The Rochester Honkers are joining the fray as the Northwoods League gradually has begun to open its season that was in limbo for the past three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Honkers will join a pod of Northwoods League teams that includes the Willmar Stingers, Mankato MoonDogs, St. Cloud Rox and Waterloo Bucks who’ll begin play on July 1.
"Oh, we’re ecstatic," General Manager Jeremy Aagard said. "This is the opportunity that we’ve been waiting for. Excited to get back to work and bring some affordable family entertainment to Rochester."
That group of five will take turns playing each other through Aug. 20. At that point, the team with the highest winning percentage will be declared the pod's champion.
"The players were notified (Monday)," Aagard said. "They’ll have a couple of days of practice and hit the ground running. It’s a short turnaround, but that’s summer ball in a nutshell. They’re excited to get on the field. They’re pumped."
According to a Northwoods League press release, the five teams are working in consultation with state and local officials and have developed a plan for safe operation at their respective locations.
“Continuing efforts on the part of our affiliates in Minnesota and Iowa to craft plans for safe operation in their respective locations in consultation with their state and local officials, along with the steps by those officials to open up their communities for larger gatherings, has made it possible to start another ‘pod’ in the Northwoods League footprint on July 1,” Northwoods League President and Commissioner Gary Hoover said. “This regional pod will bring the special brand of Northwoods League baseball back to those communities, but in a way that is consistent with everyone’s goal of doing so in a safe manner.”
Games will be accompanied by fans in the stands, and they can choose if they'd like to wear a mask or not. All Honkers' workers will be in masks.
"Our box seats will follow social distancing guidelines," Aagard said. "Then the rest is general admission. People can sit where they’re comfortable. Concession stands will be wearing masks to accommodate everyone as quickly and comfortably as we can..
The Minnesota-Iowa pod’s schedule of games can be found at Northwoodsleague.com.
The Honkers open their 40-game season at 7:05 p.m. July 2 at the St. Cloud Rox. They follow that July 3 with their first home game, at 7:05 p.m. against the Rox.
Rochester has a home-heavy schedule in August, with 11 games at Mayo Field and just five on the road. The Honkers play nine home games and 15 road games -- including five of their first six -- in July. The Honkers are off on the pod's opening day, July 1, and on the final day of its season, August 20. Each team in the pod has 11 days off during the 51-day season.
"It’s been hard for everybody, but this could be a return to normalcy," Aagard said. "People are excited to get sports back. This is a huge win for everybody, not just the Honkers."
FORMER HONKER SIGNS WITH REDS
Alex McGarry, an outfielder from Oregon State who played for the Honkers in 2018, signed with the Cincinnati Reds last week as an undrafted free agent. McGarry had two years of college eligibility remaining.
He was a first team All-PAC 12 player in 2019 when he hit .293 with eight home runs. He batted .288 with three home runs and 13 RBIs this spring for the Beavers, whose season was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
McGarry won the Northwoods League's Rawlings Big Stick Award as a first baseman for the Honkers in 2018, when he batted .318.
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HONKERS 2020 HOME GAMES
July -- 3, St. Cloud; 8, Willmar; 9, Willmar; 12, St. Cloud; 16, Mankato; 17, Mankato; 22, Waterloo; 25, Mankato; 28, Waterloo. August -- 2, Willmar; 3, Willmar; 4, Waterloo; 6, St. Cloud; 7, St. Cloud; 8, Mankato; 13, Waterloo; 14, Waterloo; 16, Waterloo; 18, St. Cloud; 19, St. Cloud.