From the deck down the right-field line at Bismarck Municipal Ballpark, opening night for the Bismarck Larks was like the previous three openers with one glaring difference.
Instead of a sellout crowd approaching 1,900 fans, the Larks and Mandan Flickertails kicked off the Northwoods League season in front of about 500 strategically spaced fans.
Larks co-owners Glenn Bosch and Terry Daffinrud were happy with what they saw, especially after the Larks rallied for a 6-5 win.
Relief pitcher Andrew Brooks, from the University of Mary, struck out the side in the sixth, getting the last two batters with the bases loaded to preserve a 5-5 tie. The Larks scored the go-ahead run in the seventh and held on.
Five Bismarck pitchers struck out 17 batters.
“I’m nothing but pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Bosch said. “When we look back three or four months ago, I didn’t think this was going to happen. It is different, but it’s exciting to see us out here.”
The differences were subtle, yet noticeable. Before the game, the public address announcer rotated the usual pregame script to include health and safety tips for keeping fans, staff and players safe from COVID-19.
- Players are subjected to temperature checks before each game.
- There is no physical interaction (autographs, etc.) between fans and players.
- Bathrooms are closed and cleaned once during the game.
- Fans were spread out and separated by rows to maintain social distancing.
- During introductions, players lined up the length of the baselines and shared no-contact high fives with teammates
The general feeling seemed to be “so what.”
“I’m amazed to see it,” Daffinrud said. “And I’m amazed at how they were able to reconfigure the seating to allow this to go on.”
Opening night had everything on the field it should have.
Bismarck State College right-hander Ryan Bourassa got the start start for the Larks, facing a team full of NCAA Division I talent. He topped 90 on his fastball several times and struck out Sam Houston State’s Jackson Loftin, Cal’s Cole Elvis and Northwestern (La.) State's Jeffrey Elkins in the first inning.
The Larks went up 1-0 in the first.
“Mr. Lark” Wyatt Ulrich walked in his first at bat of his fourth season in the Northwoods League, went to second on a walk and to third on a fly out to right. He then scored on Trey Woosley’s sac fly to right.
The Flickertails went up 2-1 on Bourassa, but the Larks scored three times off Patrick Pridgen in the third. Ulrich scored again and Tanner Froelich drove in two runs.
Ulrich finished the night with two runs, leaving him just two runs shy of the Northwoods League career record of 137 held by LaCrosse’s Mason McCoy.
Bourassa left after three innings, having given up five hits and one earned run. He struck out five and walked one.
Noah Kandel relieved Bourassa in the fourth and gave up two runs to tie it 4-4.
The Flickertails led 5-4 and threatened to break it open against Kandel in the fifth. But Brooks came on with the bases loaded and struck out two batters to get out of the jam.
The Larks tied it in the sixth off John Farley when Brant Schaffitzel singled in Myles Harris and they went ahead 6-5 in the seventh on a Harris single that drove in Woosley.
Austin Hurd pitched a perfect eighth and gave way to Blake Gallagher.
Pinch-hitter Adam Dapkewicz opened the ninth with a double down the left-field line. Raheem Salmon ran for Dapkewicz and went to third on a wild pitch. Jack Krause was hit by a pitch and took second base.
Gallagher came back to strike out Jackson Loftin and Ben Rushing before intentionally walking Jared Wegner, who had three hits in the game.
Larks right-fielder Jackson Rosencranz then ended it with a sliding catch in foul territory on Elvis’ flair.
There was a winner and a loser, but this was more than just opening day at the ballpark. This was a preview of what the Northwoods League will look like in the COVID-19 era.
Seventy-two times this summer, two of three teams will square off. That’s a lot of baseball at the ballpark. There will be no travel, no long road trips between homestands.
By the end of summer, players from the three teams will be well known by Bismarck baseball fans. That kind of following is why the Larks are playing despite attendance limitations.
“We’ve come to realize how important the Bismarck Larks are to the Bismarck-Mandan community,” Bosch said. “As business people, we think about the dollars and cents, but you come to realize that the Larks mean more than that. Like Terry said, (money) is part of the conversation but it wasn’t a major component of putting this together. It really was about doing something great for Bismarck, not so much about the money.”
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