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The Fayetteville Woodpeckers prepare for opening night at Segra Stadium, with a lot of changes behind the scenes.

The Fayetteville Woodpeckers never quite imagined how crazy things would be going forward after September 14, 2019. Tonight, the Woodpeckers return to Segra Stadium for their 2021 home opener, but there’s been a lot of change in that short amount of time.

Rewinding back to September 14, 2019, the Woodpeckers ended a remarkable first year with a heartbreaking defeat in the Carolina League championship series. The Wilmington (Delaware) Blue Rocks edged the Woodpeckers in the best-of-five series to win the championship.

That series had capped off the teams’ first year in Fayetteville, and the inaugural year of Segra Stadium in the heart of downtown. It was a successful season by virtually every measure, with strong attendance numbers, success on the field, and high hopes for what Year 2 was going to bring.

Fast forward to today, and a lot of stuff has happened, with an immense amount of change. First, and most obvious, the Woodpeckers saw their second season wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic. All of Minor League Baseball was cancelled for the year, with Major League Baseball playing only an abbreviated season above them. That meant the honeymoon period for Fayetteville’s return to affiliated Minor League Baseball would have to be put on a hold a bit.

And when the Woodpeckers step on the field for the home opener tonight, things may not seem all that different for most fans, but behind the scenes there’s been some other big changes. To start off with, the Woodpeckers are no longer in the Carolina League. Actually, the Carolina League doesn’t exist anymore. Minor League Baseball had its structure blown up during this offseason, with classifications and leagues changing all over the country.

Fayetteville had been the High Class A affiliate of the Houston Astros. Now, it’s the Low Class A affiliate of those Astros, with the Asheville Tourists now serving as the High Class A affiliate. That may not mean a whole lot to most fans, however, as many of the teams the Woodpeckers will be playing will be the same.

The Woodpeckers now play in the Low-A East League, which includes 12 teams across three divisions. In Fayetteville’s division, the Carolina Mudcats and Down East Wood Ducks will look familiar, and they’ll be joined by the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers. The North Division includes: Delmarva Shorebirds, Fredericksburg Nationals, Lynchburg Hillcats, Salem Red Sox. And the South Division includes: Augusta GreenJackets, Charleston RiverDogs, Columbia Fireflies, Myrtle Beach Pelicans.

Generally, most fans won’t notice a difference, as the Astros will still send some of their top young talent through Fayetteville, as they develop their way through the system.

At the stadium, things will feel largely the same, with only a few minor differences. First, weeknight games will start at 6:30 p.m. For at least the month of May, seating will be limited because of capacity restrictions under the COVID-19 regulations. The seating will be in pods for each of the six games in May. With the governor expected to ease mass-gathering limitations at the end of May, that will likely change. For now, note the stadium is using cashless sales, and will require masks.

The Woodpeckers will also be playing much longer series against each opponent. In the past, teams played mostly 3- and 4-game series against each opponent. Now, all of the schedule blocks will have the same opponent six games in a row. Tonight’s game Woodpeckers home opener against Kannapolis is the first of six days in a row against the Cannon Ballers at home. It’s also the only series the Woodpeckers will have at home this month.

In June, the Woodpeckers will be home June 1-13 (with an off day on June 7) with another series against Kannapolis, followed by Delmarva.

The other big change for die-hard fans, will be in the on-field personnel. Nate Shaver was the on-field manager in Fayetteville. He has moved to Asheville, and Ray Hernandez will take the helm in Fayetteville. Hernandez was the manager for the Quad Cities River Bandits, the previous Low-A affiliate for the Astros, so the move is essentially just following the team.

Joining Hernandez on the coaching staff will be Todd Naskedov, Sean Godfrey and Bryan Muniz. Takeaki Ando and Michael Hoffman will be the training and strength staff.

It’s been a rough start so far for the Woodpeckers. They finished their opening series against Carolina with a 1-5 record. Down East leads the division with a 6-0 record, after sweeping Kannapolis (0-6).

The team on the field will look a lot different, which isn’t uncommon in the minors. Matthew Barefoot will be the most recognizable name for local fans, as he is a Campbell product. He already has two home runs and six RBIs to lead the team. There are constant changes, but this was the preliminary roster announced by the team:

Lastly, the promotions this season will look similar to years past, with a few new additions.

  • Sunday Family Funday: Kids Run The Bases postgame and families can play catch in the outfield
  • Paws & Claws Tuesday: Bring your dog to the ballpark ($2 dog admission; proceeds donated to local animal shelters); Discounted White Claws at Healyโ€™s Right Field Bar (Promotion starts June 1st)
  • We Care Wednesday: Donate a specific item ($5 value) to a different non-profit each Wednesday, receive a $7 reserved ticket (Promotion starts June 2nd)
  • Thirsty Thursday: $3 domestic beers and $2 Pepsi products | presented by Paddyโ€™s Irish Pub
  • Friday Fireworks: Fireworks light up the sky at Segra Stadium following every Friday game
  • Super Saturday: Fan giveaways every Saturday (Fireworks July 3rd)

 

Brandon Plotnick is a former sports journalist, now living in the digital space with interests all over the musical and pop culture map.