After A Season That Wasn't, Minor League Teams Wait For Their Fate
In a normal world, Saturday would have marked the final slate of games in the Rookie-level Pioneer League. The final out recorded—whether it was in Great Falls or Billings or Orem or Ogden—would have officially closed the 2020 minor league regular season.
The 15 other domestic leagues would be well into their playoffs—some might have already crowned a champion—but the regular year wouldn’t have officially closed until the Pioneer League’s final game.
But this year was far from normal. That’s been obvious since March 12, when spring training shut down and players headed home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Two and a half months later, on June 30, the reality of the situation was hammered home when the league finally pulled the plug on the season.
At that point, teams were freed to use their parks however they chose until the next time MiLB returned. For some, that meant hosting different kinds of baseball, like summer collegiate leagues, high school tournaments and showcases or private batting practices for the general public.
For others, especially those with spacious parking lots and high-quality videoboards, that meant drive-in movies. Others rented out their ballparks as Airbnbs. Others turned their outfields into restaurants. Some sold T-shirts to “commemorate” the season that wasn’t.
In a way, all of that was just an extension of what they would normally do starting now, assuming their team was eliminated from the playoffs. The moment baseball ends, minor league teams become event-hosting companies, using their facilities in as many ways as they can imagine to continue bringing in revenue for the seven months without baseball.
But this offseason will be different because of all of its surrounding uncertainty. For a start, there are likely to be 40 fewer affiliated teams next season if Major League Baseball’s plan to streamline and realign the minor leagues goes through as planned.
There are just 19 days until the Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and MiLB expires. Without a deal, MLB will likely welcome what it views as the 120 most attractive teams—in terms of location and facility quality—into a new, self-governed system of player-development.
But that process will take time to sort out, leaving clubs to tread water until they can figure out exactly what their 2021 season will look like, assuming the virus has been quashed and life can return to something resembling normalcy.
The first step to all that happening is simply having a schedule, which would have been in place months ago under normal circumstances. But until the PBA is settled and everybody knows who’s in and who’s out and which teams will be in which leagues, that can’t happen. Until then, teams are in a bind.
“How much more can we be hit with, right?” said Rocket City Trash Pandas owner Ralph Nelson, who has waited two seasons to see his team take the field for the first time.
“Right now, we don't know who is going to do our schedule. We don't know what teams are going to be in our league. And we don't know what cities are going to be in our league. And we don't know when we're going to get the schedule—normally you'd have your schedule in August.”
Not having a schedule obviously has a great effect on the certainty with which a team can do business. If a client wants to schedule an event at your park, but you don’t know whether the park will be available, that creates a bit of a problem. The 2020 season has been riddled with the unknown, which has caused massive downturns in terms of revenue.
Simply getting a schedule in-hand would go a long way toward teams beginning to get a clearer picture of what things might look like in 2021.
“And of course, next year's schedule has absolutely nothing to do with COVID-19, that has to do with the PBA,” Nelson said. “We don't have a schedule, and that kills us with group sales and it kills us with selling promotions and coming up with a promotions calendar and things like that.”
Although coming up with a promotional calendar without a schedule is challenging, there might be a little bit less legwork to do in terms of actually obtaining the promotional items for next year. A lot of the items slated to be given away this year—like bobbleheads of former players or team T-shirts—are evergreen enough to be given away next year.
There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part that means that teams won’t have to spend quite as much money to acquire giveaway trinkets. Instead, they just have to wait to see when they can hand them out to fans.
“Every year, there's a great deal of time and effort that goes into planning our promotional schedule and creating really engaging events, can't-miss events and just a really fun atmosphere for the folks that come through our gates.” Myrtle Beach Pelicans assistant GM Kristin Call said.
“And unfortunately we weren't able to bring those to life in 2020, but also we're still sitting on all of those great ideas. And I think it's just lining those up with what a 2021 schedule looks like. And that's just on the promotional side.”
Although nobody is sure what the situation with the virus will be like in April, teams must continue preparing for anything. Whether that’s a complete return to the way things were before the pandemic or a season which begins with reduced capacities, teams and their front offices must make plans to adapt.
In some cases, that could mean double-dipping. In other words, a team might use its ballpark for some sort of non-baseball event in the morning and early afternoon, then quickly pivot to game mode in the evening. This strategy, which could be particularly helpful on the weekends, could help a club bring in two streams of revenue in one day, which will be sorely needed after the wreckage left by 2020.
“That's when we really need to be busy, especially on the weekends. We have to take a look at our Saturdays and say, ‘OK, this facility is going to be essentially dark until game time at 6:35,’ ” Bowie Baysox general manager Brian Shallcross said. “(Then) you've got your batting practice times and then field times are going to be X. So what can we do between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., let's say. We might have an event in our parking lot, where there's a drive-in, or some sort of car show or something that's socially distanced that we can do leading up to the game.
“And so that's kind of going to be the challenge. And the opportunity that we're going to take a look at is: Every Saturday we've got from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. to make an event, so let's go out and find it.”
Until they get a schedule, every team is going to face challenges. That’s a given. But some teams in the short-season New York-Penn and Northwest Leagues face more variability than others. Under one scenario, those clubs could become full-season next year. Under another, however, they would move up in classification but keep the same season length as always.
It’s one thing to not know if you have a home game on the Fourth of July. It’s entirely another to be in the dark about whether your season will start in April or June, which affects the timelines needed to begin reaching out to potential clients for a variety of things.
Additionally, a short-season club becoming a full-season club could also affect any current deals.
“I would imagine a lot of these businesses are set up to host extra events, and I would imagine those extra events are under contract,” said Staten Island Yankees president Will Smith, who has worked in the front offices for short-season and full-season clubs. “(Staten Island) has a deal right now with the MAAC for another two years to host their Division I conference tournament.
“I’m curious about what kind of multi-year deals they might be in the middle of that might be affected by (a change to full-season). Now, some of them could probably be put together on off-days or road trips or things like that. That would be an interesting one.”
Then there’s the question of staffing. A short-season club might not need as many employees as a full-season club, but it certainly needs time to assess the situation before the season. Without a schedule, that’s another decision club brass can’t make with any degree of certainty.
Beyond that, there are questions about how much inventory a team needs to order—from merchandise, to concessions and everything in between. A full-season club is going to need more than a short-season club.
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Simply having any of those problems, however, could be counted as somewhat of a blessing considering that some of their league-mates have likely already played their last games as affiliated clubs.
“If we’re given an opportunity like this, then it’s on us as operators to make the most of it,” one Northwest League executive said. “We’ve got to look at it positively. We can’t look at it as a negative. We’ve got to look at this positively, and if we’re smart enough and good enough operators, we’ll figure out a way to make this happen.”
For the teams that aren’t so lucky, the cancelation was an especially cruel cut. It meant no chance to take a final bow, to bring their community together one last time to say goodbye to an era.
Major League Baseball has promised as part of its One Baseball plan, cities that lose affiliated baseball will have it replaced by the game in another form, whether it’s a summer wood-bat league, an independent team or some sort of amateur showcase.
While the list of teams to be cut isn’t final, some of the teams who appeared on the version reported by the New York Times and Baseball America in November were counting on somewhat of an attendance bump caused by the chance that this season would be the team’s last.
Now, because of the pandemic, what was supposed to be a rousing final act was cut short before the curtain could open.
“Before this whole COVID-19 thing, this season was shaping up to be one of our best seasons ever because of the threat of elimination,” an executive of one team potentially on the cut list said. “We had people itching to come see what could be the last season, and then to have this season taken away, honestly, it’s really, really hard to put into words.”