said. Especially with few other baseball leagues operating, players in Bismarck can probably expect to be watched by professional scouts.
For Larks outfielder Wyatt Ulrich, playing in Bismarck this summer is a major reversal of fortune. Ulrich, who is affectionately called "Mr. Lark" by fans, is back with the team for an unprecedented fourth year after his senior season in college was canceled and he gained an extra year of NCAA eligibility.
Ulrich, who became one of the premier players in the Northwoods League last year, said competing for the Larks has "given me everything in fulfilling my dreams." The incoming graduate student at the University of Richmond said he wants to play professionally, but his focus at the beginning of the summer season is getting in shape and retaining his "baseball instincts."
"I just hope I don’t strike out every time," Ulrich said before Monday's game.
In previous seasons, the Larks have regularly sold out their 1,900-seat stadium, but there were lots of empty seats and several completely unoccupied sections on opening night. The organization decided to sell only enough seats to fill a quarter of the ballpark Monday, and no games this season will likely see the stadium above 50% of normal capacity in an effort to provide adequate distance between fans, Bollinger said.
Ticket sales for the limited number of seats have been successful, even though a small group of season-ticket holders said they weren't comfortable attending games this year, Bollinger said.
"A lot of people here are ready to get back to some sense of normal, so it’s our job to create an environment that is both fun and safe,” Bollinger said.
The fans in attendance Monday witnessed a long game in which the Larks edged out the Flickertails 6-5. Ulrich scored two runs — and only struck out once.
Bollinger said the season might not be the most profitable on record, but he hopes it will help the organization build trust with the community.
The league has already won over some fans. Terry Reinhardt, who cheered on the Larks from a seat behind first base, said he's got a seven-game pack for this season and he's ready for more baseball.