Andrew Dunn kept a close eye on the minor league movement out west last summer.
When news broke that the Bakersfield and High Desert franchises would be leaving the California League, Dunn, the commissioner of the Pecos League, started to receive calls about adding teams to his independent league.
The Pecos League already had teams in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Kansas. Knowing there would soon be two cities without baseball teams, Dunn saw an opportunity to expand. The Pecos League added the High Desert Yardbirds and the Bakersfield Blaze this season.
“Logically, there’s people who are gonna want baseball there,” Dunn said.
The next minor league shuffle is scheduled for 2019, when Rookie-level Helena of the Pioneer League leaves for Colorado Springs.
Helena, a Brewers affiliate, plays at Kindrick Legion Field, which opened in 1932 and last season drew the fewest fans in the Pioneer League. In a maneuver involving four cities, three minor league teams and two new stadiums, Helena was the odd city out.
The story was similar for the two contracted California League teams. Bakersfield played at Sam Lynn Ballpark, which opened in 1942, and drew poorly. The Mavericks ranked just ahead in terms of attendance. In their place, the Carolina League added two North Carolina-based franchises. Fayetteville is building a new ballpark.
“I think these communities have to realize, the expectation from Major League Baseball to host affiliated teams is high, and if they’re not going to meet those standards, they won’t have a team,” Dunn said. “They’ll just build a stadium somewhere else.”
In 2016, Double-A New Britain of the Eastern League moved to Hartford, where the franchise opened a new ballpark this year.
The independent Atlantic League added a new team in its place called the New Britain Bees.
Atlantic League president Rick White said there are definitely challenges to trying to establish a new team in a community already familiar with affiliated baseball. White mentioned the difficulty of the Bees to establish their own identity.
At the same time, he knows there are still many fans in town who just want to see a baseball game. The Bees drew an average crowd of 3,302 last year, compared with 4,051 in 2015, when New Britain was an affiliated club.
“Most fans want to go out and have fun at the ballpark,” White said. “They want it to be a safe, clean hospitable environment, where they’re treated properly and they get to watch baseball.”
The initial reception in the Pecos League had been similar.
Some fans were resistant to embrace the new clubs in Bakersfield and High Desert. Dunn said for those who follow baseball closely there is a disappointment in losing an affiliated team.
Tim Wheeler had worked for the Blaze as a scorekeeper for 22 seasons before the team left town. Wheeler has taken the same position with the new Pecos League team, the Train Robbers.
Attendance is way down in Bakersfield, but the die-hard fans still turn up at the ballpark, Wheeler said.
He added that he still has optimism that the Train Robbers will eventually drum up more interest in a town that doesn’t have another baseball team within 80 miles.
“Maybe, little by little, people start to come back at least for a night at the ballpark,” Wheeler said. n