Connor Miller is satisfied he did a good job last night. The 32-year-old host oversees between-innings entertainment for the Traverse City Pit Spitters, a collegiate summer team located at the tip of the pinky in Michigan’s mitten, and he views his chief role as generating a reaction from the crowd. During one mid-August weekend, the fans laughed when the Pit Spitters’ mascot, a furry monster named Monty, jiggled his belly during a dance-off with the team’s bench coach; they participated with enthusiasm in the “Guess the Lyrics” game when the young contestant could not identify the proper Journey tune.
But on this sunny Sunday, despite every other element of his job being the same—the same promotions for the same teams at the same ballpark with many of the same fans in attendance—Miller does something a bit different than he did the night before. He trades his red-and-white Pit Spitters uniform and sheds his logo-ed COVID-19 mask; in their place, he dons the green jersey of the Spitters’ opponent, the Great Lakes Resorters, with a green mask to match. And then he prepares, perhaps, to be booed.
“I’m a turncoat,” Miller says with a laugh. But he’s not alone: Tonight is a Resorters home game on the Pit Spitters’ field, meaning the teams switch dugouts, the scoreboard flips their names, and the stadium emcee exchanges his loyalties. “When it is a Resorters home game, I am the Resorters’ on-field host,” Miller says. “And it’s kind of funny because some people are adamantly ‘I’m going to be a Pit Spitters fan.’”
That dissonance is just a sliver of this strange summer for the Spitters, whose season, like that of every other sports team in the country, has been defined by the coronavirus pandemic. For the Spitters, defending Northwoods League champions, that means a shortened schedule with no travel and, crucially, games against the Resorters, and only the Resorters, all summer long.
In MLB history, the longest streak of consecutive games between two teams is 12, between the Boston Beaneaters and Philadelphia Phillies in September 1903, after the deadly bleacher collapse at the Baker Bowl a month prior had scattered the Phillies’ schedule. (In the short-lived Federal League, the Buffalo Buffeds and Baltimore Terrapins played 13 consecutive games in July 1914.) The Spitters and Resorters more than tripled that MLB record, matching up in 41 consecutive games, the final 40 coming in a span of just 47 days.
“It’s a little bit like Groundhog Day,” says Mickey Graham, the Spitters’ general manager. Resorters manager Steve Cutter observes, “We’re just in the same spot. So, we see the same walls and we see the same office and the same field.” And the same opponents, who ran away in the two-team standings, as the Spitters went 34-7 in those matchups.
The last of those games came in a one-night playoff round, in which the Spitters’ summer supremacy endured. Aiming for revenge after a season full of defeats, the Resorters took a lead into the eighth inning—only to allow four runs and lose one final time. The Spitters eventually fell in the Michigan regional championship, succumbing to a Kalamazoo-based team that had played in a three-team pod at the same time that the Spitters and Resorters were battling mano a mano up north. But for the players and coaches, the organizers and stadium volunteers, the fans and the community, this unique season was about much more than the results on the field.
“Everything and anything about this experience is unconventional,” says Nate Wangler, who calls the Traverse City games for an online broadcast. “Literally everything is unconventional.”
The Northwoods League is one of a number of summer circuits around the country, stretching from the Cape Cod League in Massachusetts—site of the much-derided Freddie Prinze Jr. movie Summer Catch—to the Alaska Baseball League in the Last Frontier. They’re where college kids with a dream of getting drafted go to ply their craft between college seasons, impress a scout or two, and experiment with a wood bat for possibly the first time.
Founded in 1994, the Northwoods League spans the upper Midwest, and now ranks among the most renowned and best scouted of the bunch. At least one Northwoods League alumnus has appeared at every MLB All-Star Game since 2008, with luminaries like Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Pete Alonso, and Matt Chapman leading the way. The Spitters’ franchise is so young that it hasn’t produced any All-Stars yet, but Luke Little, a fourth-round pick for the Cubs in the 2020 draft, struck out 22 batters in 12 1/3 innings for the club last summer.
This summer, Graham is surprised he’s able to field a team at all. The Spitters executive has spent his whole life in small ballparks, from attending Triple-A Columbus Clippers games as a child in Ohio, to interning for the then-Single-A Durham Bulls out of college, to working for the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Tigers’ Single-A affiliate, for nearly 20 years. When the Whitecaps ownership group purchased Traverse City’s ballpark and began operating a new Northwoods League team in 2019, Graham moved upstate and became the club’s general manager—and watched his new team win the title in its inaugural season.
The club started slow, with a 12-13 record, before tearing through the rest of the schedule. With a league-best pitching staff, the Spitters won 18 games in a row, and 40 of their last 47, and rode that momentum all the way through the playoffs. The excitement was palpable. “At the end, you had 4,500 to 5,000 people in here, all dressed in red,” says Mike Teaney, who played on the Cape in the ’80s and now helps the Spitters as an usher and concessions worker. “The place was literally shaking sometimes.”
One year ago today, our Pit Spitters became champions by beating the Eau Claire Express by a score of 3-2!— Traverse City Pit Spitters (@TCPitSpitters) August 16, 2020
While this season may look a little different, we'll never forget the biggest and best party of 2019 with 5,000 of our closest friends!#2019NorthwoodsLeagueChampions pic.twitter.com/CPtvH1bLnQ
“It really was a storybook ending,” Graham says. The team built on its championship momentum, selling stadium naming rights to the local Turtle Creek Casino and Hotel and preparing for further fan engagement the next year. But then the sequel went awry. “I thought there was no way we would have a season,” Graham remembers thinking in March, when the professional and collegiate sports worlds shut down because of the coronavirus. Even if professional sports returned by the summer, Graham thought, the Northwoods League would suffer a different fate. MLB teams can make do with TV revenue, but local teams like the Spitters need ticket and concessions sales. They need fans in the ballpark.
Yet while most other summer leagues throughout the country decided to cancel their full seasons, Northwoods League leadership delegated to the individual teams, which spread across seven states. That dispersal meant more complications, with varying health restrictions in each place—but also opportunity, because the league could set up “pods” of a few teams each rather than cram hundreds of athletes into one small place, as on the Cape.
“As these states started opening, we had a weekly call with all the owners. Who’s looking good? Who’s not?” says Dick Radatz Jr., a Northwoods League cofounder and the owner of the Kalamazoo Growlers franchise in western Michigan. “We had to react to each state—sometimes different areas of the same state.”
The first to return was North Dakota, and on June 15, the Bismarck Larks beat the Mandan Flickertails 6-5. From there, it was a scramble for other teams to follow suit and prepare for a shortened summer schedule. In Traverse City, the season began on July 1, initially with three teams scheduled for 19 “home” games, 19 “road” games, and 19 off days over the next two months.
The Spitters were the only team in the area, so distant from most other stadiums in the league that closer Evan Gates, who played last summer, says they’d often return from road trips as the sun rose. So to make the pod plan work, step one was forming two new clubs for one season only, and fast. Northwoods League teams build their rosters anew every summer, as managers use connections with college programs to recruit from what is effectively a deep free-agent pool. The Spitters could start constructing their next roster right after they won the title, and they had the list of players mostly set by last October, with much of the championship core intact. But the rosters for the two newly created teams, the Great Lakes Resorters and Northern Michigan Dune Bears, had to come together in five days in late June.
The cancellation of other summer leagues aided recruitment efforts. “If the Cape’s not playing, we’re the best game in town,” Radatz says. “There’s never been this abundance of player talent.” The shortened MLB draft—which was only five rounds this year, instead of the typical 40—also widened the potential player pool. Gates says he expected to be drafted near Round 15, but the combination of shortened college season and shortened draft put a damper on his spring and summer plans. “I didn’t know what to do with my life,” Gates says. He started working as a landscaper because he was “so bored,” and fell into a simple routine: work, come home, work out, and throw. Rinse and repeat, five days a week. So when Spitters manager Josh Rebandt called to ask whether he wanted to return to Traverse City, he jumped at the chance to return to, in his words, “the best spot to play in America.”
It helps that both the area and the field itself are gorgeous, and attractions in and of themselves. From the outside, Turtle Creek Stadium looks like a hotel, with shutters and industrial siding and a corporatized feel; in fact, it was built by hoteliers back in 2006, and appears identical to a pair of resorts on the Grand Traverse Bay a few miles down the road. But inside, the artificial turf field looks like a minor league dream, with crisp browns and verdant greens, and a bright red cherry logo splashed behind the plate. Earlier this summer, Turtle Creek Stadium won Ballpark Digest’s bracket for the best summer collegiate stadium in the country.
The rosters all selected, the three teams in the pod began to settle in for the season. Every player took two COVID-19 tests before starting to play: one before traveling to Traverse City, and one in Traverse City before officially joining the team; once they reached the field, they followed up with daily temperature checks and symptom screenings. On July 1, opening night, the Spitters beat the Resorters 6-2; the two teams split a pair of games with the Dune Bears, and the Spitters beat the Resorters again—this would become a season-long trend—on July 4.
And then the pod shut down due to a positive COVID-19 test. Over the following days, about a dozen total players tested positive—all from the Resorters and Dune Bears, who were living together in cabins at the nearby Interlochen Center for the Arts. (The Spitters, staying with host families throughout town, registered zero positive tests.) During the two-week quarantine period that followed, due to some players deciding to leave for safety reasons and a desire to limit the chances of a second outbreak, organizers decided to compress three teams to two. The Dune Bears were retired with a 1-1 record; every game the rest of the way would pit the Pit Spitters against the Resorters.
Quarantine lifted on July 19, at which point the Resorters reported to Turtle Creek Stadium at midnight to practice under the lights. They scrimmaged for two hours, taking their first swings and throwing their first pitches in weeks, then went to bed late. They had to be ready for a game later that day—the Traverse City pod was back, and the two-team rivalry was ready.
Summer leagues carry a distinctly community-focused, minor league vibe, and the Northwoods pod in Traverse City is no exception. Tickets are cheap ($10 for a regular seat, $90 for a four-person tabletop), and a large portion go to children, who stream into the park wearing required masks and dancing to jams like “Call Me Maybe” played over the stadium speakers. In accordance with local health officials, a stadium that normally seats about 5,500 fans, counting the lawn beyond the outfield fence, is limited to 500, and the lawn is closed off entirely for social distancing enforcement.
Those 500 fans—“What, you couldn’t tell it was a sellout?” Graham jokes, gesturing at mostly unfilled stands—arrive for this Friday night game in varying levels of enthusiastic attire. Some wear shirts and hats with the colorful Spitters logo; one duo, seated directly behind home plate, is decked out in full team regalia: clean red-and-white jersey tops, hats, and Spitters-branded masks.
They like what they see early, as the home team plays small ball to score a pair of first-inning runs on two walks, an error, a sacrifice fly, and an infield single. Meanwhile, the Resorters can’t muster a sustained rally on offense; Spitters hurler Chad Patrick is almost untouchable, and will end his night with 11 strikeouts, no walks, and just two hits allowed over eight innings.
This kind of performance isn’t new for Patrick, or indeed his entire team. The Spitters keep the Resorters’ bats in check day after day, all summer long; their six most-used pitchers combine for more than a strikeout per inning and a 1.10 ERA.
Pit Spitters’ Most Used Pitchers
|Chad Patrick||Purdue Northwest||35||12.6||1.03|
|Pat Hohlfeld||Jefferson||32 2/3||8.0||0.83|
|Evan Gates||North Carolina A&T||22 2/3||11.5||1.19|
|Cade Heil||North Georgia||19 2/3||6.4||0.92|
Experience in the Northwoods League helps, as four members of that sextet also pitched for the Spitters staff last summer. But the strange setup for this season is a boon, too—after months away from games, batters are particularly slow to adjust to low-90s heat and bendy sliders again. “You can’t really stay in game shape because you need live pitching, you need those live reps,” says Spitters shortstop Tommy Troy. Plus, by playing the same team every day and focusing so intently on its hitters, it doesn’t take long to develop a refined scouting report. Turtle Creek Stadium has a TrackMan camera monitoring every pitch and batted ball, so pitchers always know exactly what to throw, and fielders always know exactly where to stand.
For example, Resorters first baseman Noah Marcoux torments the Spitters staff early in the summer, slashing .303/.395/.485 with a .474 batting average on balls in play through nine games. Then the Spitters examine his spray charts and start shifting on the lefty slugger, and those hits dry up. This weekend in August, the shift steals two singles in consecutive at-bats from Marcoux, who grounds and then lines out directly to the second baseman playing all the way in shallow right field. From his 10th game onward, Marcoux hits just .192/.356/.346 with a .245 BABIP.
In pregame strategy sessions, the Spitters use a labeling system, in which they categorize opposing hitters based on their tendencies at the plate—one player might swing aggressively at first pitches, another might be susceptible to breaking balls below the zone—and adjust their pitching plans accordingly. Yet adjustments go both ways. In his next at-bat after losing two hits to the shift, Marcoux drops a bunt single down the vacated third-base line.
“You might start doing that stuff after 10 games, and then after 16 games, they might start catching on and then you have to start readjusting because they start realizing how you’re trying to get them out,” Spitters manager Rebandt says. “When you play as many times as we’ve played against each other, it definitely does become a chess game or cat-and-mouse-type thing.”
Every player I interview mentions some aspect of the cat-and-mouse, act-and-react balance. “As it goes game by game,” says Resorters shortstop Trent Farquhar, “you’ll be like, ‘OK, I’ve seen this guy, he’s thrown me a curveball 0-2 every time, that’ll probably come again.’ And then he adjusts off me, I adjust off him.” Or as Spitters closer Gates, who has faced Farquhar, says, “I’ll be the first one to tell you, it gets a little old when you see the same face in the box” again and again—but, he acknowledges, “It makes you a better pitcher because you can’t attack him the same way you would the past three times you’ve faced him.”
Players and coaches alike tout this new aspect of the season as better preparation for the next level. In pro ball, says Resorters catcher Carson Taylor, “Everybody’s going to have a very detailed scouting report on what I do well and don’t do well. It’s kind of adapting to that and making those weaknesses a strength, so it takes away what they have on me.”
Taylor knows that of which he speaks. He was a fourth-round pick for the Dodgers in this year’s draft, and in mid-August, he and pitcher Gavin Stone—the Dodgers’ fifth-round pick—join the Resorters’ roster to replace some players who have to leave for the start of school. The Northwoods League is flexible this summer, permitting high school graduates with no college experience and recent draftees; with this minor league season cancelled due to the coronavirus, the latter haven’t played any professional games yet, so they can still compete with the college boys. But Taylor, who in any other season would be playing in a short-season rookie league, is just happy to get some at-bats after a long layoff. “It’s kind of like playing pickup basketball, effectively—wherever they’ll take me and wherever I can get game reps in, I’ll take it at this point,” he says.
Other on-field wrinkles specific to this season affect individual and team strategy, too. The teams don’t just share the field with each other over and over again; the same umpires stay for a week at a time, too, which allows teams to develop detailed scouting reports of their strike zones. Pitchers know whether they can gain a couple of extra inches off the outside corner, or whether they have to stay close to the zone to steal a strike; the managers know, too, and can choose which reliever to use depending on the man behind the plate.
Playing in the same ballpark every day has a similar effect. Relative to other Northwoods parks, Turtle Creek Stadium is cavernous, with the outfield fence 320 feet away down the lines and 400 up the middle. Players swinging wood bats for the first time aren’t liable to crush a pitch to dead center; Rebandt says the only home run he’s ever seen hit to that part of the park came in a college tournament with metal bats.
“You can’t win with the longball here,” Rebandt says. So he’s more likely to apply old-school tactics, like bunts and hit-and-runs, than hope for a three-run blast in a close game. The faraway fences also help the Spitters’ already-dominant pitching staff. Pat Hohlfeld, who also pitched for the team last year, says pitching in a “graveyard” like this gives him a confidence boost as a pitch-to-contact hurler. All Hohlfeld needs to do is find the strike zone, because “even if you give up a hard-hit ball, it almost has zero chance of going out.”
Perhaps contrary to expectation, the shared experience hasn’t forced the Spitters and Resorters into fast friendships. “It’s been a little more distant than I thought it would,” Hohlfeld says, noting that health and safety guidelines mean the teams never train together or hang out off the field. Instead, they see each other only on the basepaths, and for a shared dinner on the lawn beyond left field after games.
Some players also keep their distance for competitive reasons. Gates is a typical closer, in both repertoire—he throws a fastball that touches 94 miles an hour, he says, along with a nifty slider—and ferociously focused mentality. “When I start becoming buddy-buddy with a guy, I have a hard time getting that edge to want to compete,” Gates says. “Not saying I would be mean to him, but … I don’t want to be buddy-buddy with the whole infield and the next thing you know, they’re all up in the lineup.”
If that avoidance sounds extreme, at least Gates has hard evidence to support his approach. At one point during the season, he was disappointed with the oatmeal raisin cookie he found with his postgame meal, so a Resorters batter generously traded Gates the chocolate chip cookie he preferred. It was a peace offering—or a sneaky ploy to get in the closer’s head. Gates allowed hits the next two times he faced the batter, including one that tied the score in the ninth inning. “Dang, like he gives me a cookie, just being a nice guy,” Gates remembers. “Next thing you know, I’m serving him up two cookies at the plate that he sent right up center field.”
On this Friday night, though, Gates isn’t troubled by any complicated cookie loyalties—and the scouting reports don’t help much, either, because he’s facing a few new batters who have recently arrived to reinforce the Resorters’ roster. The closer enters with a 3-1 lead, flanked by the loudspeaker’s soft strums of, naturally, “Closing Time”; he records two quick outs and then faces Taylor, the new Dodgers draftee. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, Taylor swings late at a high fastball. Game over, Spitters win, Gates records the save—and gains a measure of personal triumph, too.
One of the pro teams that had contacted him before the truncated draft plays in the NL West, he tells me the next day, so he viewed the matchup with Taylor as, “Hey, this might be a guy I would face. I’m going to show why I’m meant to be in the next level. … There was definitely a little edge to me like, all right, I’m going to strike this guy out. I’m bringing everything I got at him. It was fun seeing him punch out.”
Saturday night’s game isn’t close from the start, and it doesn’t get any closer as the contest continues. The Spitters plate three runs in the first inning and break the game open in an ugly fifth: They score via two bases-loaded walks and an error, all in a row, to push the lead to seven. A few frames later, Troy—a Stanford commit who’s the youngest player on either team—lasers a three-run triple to the right-field corner, and the Spitters coast to an 11-2 win.
But the lopsided score doesn’t dull the atmosphere in the seats that arc around the backstop and baselines. Summer ball is as much about the experience as it is the sport itself. The fans all stay to the end.
Traverse City is a town of boats and beaches, a vacation destination for families and a friendly host for business conferences. Its most famous attraction is the National Cherry Festival, a weeklong extravaganza that organizers say brings in half a million visitors and more than $20 million in revenue each year. (The Grand Traverse region produces around 40 percent of the country’s total tart cherry supply; the fruit inspired the fan-selected Pit Spitters team name, as well as backup choices Tree Shakers and Black Pearls.)
But for the first time since World War II, the festival was canceled this year. So was the Traverse City Film Festival, held annually since 2005, and the Ironman triathlon. County health records show that, as of Labor Day, only 339 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, but the virus has leveled the region all the same.
City officials have made efforts to jump-start spending in the area, absent those typical sources. Portions of Front Street in downtown Traverse City, two blocks from the water, have been closed to vehicles, leaving expanded areas for foot traffic and distanced restaurant seating for patrons at shops like Brew coffeehouse and Grand Traverse Pie Company.
But other stores stand closed, some permanently. “COVID has closed doors of more businesses than we’ve seen in any one fell swoop,” says Jillian Manning, public relations manager at Traverse City Tourism. Other establishments are still waiting out the virus: The marquee for the State Theatre on Front Street, renovated by Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore and home to the city’s film festival, asks patrons to “donate now, help us reopen.” Posters for Black Widow, Mulan, and Wonder Woman 1984, none of which have reached theaters, wait quixotically beneath the “Now Playing” sign.
Manning estimates that the region brought in only 30 to 40 percent of its typical visitors in the springtime, and is around 60 to 75 percent for the summer. “That’s obviously a challenge for anybody in any sort of business that does depend on tourism, and so many of ours do,” she says. “A lot of it is they make the money in the summer, then it gets you through the winter.”
Even the physical Traverse City Tourism office is closed for the summer, both to complete a renovation delayed due to the coronavirus, and to keep older volunteers safe at home. Some metaphors are a little too on the nose.
The Spitters have tried to step into the void of local entertainment. “I think they’ve done a really great job of preserving the atmosphere while still being super safe,” Manning says. “They really were kind of leading the charge … to give people the fun and the entertainment that they love.”
Or as Teaney, the stadium worker, tells me succinctly while slinging burgers to guests in masks: “Even though it’s a weird season with only two teams, this is the only thing in town.”
Though the 500-fan limit is a necessary concession this summer, it prevents the Spitters from taking advantage of this vacuum for local entertainment. All three games this weekend sell out—the full season average is 485 per game—but there’s quite a distance between ticket and concession sales for 500 fans versus something close to 5,000. “We could sell more tickets easily. It’s not like we’re struggling to get to 500,” Teaney says. “It’s struggling to make money at 500.”
For Radatz, the Northwoods League cofounder, this season is just about trying to survive financially, while maintaining a presence in Midwestern communities and giving college kids the chance to swing a bat. The financial difficulties from this season will reverberate into 2021 and maybe beyond. And at least the Spitters can seat 500 people at a time. In Kalamazoo, where health restrictions are less relaxed, that number is still just 100—meaning the clubs there have had to get more creative, such as staging a tripleheader with five-inning games to get 300 ticket sales in a day. “My wife and I own the Kalamazoo team, so a hundred people isn’t making it, you know?” Radatz says. “But we’re doing everything we can.”
New to this season, of course, is an increased emphasis on safety in the stands. The 500 tickets are spread out among the thousands of available seats, with only fans who buy tickets together allowed to sit in close proximity, and the three seats closest to the aisle in each row are closed off. Numerous hand sanitizer dispensers circle the stadium, as do social distancing reminders with a team theme—they ask fans to stay 6 feet apart, or “beyond spitting distance.”
Before each game, a mask-wearing PSA from the Spitters shows on the video board, with the exhortation to “stay safe to help us stay open,” and a nightly promotion offers a pair of free tickets to the fan with the most creative mask design. Masks are required in public areas of the park like concession lines and the gift shop, and indoor spaces, including restrooms, have low occupancy limits. But once fans reach their seats, they can shed their facial coverings, like at a restaurant, and sit back to enjoy a beer at the ballpark. This last freedom helps ensure fans are willing to follow procedure elsewhere. “If we wanted them to wear it 24/7, it’d be a whole different ballgame,” says Kendall Patrick, the Spitters’ operations manager, while delivering a box of disposable masks to the front gate in case any fans forgot their own.
Given the political tenor of the area, one might expect more pushback on mask mandates. President Donald Trump won Grand Traverse County in the 2016 election, and Trump-Pence signs populate lawns and hang on trees this summer. One of the days I venture downtown, I find a maskless man asking shoppers to “stop Whitmer’s power grab!” by signing a petition against the Michigan governor, who has angered some residents with her mask orders. He receives a steady stream of signers: two men with robust beards, a handful of older couples, a husband and wife shepherding young children down the sidewalk. As they give their signatures and chat about their frustrations, they stand close enough to the petitioner to touch, all sans masks.
But Turtle Creek Stadium has been free from this sort of controversy, according to stadium workers, including this weekend, when even the fan in the “Trump 2020: No More Bullshit” hat wears a mask to his seat without complaint. Graham can remember only one incident with the fan base all summer: “We had one guy call our salesperson a communist because we were sold out and wouldn’t go above 500 tickets.”
Once all 500 fans are seated, volunteers like Miller, the halfway turncoat host, are tasked with engaging them in constant games and cheers—all designed to keep them entertained even in a blowout. That’s especially true for kids in the crowd, who are often selected for those games, like a race against the mascot between innings. “I’ve had some parents that have said to me that I’m the thing that the kids are waiting for,” Miller says. “They’re watching the promos, they’re not watching the game, but that’s how the parents can go to the game and enjoy the game.”
Health precautions challenge some aspects of this in-stadium experience. “It’s rough. Everything you want that small baseball fan experience to be, you can’t do it,” Graham says, after he tells a hopeful young boy he can’t collect any player autographs on a foul ball. Kids who want a picture with the mascot have to stand six feet in front as he looms over their shoulders from behind.
But the advantage for the promotions crew is that constant facetime with the actual teams has inspired their participation: This weekend, a bench coach competes in a dance-off competition, and players toss water balloons while blindfolded. “I’ll notice as I go toward the bullpens and the dugouts, the players will start to come up to me like, ‘Well, what are we doing tonight?’” Miller says. The players have even helped design bits based on their quirks and backgrounds; one pitcher, for instance, is an avid outdoorsman who, in the “Critter Huntin’” game, has to guess the identity of pixelated pictures of animals on the video screen.
“That’s something that, as a coaching staff, we didn’t do at all last summer. It just never came up,” Rebandt says. “And so this summer we’ve been asked probably because we’ve gotten to know everybody a little bit better this year and they know that we’re OK with doing some of those funny things.”
The last game of the weekend, on Sunday, involves the dugout switcheroo. The Spitters are the home team on every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, while the Resorters get the nod the other days of the week. (The teams play six times per week, with either Monday or Tuesday off.) So the Spitters exchange their bold home uniforms for road grays. The PA announcer introduces the starting lineup “for your Resorters!” Even the identity of the “beer batter”—if he gets a hit, drinks are half-price for the next three outs—switches teams.
The stadium staff leans into the dissonance. Miller, a former choir singer, belts “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during every seventh-inning stretch, and on Sunday, he emphasizes root, root, root, for RESORTERS. But his cheers don’t sway the Turtle Creek Stadium fans; Miller is, he confirms, sometimes booed when he leans far enough in that direction. “It’s ironic that there’s such a connection to the [Pit Spitters] name because we’ve only had it for a year,” he says.
But it’s true: The Spitters are Traverse City’s favored team, and the Resorters are not. When the umpire makes a questionable decision against the Spitters, hoots and hollers emit from the crowd; when a curious call goes the other way, there is sufficient silence in the stands to hear, from the Resorters dugout, a cry of “Every day! That’s horseshit! Every day!” (The prior night, the team’s starting pitcher was ejected for arguing a call. Excessive umpire familiarity affects more than just the strike zone.)
Once again, those fans have plenty to cheer today, as the “road” team piles on the runs. In the top of the sixth inning, the first five Spitters reach base, and a bases-clearing triple sets a merry-go-round in motion. Cleanup hitter Chris Monroe even hits the first and only home run of the weekend, a blast that clears the “9&10 News, MI Sports Now” sign in left center. One fan sounds a vuvuzela-like horn in celebration; another clangs a cowbell and the crowd claps in rhythm.
To be fair, the fans aren’t entirely one-sided: They also cheer when the Resorters’ pitcher snares a bunt with a graceful dive, and when the PA announcer notes that Resorter Chad Sommers has played all nine positions in the game, they offer an appropriate amount of applause. But according to folks around the teams, the most common Resorters fans are the players’ family members and kids in attendance who simply like the color green.
“It does have that perpetual feel of a road game,” says Wangler, the broadcaster. “It reminds you a lot of the Washington Generals.”
Resorters manager Cutter says this imbalance can lead to his crew being heckled, especially on $2 beer nights. Some Spitters partisans criticize the Resorters’ schools; one read their heights and weights off the program with mocking commentary—“Oh, you’re only 5-foot-8?”
The experience can be deflating for the coach, as he watches his players fall behind both on the field and in the crowd. “We kind of laugh about it,” he says, “but these kids have been through so many different things with COVID-19 already that I just try to protect them as much as possible. And it does get a little frustrating for them to hear some of the stuff that they get told.”
Some perceptive fans notice this dynamic, too. “There’s nobody looking out for them, nobody to rally. They don’t look like they’re having fun,” says one man in a Spitters cap, peering across the field into the Resorters’ dugout.
But the players themselves say they don’t mind much and have plenty of fun, and even view their second-tier status as an opportunity. “We’re the enemy. We’re the underdog,” says Resorters outfielder A.J. Pollack. “But why wouldn’t you want that? We all love the movie Rocky, and why do we love the movie Rocky? Because he’s this guy who is pretty much a nobody, and he goes the distance with the champ.”
The Spitters are the defending league champion; the Resorters were a literal nobody until earlier this summer, when they were born out of necessity in less than a week, then shut down, then re-organized and rushed through a midnight practice to play again.
Most of all, though, players on both teams say that after losing most of their spring seasons, with no other recourse for summer ball and with their baseball futures in flux, they’re just happy to play. “I was off of baseball games for four months, so I’m just excited to be out here,” the Resorters’ Farquhar says. His 2020 baseball tale has involved more uncertainty than most. Farquhar attended Bowling Green State University, which eliminated its baseball program entirely this spring due to budget cuts, forcing him to scramble to find a transfer. (Bowling Green reversed course and reinstated the program in June, though Farquhar had already changed schools by that point.) And then, less than a week into Northwoods play, he was one of the players who tested positive for the coronavirus.
He had a brief fever and lost his sense of taste for a couple of days, but he says they were “very minimal symptoms, nothing serious.” After two weeks and three negative tests, he returned to the field. And after all that turmoil, he doesn’t mind the otherwise surreal circumstances. “All I do is show up, I work out, and I play baseball every day, and I love the repetitiveness aspect of that,” he says.
That sentiment pervades the player pool here. Troy, the Spitters’ Stanford-bound shortstop, played in only five games in his senior season as a high schooler, and although he was a top-200 prospect according to Baseball America, the shortened draft meant he’s headed for school instead. “Whatever form it takes,” Troy says, “if I face the same pitcher every time, I don’t care, I just want to play baseball in a game situation. I’m having the most fun I’ve had in a while.”
“It doesn’t really feel as repetitive as you might think,” Spitters pitcher Hohlfeld adds. “Yeah, it’s the same thing every day, but the Northwoods is just the same thing every day.” In 2019, Hohlfeld’s summer involved waking up, playing baseball, and going back to bed; in 2020, those steps are the same.
Another day-to-day commonality: Spitter dominance at Turtle Creek Stadium. This Sunday is no exception, with the Spitters racing to a 9-0 lead, but the “home” Resorters start to come back, Rocky Balboa beginning to slug with Apollo Creed. They cut the deficit to 9-6, and with Gates unable to close after throwing twice in the last few days, the Resorters mount a ninth-inning rally. The leadoff batter is hit by a pitch; then comes a single, and another. The winning run strides to the plate.
And then he grounds directly to a perfectly positioned shortstop, who starts a 6-4-3 double play. The cowbell clangs again; Rocky, as in the film, comes up short. The next batter flies the first pitch to center field, and the Spitters secure yet another win—their 12th in the last 13 games in this one-sided duel.
That duel might be forever dormant now that the 2020 summer circuit is complete. The Resorters were created to fill a hole, and—vaccine progress permitting—that hole won’t exist again next summer. The team might retire as a blip with a woeful record, and without ever possessing any true home.
Or it might not. Asked what the Northwoods League can take away from this summer for the future, Radatz suggests trying to draw more fans and revenue by hosting multiple teams in the same city, with one playing at home while the other travels, and vice versa, like a Lakers/Clippers or Jets/Giants setup from the pros. “We’ve been through it once. We know how to do this now,” Radatz says. “So, instead of playing 36 games [at one stadium] over the span of an entire summer, how about if we put two teams and play 72?”
If the Resorters stick around, Traverse City could embrace them in time; after all, it took only one summer of normal games with full stands for the crowd to fall for the Pit Spitters. The Resorters might attract more cheers and win more games, and even develop a future MLB All-Star like so many other teams in the Northwoods League. At a minimum, unlike in this bizarre, cloistered summer, they would have some other teams to play.
Thanks to Kenny Jackelen of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.