Robot umps and dogs, minor league ball back after lost year

·3 min read

TAMPA, Fla. — It took just four batters at George Steinbrenner Field before a fan yelled “C'mon, blue!” toward home plate umpire Kaleb Devier after two consecutive close pitches were called balls.

Never mind that a computer was making the calls.

Didn't matter on Tuesday night as the Tampa Tarpons took on the Dunedin Blue Jays. Because from Omaha to San Jose to the Jersey Shore, minor league baseball was back after a lost season, with fans, crazy promotions and even those robot umpires.

The Tarpons found themselves already in the dog days on opening day. They hosted the Dunedin Blue Jays on “Tail Waggin’ $2 Tuesday” where fans could bring their pooches to the park for two bucks.

New York Yankees vice-president Vance Smith greeted and talked with fans as they entered the ballpark to see the Class A affiliate, calling it a homecoming after a minor league season wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Excited, but also hesitation,” Smith said. “We’re following some protocols, but we’re happy to have baseball back. That’s the one thing I’m excited about because it’s been 18 months since we’ve Tarpons baseball and minor league baseball.”

The scent of hot dogs — the kind with mustard, not the mutts — signalled a sense of normalcy. The masking and social distancing showed there was still a way to go.

Side attractions like Speed Pitch are gone and concessions are cashless but the games were back, finally.

“Super excited to be kicking off the minor league season,” Yankees senior director of player development Kevin Reese said. “I was one of many who were not too confident that this was going to happen in a timely fashion.”

There was a cheer when the PA announcer said, "Are you ready? Let’s welcome your 2021 Tampa Tarpons,” as the Yankees prospects took the field.

But there are significant changes since Tampa and the minors last played in September 2019.

A reorganization by Major League Baseball saw the long-standing High-A Florida State League, in which Tampa played for a quarter-century, become the Low-A Southeast League.

And after experiments in the independent Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League, the Southeast League is the next proving ground for the automatic ball-strike system.

Devier got a roasting after Blue Jays batter Zach Britton took those two pitches for balls.

Dunedin is following the lead of its nomadic parent team. With the Toronto Blue Jays playing big league games at TD Ballpark in Dunedin through at least May, the D-Jays are scheduled to play their first 24 games away from home.

That follows the lost 2020 season and the 2019 campaign where they played home games in nearby Clearwater while the Dunedin ballpark underwent a major renovation project.

“The other uniqueness we’re dealing with this year is there is a shortened minor league season,” Blue Jays director of player development Gil Kim said. “There’s a lot of planning and processing that we can do a little bit differently this year.”

The Dunedin Blue Jays' Twitter site summed things up when posting the lineup:

“First lineup graphic in almost two years! We are so back. Happy Opening Night."

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Mark Didtler, The Associated Press