A couple of weeks ago, the Sugar Land Skeeters, of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB), announced their intention to form a four-team professional baseball league at Constellation Field, beginning July 3 and running through Aug. 23.
On June 30, the team announced that they were delaying the start of the league by a week to July 10. The delay comes as cases of COVID-19 soar to new heights in Texas leading to serious questions about whether the start will be pushed back again when July 10 rolls around.
To be clear, in lieu of a miracle, it is highly unlikely that the state of COVID-19 in Texas will be better in a week. In fact, if the spike in cases that followed Memorial Day is any indication, displays of patriotism and group gatherings for the July 4th Weekend are likely to send COVID-19 cases soaring like a roman candle reaching for the heavens.
I get that the Skeeters want to have their league succeed. I want their league to succeed as well. But the outlook is not too favorable for that to happen in the current COVID-19 climate.
The same day that the Skeeters announced the seven-day season slippage, Minor League Baseball (MiLB) made the announcement many people already knew was coming, and said that there would be no MiLB season this year.
As noted many times before, MiLB is my absolute favorite form of baseball, and the fact that the season has been cancelled makes me truly sick to my stomach because of all of the employees who will get laid off, as well as knowing that many of the players and some of the teams may not be around when the 2021 season rolls around next April.
There is always high turnover in any MiLB season as some players move up, and others just quietly retire having never reached the pinnacle of playing in the Show. This year the normal ebb and flow of player movement has a new element called contraction.
In November 2019, before the world was gripped by a global pandemic, MLB announced that it wanted to eliminate around 42 minor league affiliates and keep about 120 affiliates tied to 30 MLB clubs, or roughly four MILB teams per MLB club, as a cost savings measure. The COVID-19 pandemic just sped that process along and meant that some Ballparks would not get a farewell season.
Of course, MLB said a few years back that they wanted to get rid of a few teams and placed the Expos and the Twins on the chopping block. Although the Expos left Montreal and became the Nationals, the last time I checked we still have 30 MLB franchises.
Congressional leaders are also likely to weigh in on any plan that would take baseball away from their constituents.
So, I am cautiously optimistic that MLB will back off of their plan to reduce the ranks of MiLB, but something tells me they will keep their foot on the gas.
From a big picture MLB perspective, I understand that they want to streamline the operation to have fewer players and better facilities across the board in the farm system of the future. In recent years, MLB clubs even started owning their farm teams as a means to control costs from Rookie ball to MLB. As such, the MiLB owners were already getting pushed aside in many markets.
I know that baseball is a business. One need only listen to MLB owners complain about lost revenue during the 2020 season to know where many of their heads are at. But, for many of the smaller communities that are served by MiLB teams, baseball is an extension of the community and a part of the lifeblood that pumps from generation to generation.
The last MiLB game in Orlando was played in 2003 and it left a void for baseball fans in the region. Granted, the loss of a MiLB team in Orlando is not going to have the same effect as the loss of a team in a smaller community. While they currently do not have professional baseball, Orlando has college sports at the University of Central Florida, the Orlando Magic, the Orlando Solar Bears, Orlando City, and Orlando Pride. Of course, if Pat Williams has his way Orlando will become an MLB city someday.
Contrast the sport heavy balance sheet of Orlando with say Billings, Montana. Billings, and many other cities where MiLB is played, do not have other professional sports nearby. So, a night at the Ballpark is literally the only game in town when it comes to professional sports in many markets. Besides offering entertainment for fans, the Ballparks offer employment for everything from ticket takers to ushers.
If the teams go away, the jobs will go away as well.
If MLB really does go through with their plan of reducing the ranks of MiLB as a way to save a buck, I really hope that non-affiliated baseball leagues like the ALPB and others can fill the void and keep baseball in the towns affected by the loss of their MiLB franchise.
I know there are people who will stand up and shout that independent baseball is not the same as affiliated baseball. I will not argue that point, other than to say that if I had a choice between having an Independent League team in my town, or no baseball team in my town, I am going to go with having the Independent League team every time.
Of course, the reality is that some owners may not have the resources to run an Independent baseball team without the support that went along with being affiliated with MLB.
That is why the baseball fan in me wants to see the Skeeters summer league succeed so that the players and staff don’t have to worry about losing their jobs. Of course, when I put on my reporter hat, I still cannot justify putting fans and players at risk of catching COVID-19 just to play ball.
MLB is still planning a return at the end of July for their 60-games in 66 days mini season, but many more players each day are choosing to opt out of the season.
It is a tough calculus that I really hope we are not faced with again once the COVID-19 pandemic is finally defeated thanks to either a vaccine, or effective therapeutics, that allow the world to fully reopen again.
When that day of reopening does occur, I will be one of the first people in line at the Ballpark to see the game I love played once more. Sadly, the residents of up to 42 communities may not be as lucky.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to celebrate Bobby Bonilla Day.
Copyright 2020 R. Anderson