Back to the BallparkApr 01, 2021 ● By Stephen Hunt
Like practically everything in 2020, the year’s baseball season was anything but typical. College and high school teams started their seasons as scheduled, but their campaigns ended in March as the COVID-19 pandemic surged. Minor league teams like the Frisco RoughRiders saw their seasons canceled entirely, while the Texas Rangers played a truncated 60-game schedule that didn’t start until late July. The Rangers also played their first season at the new Globe Life Field without fans.
Thankfully, 2021 is a new year and that means baseball, like many other aspects of life, is starting to return to normal. Area high school and college teams, like those at Dallas Baptist and Texas Christian universities, started playing games in February as scheduled and look primed for full seasons ending in May or later. The RoughRiders’ 2021 season will begin a bit later than normal, in May, with the team now playing in the new Central League. The Rangers are scheduled to host the Toronto Blue Jays April 5 in their home opener and are slated to play a full season.
Since 2003, the RoughRiders have played at Dr Pepper Ballpark as the Rangers’ Double-A affiliate. Both remain the case in 2021, but the ‘Riders no longer play in the Texas League, which had been in operation since 1902 before being dissolved in 2020. Another change for Frisco is that the organization is now led by Victor Rojas, hired as president and general manager after spending the previous 11 seasons as play-by-play television announcer for the Los Angeles Angels. Since Mr. Rojas and his family call Trophy Club home, the chance to return to DFW full time was an opportunity too good to decline. “That made the decision very easy, knowing it was 30 minutes from my house and still in baseball and being involved. It just all came together perfectly,” Mr. Rojas said.
Not only will the RoughRiders host games for the first time since September 2019, they will do so with fans in the stands. As of early March, the number of attendees that will be allowed inside the ballpark for games had yet to be determined following Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s proclamation that businesses statewide could fully reopen March 10. The state’s mask mandate was also lifted. However, once the season begins, certain aspects of the game experience will be different: In-game contests on the field are out, and guests will be encouraged to go cashless at concession stands.
The ‘Riders continue to have one of the minor league’s best ballparks, which remains a great drawing card. “There’s no doubt it’s a beautiful ballpark. She’s been around a while, but she still looks purdy and it’s almost like a fine wine, especially with all the trees growing up now,” Mr. Rojas said. “Because of the product that the RoughRiders have put out over the years, whether it’s on the field or from a show perspective, it’s certainly resonated with the fan base. That’s why we continue to have good attendance.”
After playing 60 games in 2020, the Rangers return to a full slate of 162 regular-season games. For the first time, fans will get to see their beloved team in person at Globe Life Field. The Rangers’ new stadium didn’t host fans for any home games last season, but they were allowed in for the 2020 National League Championship Series and 2020 World Series. However, neither of those events featured the Rangers.
For the first time, the Rangers have the option of playing indoors thanks to stadium’s new retractable roof, which means no more sweltering summer days or evenings at the ballpark. That’s a big plus for longtime local baseball fans like Sean Bass, who co-hosts Diamond Talk on SportsRadio 1310 The Ticket. “Just knowing that it’s a Sunday afternoon and I want to take my family out there, I know that my kids aren’t going to burn up, which is awesome,” he said. “A lot of fans are going to go out there for the first time this year and it’s cool. It’s a different park. It’s not the old place and that still takes some getting used to.”
Another big change is that for the first time since 2008, the Rangers will not have Elvis Andrus playing shortstop. A fan favorite since his 2009 big-league debut after playing the previous year in Frisco, he was traded to the Oakland A’s in the off-season. Not seeing Andrus - the last player remaining from Texas’ back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011 - will be an adjustment for many fans, including Rangers television play-by-play announcer Dave Raymond. “That’s really going to be strange. I think we tend to take for granted those guys who show up every single day and play every single day,” he said. Andrus “was very big part of what we were doing in a way that people can’t maybe really calculate. He’s just such a solid human being. He was great. The personality, the smile, the enthusiasm was there every day. When we traveled, he had the boombox and was basically the emcee on the plane. Wherever we were, he was playing everybody’s music, not just his. He’s a great guy. We’ll miss him.”
The Rangers also have a new general manager in Chris Young, a former big-league pitcher and Highland Park native, who was hired over the winter. However, the cupboard isn’t completely bare in Arlington: Fans can still catch former RoughRiders like Joey Gallo, one of baseball’s top power hitters; versatile Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who played in Frisco in 2016, 2017 and 2019 and won an American League Gold Glove at third base in 2020; starting pitcher Kyle Cody; and standout young outfielder Leody Taveras, who was with Frisco in 2019. “He has got a terrific arm, and he covers so much ground,” Mr. Raymond said of Taveras. “He’s been exciting to watch.” Mr. Bass sees similar greatness in Cody. “I think Kyle Cody is that guy” who can grab a rotation spot, he said. “His stuff plays really well and if he can stay healthy, he can be a rotation member.”
If attendance at the latest Frisco Classic at Dr Pepper Ballpark in early March is any indication, baseball is incredibly healthy in DFW. “It’s unreal how much people enjoy, understand and love the game here. We’re very lucky,” Mr. Raymond said. “Look at the attendance numbers year in, year out. People love baseball in Texas. It’s a huge sport here.”
Longtime Frisco resident Stephen Hunt is a lifelong baseball fan who is incredibly blessed to work on the Rangers TV broadcast as a statistician and alongside so many talented professionals.