The New Orleans Zephyrs' long road trip is finally over. Unfortunately, so is their season.
Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey III said the decision wasn't easy, but in the end he decided to cancel New Orleans' final four-game homestand against the Iowa Cubs, rather than force the Zephyrs to play a second straight home series on the road.
The Zephyrs were among those in New Orleans displaced by Hurricane Isaac, with a scheduled four-game homestand against Round Rock moved to the Express' Dell Diamond. New Orleans lost all four games there, including last night's series finale, which officially knocked the Zephyrs out of playoff contention. But even before the first pitch was thrown last night, the league decided it would be New Orleans' last game of the season.
Zephyr Field was unplayable and without power, and travel into New Orleans was uncertain at best. That meant the Zephyrs would have needed to move their series against Iowa to either the Cubs' Principal Park in Des Moines, or to Round Rock, which had already completed its home schedule. Rickey decided the expense and logistics of a last-minute switch to each of the teams involved were too significant.
"Given the extensive impact of Hurricane Isaac on airline schedules, municipal infrastructure, and the safety and well-being of people across the region, we felt it was important at this time that the PCL allow all of those affected to more importantly focus on local recovery," Rickey said in a statement.
The decision wasn't easy, and the factors that went into it show the domino effect one team can have on the rest of the league.
Rickey spent much of Wednesday on the phone with the affected teams and their respective big league affiliates, in what he described as a "minute-by-minute problem-solving basis." They weighed the merits of whether to play the series (New Orleans was still mathematically in the PCL playoff race) and where to play it.
"We are trying to balance the need of something we have spent 139 games to decide—of who is going to win this division—and the practicality of what we can pull off." Rickey said on Thursday morning. "Tentatively, our top priority is finalizing the series by playing these games in New Orleans."
New Orleans general manager Mike Schline wanted to bring his team home. He had told Nola.com on Wednesday, as the hurricane first made landfall, that bringing the Zephyrs back to New Orleans was a priority even if it meant postponing the series opener on Friday.
Zephyr Field had withstood the first blows of Hurricane Isaac (Schline and his wife spent Tuesday night at the ballpark) and he was optimistic the field could be ready by the weekend. Also, the Zephyrs had already added four days to their scheduled eight-game road trip, and Schline was not eager to pile on another series in another city.
"The guys have been through a lot, going on a nine-day road trip then getting redirected to Round Rock," Schline told Nola.com on Wednesday. "I'd like to think that unless something changes, we'll bring them back Friday, even if we can't play or the field's too wet."
Conditions got worse, however. Power went out at the ballpark and surrounding hotels on Thursday. Louis Armstrong International Airport closed, with no timetable set for its reopening. So bringing baseball back to New Orleans was not an option.
Baseball America was unable to reach Schline on Thursday (the team's phones were down), but he told Nola.com, "The field suffered some damage, as far as some outfield wall pads flew off and some scoreboard signs flew off. No way we were we going to be able to play.
"It just didn't make any sense for us to fly two teams in here under these current circumstances here in Jefferson Parrish. It's certainly a disappointing way to end."
It didn't make sense to move the series either. Last-minute airfare to Iowa would have only added to the financial hit New Orleans is taking by losing its final eight home dates and busing to and from Round Rock. And forcing the Cubs to change their travel plans would have created an unnecessary expense.
So canceling the series seemed to be the only option. "Not a whole lot more we can do with the situation," Schline told Nola.com
The unsung hero in this is Round Rock, which volunteered to host the series in a seemingly simple gesture by the Nolan Ryan-owned franchise that had significant financial implications. Round Rock had already completed its home schedule and had to cover the cost of staging four additional games that it could market very little. The games drew crowds below the team's season average.
"Financially, this could be very challenging for them," Rickey said on Thursday. "But (they decided) to do this for the good of the league. For them to step up and do that without blinking, this was very impressive. It was the kind of thing that causes you to take such pride in the league."