Some cities and towns in New York have hosted professional baseball teams for more than a century — but not this year, thanks to COVID-19
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For more than 120 years, Red Wings games have been the most reliable part of every Rochester summer.
The name on the front of their uniforms has changed and they've called different ballparks home, but the Rochester Red Wings are the oldest minor league baseball team in North America, having fielded a team each year since the late 1890s.
But in Rochester and many other New York communities, this will be a summer without baseball.
When Minor League Baseball officials announced last week that they were canceling the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it broke the hearts of fans young and old. In 2020 there will be no mascot races, no bobblehead giveaways, no lazy summer evenings sipping a local craft beer and watching a game from the bleachers with friends and family.
"We're really disappointed," said Red Wings president and CEO Naomi Silver. "Our fans have been disappointed all season long. The sadness of not having ballgames to attend makes it feel like it's not really summer."
For many Americans, baseball has served as an escape from their workday worries. We call it the "National Pastime," after all, because it offers a respite from the real world. Such a respite would have been most welcome during the difficult days of this global pandemic that has forced everyone to spend the last four months spring in quarantine, working from home, or dealing with the many other ways that life has changed.
“It is unfortunate that at a time when baseball could have been a real source of healing, we have been unable to provide it for our community," Silver said.
The official cancellation of the season causes more practical concerns for the folks who earn their living working in minor league baseball.
The Red Wings have dozens of full-time employees, many of whom have already been furloughed. Hundreds of seasonal workers never got a chance to start their season.
"It's a tough financial situation for us," Silver said. "We have put some money away for a rainy day, so to speak, but nobody is prepared for a whole season of rainy days."
The minor leagues are not just a training ground for ballplayers who aspire to a big league career, they're also a stepping stone for front-office employees who want to work for a major league team.
"One of the groups that really is missing out are the interns who start here," Silver said. "This is such a jumping-off point for them. These kids just aren't going to have that same opportunity."
The Red Wings have been creative in finding ways to generate revenue at Frontier Field without any games on the field such as a drive-in theater in the parking lot and dinners on the ballfield.
Expect to see more of these non-baseball events at the ballpark in the coming months.
"We had been holding out hope that there might be baseball so we held dates open for games," Silver said. "Now we can fill them with other activities as larger gatherings are allowed."
Businesses impacted, fans disappointed
Minor League Baseball means major league business, and not just for the team.
While minor league baseball franchises will lose revenue for the season without fans attending games, so will surrounding businesses who are patronized by fans either before or after games.
Across Route 9D from Dutchess Stadium in Fishkill, where the Hudson Valley Renegades typically draw tens of thousands of fans each summer, there is Leo’s Italian Restaurant — a popular pizzeria.
Manager Danny Maniscalchi said Leo’s normally sees more business not just on Renegades’ game days, but when the stadium hosts other events.
“I would say, yes, we’ll feel an impact (with the loss of the season),” Maniscalchi said.
In the same plaza with Leo’s is Toppings, a frozen yogurt shop. In close proximity are also two diners — the I-84 and the Red Line — which likewise receive business from fans before and after Renegades games.
"Baseball brings real money to our community and brings a real paycheck in real peoples’ pockets,” Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro said. “That partnership is critical. The loss of this season will have a financial impact on a lot of people, businesses and certainly our community.”
Steve Gliner, the Renegades president and general manager, said there will be a “significant impact” on the club, too. The Renegades employ several hundred people serving in different roles, from parking lot attendants, concession stand workers and grounds crew to front office workers and interns.
“So many businesses have been impacted similarly as a result of this insidious virus,” Gliner said. “We are already looking ahead to better days in the near future.”
While businesses will feel a sting, so too will fans looking for a night out.
Roy Underwood of Marlboro has hosted a Renegades player every year since 2015, as part of the organization’s host family program. He said the season’s cancellation will leave a “void in the summer,” but understands why the league decided to forgo the campaign.
“People have lost their lives to this virus, so we are not complaining,” he said. “We’re just dealing with the new way of life.”
Conversely, his daughter, 5-year-old Alana, said she is going to “miss having a big brother baseball player” living at their house this year.
Last year, the Renegades drew 148,158 fans to their 36 home games — an average of 4,116 fans per game, according to Minor League Baseball. That was second-best in the New York-Penn League, behind only the Brooklyn Cyclones.
Baseball's future in Auburn
With Major League Baseball bent on lopping 40-plus minor league teams — the New York-Penn League included — the Auburn Doubledays’ days as an affiliated organization appear numbered. The first summer since 1981 devoid of professional baseball in the Cayuga County city isn’t likely to be the last.
Welcome to the show, David Lindberg, Doubledays general manager. Little did he know when he was appointed in January what the near future would hold.
“A lot of our fans are local, season ticket holders who’ve been in the community for 30, 40, 50, 60 years who grew up on the Doubledays. For them not to be able to come out for the season? That was the first thought I had,” Lindberg said of 2020 cancellation.
Auburn joined the New York-Penn League in 1958 and has been a part of numerous major league chains, presently the Washington Nationals. Those who’ve passed through include Jim Bouton, Tug McGraw, Jerry Koosman, Lonnie Smith, and Ozzie Virgil.
As for the future of professional baseball in Auburn?
“Really it’s a day-by-day approach,” Lindberg said. “Right now, wrap up the 2020 season with everything going on and then try to start building out to the 2021 season."
John Gotsis owns Kosta’s Barr & Grill, a mile-and-a-half from the ballpark. Players and their families, Doubledays fans, team personnel pop in for grub and a beverage. The impact of no baseball for the foreseeable future is to be determined.
“It varies,” Gotsis said. “Yes, you have people traveling, coming to Auburn. We do catering jobs for the Doubledays and the other team. This year, we’re not going to do anything. I don’t know how much we get from the Doubledays, but every little bit helps.”
Concern in Binghamton
Tenuous at best is the future of the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, Double-A affiliate of the New York Mets since 1992 and known as the Binghamton Mets until 2017.
Looming elimination of the New York Penn League would likely prompt the Mets to shift the Brooklyn Cyclones to the Eastern League, the Rumble Ponies' league.
That could leave Binghamton, a Broome County city with professional baseball roots tracing to 1877, without a Major League affiliate.
“Right now, my primary focus is to secure the future of the Double-A Rumble Ponies in Binghamton,” said Binghamton Mayor Richard David. “If or when that possibility no longer exists, then we will have to look at alternative scenarios for the stadium. But at this point based on the information I have, I believe that’s premature.”
David said several entities have reached out expressing interest in the stadium in the event contraction and its trickle-down chops the Rumble Ponies.
Alex Jaffe, owner of downtown eateries The Colonial and Dos Rios Cantina, is among those who have felt the hit of no baseball within a mile of his establishments.
“Obviously it’s a small city so it’s always a lot of fun when there is something that families can go to," he said. "A lot of people would come in before and after games. It does kind of stink that we really do not have that anymore in Binghamton.”
So, too, is there a void in Karen Goodman’s warm-weather routine. The retired SUNY Broome professor has had an eye on the team that to her will always be the B-Mets since the franchise’s inception.
“I’m really disappointed," she said. "There’s nothing better on a beautiful, sunny summer afternoon than watching a baseball game."
Richard Tylicki, the Rumble Ponies' director of stadium operations and the organization’s longest-tenured employee, noted the economic sting of baseball’s shutdown: Loss of summer employment for teenagers, unoccupied rooms at the Holiday Inn, players’ families no longer supporting downtown businesses.
But Tylicki addressed the bigger picture given the likelihood of contraction.
“I’m worried that we could have a small — I don’t want to call it an industrial disaster, but all these people that will get laid off,” he said. “Like, if I get laid off, will I just leave the industry and go somewhere else? Where does that leave baseball next year when it restarts with not enough experienced people?”
The Bisons' absence in Buffalo
What was to have been the 136th season of professional baseball in Buffalo has instead become the first since 1978 that the Bisons will not play a professional season.
“The thing about Minor League Baseball is it’s such a part of the community, it’s part of summer and this whole thing has drastically altered what spring and summer have been,” said Brad Bisbing, Bisons assistant general manager.
Bisbing said he had held out hope that the Bisons, the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, could be part of the healing process, that coming out to the ballpark would be a sign of live getting back to normal. Instead, the absence of baseball will be another hardship for fans to endure,
“Minor League Baseball is fun, you go to the ballpark so you can forget about worries or your workday or whatever, that’s why you go to Minor League Baseball," Bisbing said.
"Obviously you cheer for the home team and you want to see wins. But at the end of the day it’s much more than about winning and losing, it’s having a relaxing night at the ballpark to have fun with friends and family and do so knowing it’s an affordable night, knowing it’s family-friendly and safe.”
Baseball’s shutdown deals a blow to eateries nearby downtown Sahlen Field, which with a capacity of 16,600 is one of MiLB’s largest. Attendance for the 2019 season was 518,741.
Union Pub is the tavern/eatery nearest the ballpark. General manager Jay Medynski billed it probably the No. 1 destination pre- and postgame.
“It’s huge,” he said of the summer without baseball. “We’re in a good proximity to the arena, so not only are we losing this baseball season, we also lost the tail end of (Buffalo Sabres) hockey, which we’re really big with."
He fully anticipates regular clientele to return when local sports revisit normalcy.
“Absolutely. We would have diehards for baseball, hockey and everything, this was their go-to place,” he said. “It’s a part of the whole baseball experience in the area, not just downtown but people from south towns, north towns were coming into the Union Pub prior and postgame.”
Elimination of some teams looms
The Tri-City ValleyCats in Troy were considering a variety of ways to have some semblance of a season this summer, such as having limited attendance by removing some of the rows of seating.
But when Minor League Baseball announced June 30 that MLB would not send players to its affiliated teams, it spelled the end to any hope of a season for the Single-A Astros affiliate or any minor-league team across the nation.
"We had been optimistic we’d be able to play in some capacity, but we also recognized this was a potential outcome and prepared accordingly," said the ValleyCats GM Matt Callahan.
Now, he said, "We’re trying to move forward with what we can do at the ballpark."
That includes renting out Joseph L. Bruno Stadium at Hudson Valley Community College to youth sports or even sending its mascot, Southpaw, out to birthday parties in the Albany area.
For minor league teams, playing without fans, like MLB will try to do, wasn't a viable financial option, since they do not have major revenue generators like TV deals.
The ValleyCats are not one of the teams expected to be on the chopping block in the New York-Penn League in 2021, but it is unclear if the team will be moved to Double-A ball or to a longer Single-A season.
No baseball this season will be a hole for the Albany area, where the ValleyCats draw about 4,000 fans a night.
The team's attendance was nearly 132,000 last year, ranking third behind the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Hudson Valley Renegades in the 14-team league.
The Batavia Muckdogs and Auburn Doubledays ranked at the bottom with less than 1,200 fans a night. Both teams are expected to be eliminated.
"There’s no doubt in my mind that the communities that lose minor league baseball will feel that effect, and I’m sad to see that as a possibility on the horizon," Callahan said.