Rangers’ Don Wakamatsu Sanitizes Stadium Using Drones

On Wednesday morning, four days before the spring training games start and the fans return to Major League Baseball, a six-foot-wide drone flew through the area a 10,500 seat Stadium in Surprise, Arizona, the preseason home of the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers. The drone sprayed a cleaning solution that, according to the manufacturer, protects the surfaces from germs, including the coronavirus, for more than 30 days.

It took 90 minutes to spray with a drone named Paul.

The person behind this disinfection operation was not a health or stadium official. It was Don Wakamatsu, the Rangers’ bank coach. How did a baseball lifer – someone who as a player, coach and manager wore many uniforms from various major league teams and won a World Series ring with the Royals in 2015 – staged a decidedly modern version of spring cleaning?

It started with a background in agriculture, an interest in technology, and an idea of ​​how aspects of both interests can be adapted to the current situation we are all facing amid the pandemic. He already knew how to spray plants with drones, so the transition to disinfecting stadium surfaces and seats wasn’t much of a hassle.

Although Wakamatsu, 58, grew up in Northern California, he often visited his paternal grandparents’ 40-acre farm in Hood River, Oregon. who had been held in internment camps for Japanese Americans in the 1940s. They grew cherries, apples and pears.

“I remember getting up at 4am, going to the orchard and changing the sprinkler system,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was just a pain. But that’s part of sacrificing and growing up and what you did on the farm. “

Those memories stayed with him when his baseball career eventually led him to the Chicago White Sox, where he appeared in 18 games in 1991, his only season in the major leagues. After moving through the small leagues with several organizations, he became a coach. In 2009 he was with the Seattle Mariners the first manager of Asian descent in the major leagues. The Mariners took the lead 127-147 in nearly two seasons.

It wasn’t until 2017, when Wakamatsu was serving as the royals’ bank coach, that he turned his passion for food into a foundation. WakWaywith a mission inspired by his family’s cherry-growing waste. The nonprofit began saving fruits and vegetables and donating them to disadvantaged communities in Arizona and Texas.

In recent years, however, Wakamatsu has focused more on so-called precision farming, helping smaller farms survive. As a child, he said, he remembered inhaling pesticides sprayed over crops from biplane.

With the explosion of drone technology, Wakamatsu said it was only natural to use it in agriculture as a greener, more efficient, and safer way of studying, spraying, and watering crops. His foundation bought their first drone last year. It now has four, the largest of which can hold two and a half gallons of fluid.

Over the winter, MLB and the players’ union faced the prospect of a staging a normal 2021 season with 162 games with fans as the pandemic Wakamatsu pondered how to redirect his efforts to baseball. He said his foundation was considering spraying drones at Rangers Stadium in Arlington, Texas last year when spectators were only allowed but not ready during the final playoff rounds of the shortened season.

“Can we make the fans feel like they’re coming back?” he said. “We’re sick of playing without fans. With the relationships I had at this stadium, it was only natural to say, “Let’s come in and help.” I want to be safe. “

It took months of discussion and a drone spraying demonstration. Earlier this month, the City of Surprise agreed to a contract with Wakamatsu’s Foundation to spray paint the stadium. Whatever is made of the work is reinvested in the foundation. He can fly the drones, but trained volunteers did so on Wednesday.


Apr. 27, 2021 at 10:36 AM ET

“I want to be MLB’s official drone spraying company one day,” he said with a laugh.

When the Spring Practice Games begin on Sunday in Arizona and Florida, each park’s seating capacity will be the same based on local and state guidelines – from just 9 percent (at Scottsdale Stadium, Arizona, the San Francisco Giants ‘spring home) to 28 percent (Hammond Stadium, the Minnesota Twins’ spring home in Fort Myers, Florida.).

Health experts believe that sporting events can take place outdoors – especially baseball, where most MLB stadiums are open air safely staged.

“If you place people well enough to get people to wear masks, you have situations where people don’t crowd at the concessions nearby for food and the like. You can do it pretty safely pull off.” Anthony S. Fauci, U.S. Government’s Leading Infectious Disease Expert, told the New York Times this month.

Although experts learned over the past year that the primary form of transmission of the virus is from person to person and that surfaces are a relatively rare source of spread, a general rethinking of hygiene or the spread of pitching companies has not discouraged new cleaning services or products.

Spraying seats doesn’t do any harm, however, said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

But the virus “just doesn’t get absorbed through your clothes and then your butt,” she said. “Maybe if you touched the seat and then touched your eyes, but the chances are very slim.”

Troisi said people still disinfect a lot because “it gives us a sense of control”. It is much harder to stop airborne transmission of the virus, she said, “while we can cleanse to our hearts content.”

“In a way, it gives us a false sense of security,” she said. “You are much better off making sure people are wearing their masks and are socially distancing themselves.”

According to the MLB, all 30 teams have mask requirements for spring training games and allow fans to only sit in socially distant clusters – so-called pods. The surprise stadium will accommodate around 2,600 fans per game.

Surprise sports and tourism director Kendra Pettis said in an email that Wakamatsu’s drone work is an efficient way to add another shift while the city is still working with their usual stadium cleaning companies. When asked about the safety of the surface protection solution used by the drones, Pettis provided an information sheet in which, similar to other cleaning agents, eye or skin irritations are listed among possible reactions.

“The city only uses this solution as pre-cleaning before the start of the season,” she said, adding, “The solution has to dry for several days before fans enter the stadium.”

Among other things, planned measures are planned for the surprise stadium: Contact-rich surfaces are cleaned during the games; The busy interiors are electrostatically cleaned every night and the seats are cleaned daily. Concessions and hand disinfection stations can be ordered mobile throughout the stadium.

“We look forward to welcoming our spring training fans back,” said Pettis.

And from the Sunday afternoon shelter, it will also be Wakamatsu.

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