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Cook: Silver Knights ready for 2021 season

Time will tell how limited the Nashua Silver Knights crowds will have to be per COVID protocols as they prepare to open up their FCBL title defense late next month. (Telegraph photo by TOM KING)

NASHUA – A year ago, they were the only game in town.

Now, the Nashua Silver Knights are hoping to pick up where they left off – as a fun baseball destination, but hopefully with more normalcy.

Remember, the Futures League was the only collegiate baseball league in New England, and one of only a couple to play in the northeast in general.

A year ago this time, the FCBL was in a holding pattern, not even knowing if it would be able to play. It ultimately did, an abbreviated schedule that began in early July.

But last off-season, the front office, led by general manager Cam Cook and assistant GM Katie Arend had what was portrayed as the most productive offseason, business-wise, that the franchise had ever had.

And then the pandemic hit.

Now, with the pandemic still a factor, Cook & Co. are just hoping to take the next step forward for the 2021 season that unofficially is set to begin in late May, with the tentative start dates – as of this writing – May 26 on the road and May 27 at Holman Stadium for the home opener, complete with a championship ring ceremony.

That’s how he approached the business side of the off-season, when he started planning for 2021 this past fall.

“It’s funny, probably going to be the complete flip-flop of that,” Cook said. “We had a slow off season, comparatively. But us having loyal fans, loyal sponsors and being in New Hampshire, the three biggest pillars of success for our off-season through COVID.

“So, it’s going to be slow, slow, slow, but now the weather is turning, more good news is coming out and our hair is going to be on fire until August. So, the complete opposite of last year.

“We’ll have to buy more phones when the schedule comes out.”

Cook took that approach out to the community.

“I tried to be optimistic,” Cook said, “but everything had that safety net. The worst-case scenario would be the same as (the) 2020 season – 25 percent capacity, masks, etc.”

And they will follow the same health plan that was presented to the city last spring, and will certainly take input from local health officials as to what can be improved, what needs to stay in the plan, what may not need to stay.

The main stipulation was fans had to wear masks when entering the stadium or leaving their seat for anywhere in the facility; they weren’t required to wear them at their seats. But that could change, given the rules that schools have been using at Holman and Stellos throughout the year.

Cook is fairly confident that Thirsty Thursdays, Fireworks Fridays and Salute to Service Saturdays will return – last year fireworks weren’t allowed due to the pandemic – and go from there. That’s the plan, anyway.

He’s hoping they can do some of the other promos, such as a “Bark in the Park” night or a Star Wars promo.

“We’re reaching out to bigger groups, and trying to bring back some of the promo nights and on-field events,” Cook said. “Up until this last month, really, was when we were ‘OK, we will be able to do our on-field activities, we will be able to have an on-field host, we can fireworks, some theme nights, and some giveaways.’

“A big part of that is New Hampshire. They’re so on top of things, with the vaccinations and a lot of that. So it might clear up even more by the time we start.

“But we’re planning on that hybrid version of normal baseball and what last year was.”

In other words, somewhere in-between. Cook knows that it still won’t be the pre-pandemic case of business as usual.

How did the potential sponsors and advertisers react when the sales process began?

“No one had an easy year last year,” Cook said. “But I think whether they were a sponsor last year or fans who came out to games on their own volition, they saw that we played. And they had the same mind-set that ‘You know what? They did it last year, it’s only going to get better.’

“The thinking was either we return to normal or (the) same as last year, 750 fans in the ballpark. They’ll have value,” Cook said.

Groups may be able to return next season. The suites were able to be used in 2020, and will be again this season.

But how will it feel to make some progress? When Cook talked with people in the fall, the response from many was they could not wait for 2021, hoping it would be like it was in the past but marveling at the success of 2020.

“People were thanking me, Katie and John, in the middle of the championship (series),” Cook said. “They didn’t care whether we won or lost, but they were just thankful of having someplace to go this year.”

And that, in the business sense, is what the Silver Knights want to expand on for 2021. They provided entertainment when there was no entertainment at all, including minor league baseball, which did not play at all in 2020.

“There were times it felt kind of normal,” Cook said. “You’d get used to your mask and everything, someone would hit a home run and 800 people would be cheering and you’d say ‘OK, it feels like a normal summer baseball game.'”

Of course, it wasn’t, but the Silver Knights added even more cache with the franchise’s fifth title in the league’s 10 years. But the impact of that with the business side remains to be seen.

“It’s been tough for me to grasp it,” Cook said. “The most important thing is the family atmosphere, being able to take your kids out, friends, etc., have some hot dogs or some beers.

“But it’s nice to say that what you’re paying to come see, even if baseball is taking a back seat or you’re coming to see prospects, that we have the sustained success. We have the players, great ball clubs and have played some unbelievable baseball games. So even if you’re not coming for the baseball, you can watch the last three innings and be entertained by it. It pulls you in whether you like it or not.”

The Silver Knights 2020 team, thanks in part to it being a destination for a lot of Division I players who may have gone elsewhere around the region had there been those options, were likely the most talented group the franchise has seen – maybe rivaled by the 2012 team that had future major leaguer Chris Shaw (now in the Orioles system). The Knights last summer were getting regulars from national Division I schools.

“It was really a first,” Cook said. “We got quality players from quality programs, and that wasn’t always the case. And some of them were local. We’ve got some schools now that we’ve never had before, and I think a big part of that is because different coaches were keeping a closer eye on the Futures League. It was a good stepping stone.”

And that’s the progress the FCBL, which expanded to Vermont and has been as of this writing looking at a couple more spots, needs to continue, Cook said.

The league, this past week, lost one of its steadiest members, the North Shore Navigators of Lynn, Massachusetts, as they became the third FCBL team in the last three years to jump to the rival New England Collegiate Baseball League.

SAFETY FIRST

How about the protocols? Last year, Cook said the fans were “impressive” with their following of the rules, including masks, and spreading out at concessions.

“But now, who knows,” Cook said. “The feel might be different. A lot of people might be vaccinated once the season starts, and think they’re Superman and invincible. But we will still follow the rules that are put in place, and maybe there’s something where right before the season we’re re-evaluating to see if things need to change or can change.”

Will the Knights urge the players to be vaccinated? Actually, many of the players will be playing in conference tournaments early in the FCBL season, and should they advance, their schools may be taking care of that. But Cook says the players will be urged to get vaccinated if they haven’t already done so.

Part of the team’s success in 2020 was working with local health officials and the city.

“We won’t be able to appreciate or thank them enough,” Cook said. “With everything that was going on, they could have said, ‘No fans this year, just play baseball and get out.’

“But they were willing to meet with us, we walked through the stadium, we put a COVID plan/proposal in front of them, and they read every word.”

Cook said the plan was very conservative, understandably, a year ago, but could be tweaked this year.

The good thing is, it’s in place.

Around the stadium, will the Kids Area down the left field line be brought back? Part of it, perhaps.

“That’s a big part of the COVID plan,” Cook said. “Can you do the ‘Bounce Castle,’ can you do the ‘Yard Games?’

It will be something, but it just depends on what it’s going to look like, and be ‘COVID safe’ for this year.”

Cook said the biggest problem he’s had this off-season was not having a schedule to be able to sell.

“You don’t want shady business or anything and say, ‘Hey, you want to buy this thing? Well, I’m good for it,'” he said.

In any event, Cook said that the schedule models have the longest season in FCBL history in place, 68 games per team. The playoffs could go all the way to Aug. 17, and rosters will be large in order to cushion the blow of some players needing to go back to their colleges early if need be.

All the FCBL teams a year ago took a huge financial hit, the Massachusetts teams more than Nashua or New Britain, because they couldn’t have fans.

Can Nashua do it again with reduced crowds/sales if necessary?

“It was almost easier last year,” Cook said, “because we could kind of cross (making a profit) off the list. We found some ways to cut some costs, like the guys didn’t get team shorts, etc, nickel and dime, find ways to not spend a ton of money. Everyone was in agreement that we were playing baseball, and that’s all we could ask for.”

And now?

“If there’s more leniency, there’s more of an expectation of a more normal season,” Cook said. “In years past, I remember seeing people show up just for fireworks.”

Cook said the plan before COVID hit last season was to focus more on having companies come out, experience the luxury suites, etc. They were focusing, rightly so, more on group outings, birthday parties, “bigger things that aren’t just single tickets or season tickets.”

But whether that can be done again is a question, because many corporations and businesses aren’t fully back with in-house staffs, with the understandable fear of interaction.

“So you have to find a happy medium,” he said, “where you get a good side company, everyone wants to come out.”

So it will be steps to get back.

“The mental impact (the pandemic) has had on everybody the last 15 months,” he said, “it will manifest itself in different ways. Many people haven’t interacted in a long time.”

Travel might be more extensive this season. The Knights lose that close rivalry with North Shore, which along with Worcester were the two nearest rivals, and will be traveling to face the new Vermont franchise in Burlington, and word is there may be another Connecticut team to be added. But it can’t be any worse than it was going to Martha’s Vineyard.

“I think riding a coach bus for three hours is a big step up by being on a fishing boat in hurricane-type weather,” Cook said. “When you compare it to that, the road trips aren’t that bad.”

As for the times of games, Cook said, they will remain the same, Monday through Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. There won’t be, due to the pandemic, the annual Education Day, and it’s not likely that there will be youth camps, etc.looking to have a special day.

“It’d be nice to do like pseudo Educaton Day, with camps wrapping up and people looking to go back to school, but as of now, we don’t have it,” Cook said.

The schedule Cook has seen says there is one six-day span when the team is on the road or off, as the state Senior American Legion Tournament is set for Holman Stadium in late July.

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