The crowd noise is artificial, the spectators are cardboard cutouts, and only the baseball is real at Target Field this summer. As the Twins march toward the Sept. 27 conclusion of Major League Baseball's 60-game, coronavirus-shortened season, a sense of nostalgia tinged with melancholy exists with those who've spent their summers being a small part of the baseball experience.
Members of the Twins' Guest Services staff — ushers, ticket-takers and other fan-friendly folks — have had to sit this one out because MLB is not allowing spectators. They miss the game they love and can't wait to get back to the ballpark next spring — COVID-19 willing.
"It's agonizing to watch a game at Target [on TV] knowing I could be standing in that position, right behind the dugout or up in those seats," said Gary Gliniany of Otsego, Minn., who has been an usher for Twins games since 2014. "It's seeing all these spots and reminiscing. … Really, I miss being with the fans."
Sara Blood of Golden Valley concurred. "It's a hot little place, and I love going there," said Blood, who would have worked her third season as an usher this summer. "Everybody is so danged happy there."
For John Blissenbach of Eagan, working as an usher for approximately 35 games per year for the past two seasons has enabled him to continue to scratch the baseball itch that began when his father brought home a pennant and scorecard from the 1965 All-Star Game at Metropolitan Stadium.
"It's hard to call it a job," the 62-year-old said. "… I've fallen in love all over again with the Twins from a different perspective."
Gliniany, Blood and Blissenbach are only three people among hundreds of workers such as vendors, concession staff and ticket brokers who've had to adjust to the summer without live crowds at Twins games. Their stories aren't unique to the sport, but they're united by the sense of family they embrace while working at Target Field.
Plenty of stories to tell
Gliniany, 76, would have worked his seventh season as an usher this summer. It wasn't what he initially planned after retirement.
"I retired in 2010, and for a couple of years, the wife said, 'Well, are you going to think about doing something part-time?' I said, 'When I come across it, I'll find out,' " Gliniany said. "I worked for the last 50 years, so there was no rush on getting going on something else."
When a cousin who works security at Target Field encouraged him to explore the Guest Services job, Gliniany gave it a shot. He works 50 to 60 games per year. "That proves I love baseball," he said.
Gliniany said he has "tons of stories" from his time at Target Field. Putting smiles on fans' faces is at the heart of many.
"One that sticks out the most was this little girl who came in. She had Down syndrome, and she was between 8 and 10 years old," he said. "I'm scanning tickets at Gate 6. She comes walking through and says, 'Here's my ticket!' I said, 'All right, now you can go watch a game and have a ball.' She started jumping up and down, and said, 'This is my first game, my first game!' I said, 'You just have a ball.' She gave me the biggest hug you could imagine."
Enjoying the experience
Blissenbach, who has worked as a director of scoring for a company that administers student assessments, applied for the Guest Services job on the recommendation of a friend who works as an usher. The relationship he's developed with fellow Twins employees, plus the dealing with fans, are his highlights.
"It's really about being able to help somebody and help them enjoy the experience — especially when you see a young family with kids and maybe they're there for the first time," Blissenbach said. "They kind of aren't familiar with the stadium or what the stadium fare is. We take some time to answer questions and show them around and just be social.
"At a time when we're supposed to be social-distancing," he added, "that is the one thing I really miss is the interaction with the fans."
Making magic moments
Blood applied with the Twins after being laid off from her job as a public relations and marketing specialist in 2017. "I can say I started my retirement job 24 years early," she joked.
Helping fans, especially new ones, is the highlight of her job.
"They really empower us to create those magic moments," Blood said of Twins officials. "Obviously, there's fun about just being in the stadium for baseball. But the fact you can go to a game a couple hours early and get some baseballs that are hit into the stands and surprise some unsuspecting fans is a ton of fun."
She also embraces the variety that the job of an usher entails.
"I'm all over the place, wherever they need me," she said. "I love wheelchair runs. I love talking to people like World War II veterans and their families and getting them to the ballpark. It's a tremendous honor."
And it's a role to which she's eager to return when Target Field opens with actual fans in the stands.
"Those cardboard heads," she said, "are having more fun this summer than me.''