STATE COLLEGE, Pa.—New York-Penn League president Ben Hayes is part administrator, handling mundane tasks such as umpire assignments and enforcing league rules.
Hayes is also part ambassador, making stops at various events to promote the short-season league.
Now in his 10th year overseeing the NY-P from his St. Petersburg, Fla., law office, one of Hayes’ biggest—and perhaps most challenging—tasks could be protecting the league’s economic vitality from dates its 14 franchises wield no control over.
Major League Baseball has not set the date for next year’s draft, but league officials have said they’ve been told it could be as late as June 13. Short-season leagues aren’t supposed to begin play until two weeks after the draft. The NY-P has received waivers to the rule in recent years, including this summer when play started June 18—11 days after the draft’s opening night.
A later draft could push the schedule back even more, with the regular season beginning later in June ending later in September.
The State College Spikes draw respectable late-season crowds because Centre County’s population swells when Penn State’s fall semester begins. But that is hardly the norm, and the Spikes are among the teams that don’t want the season starting any later.
“I think from our standpoint, the closer to where we have started in the past, the better,” general manager Jason Dambach said. “From a consistency standpoint, to ask fans to wait another week to 10 days to start the season when they are used to it starting June 17th, 18th and 19th is not good.”
Williamsport Crosscutters general manager Doug Estes called playing into September “incredibly challenging.” The Crosscutters held seven home games from Aug. 31-Sept. 6 last season, and their attendance dipped more than 30 percent during the period. Once September starts, teams are competing with fall sports, including high school and college football, for fan interest. Plus, most schools are back in session.
“The biggest thing is that kids are back in school,” Estes said. “It doesn’t make sense to have that many games in September from a dollar and cents standpoint.”
The majority of the Spikes’ and Crosscutters’ players live with host families, so housing isn’t a major problem for the franchises. But late home games present logistical challenges in multiple New York-Penn markets where teams are on or near college campuses, including Vermont, Tri-City, Lowell and Jamestown.
The Staten Island Yankees don’t play on campus, but the franchise’s players live in College of Staten Island dormitories. When the college’s students return, players must live in a hotel, another cost incurred by the Yankees. Staten Island’s 2009 season didn’t end until Sept. 16 because of its run to a league title.
“Ideally, from a date standpoint . . . I wouldn’t mind seeing the season begin June 10 so we get the season over by the first of September,” Hayes said.
Hayes has expressed the league’s concerns to the commissioner’s officer. But receiving the ideal starting date could be difficult given the current draft structure. Factors such as the MLB Network, which broadcasts the first round in prime time, the needs of scouting directors and later starts to the NCAA Division I season also affect the timing of the draft.
Top Talent Absent
The NY-P has a reputation as the starting destination of many former college stars. That reputation is eroding because of baseball’s mid-August signing deadline and a later ending to the College World Series. Just four of 32 first-round picks this June were playing in the league on Sept. 1.
The Spikes had 13 players selected in this June’s draft on their roster in late August. Only five were on the Opening Day roster. Multiple key players, including center fielder Mel Rojas Jr. and shortstop Drew Maggi, missed significant time because of lengthy contract negotiations with the Pirates.
Pirates farm director Kyle Stark said the signing deadline is changing the composition of the NY-P. Instead of filling rosters with first-year professionals, teams are assigning players selected in previous drafts or Latin American signees who participated in extended spring training to the league.
“As long as teams expect to sign a majority of their draft picks later in the summer, then they must rely on players from extended,” Stark said.
The signing deadline also has led to an influx of nondrafted free agents entering the league, as some organizations turned to players not selected in the draft to fill rosters. The Indians shipped seven nondrafted free agents to Mahoning Valley. Auburn encountered a similar situation, receiving five nondrafted free agents from the Blue Jays. The Scrappers and Doubledays were each trying to avoid last-place finishes in the six-team Pinckney Division.
“It hasn’t happened just this year,” Hayes said. “It has happened over the last five, six years, seven years. It has been a gradual process. But if you go back and look, the higher draft picks are taking longer to sign. Players are slotted with their signing bonuses and everybody is kind of waiting to see where other people get slotted before they sign.”
Pirates president Frank Coonelly, whose organization signed four players shortly before the deadline—including first-and second-rounders Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie—said the signing deadline needs to change to help both parent clubs and short-season leagues.
“It’s not that much different than the past when it worked up against when you would go to college, which was later,” said Coonelly, who examined draft issues during his tenure in the commissioner’s office. “The Aug. 15 deadline has moved things up, but it made it clear that anybody who wants to exercise leverage on the player side—and there’s some fault on the club side—we’re going to be waiting until the last minute. We need to move that date up considerably so these short-season teams can get players and so we can get the players in and playing.”
Coonelly said the draft will be a major topic when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after next season. Hayes and executives across the Northeast are hoping the changes benefit the NY-P.
“It’s not like the old days when the draft happened and everybody signs the first week and gets out to short-season clubs,” Hayes said. “Those days are over. We can wish, we can want, but it doesn’t mean that it can reverse itself and go back in that point in time.”
Guy Cipriano covers the State College Spikes for the Centre Daily Times.