One week after flipping the lights back on for its 2020 season, Major League Baseball pulled the plug on the minor league season Tuesday.
The announcement of the official cancellation of the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic was expected. The impact on the 160-team industry is grim.
More than half the teams will not be able to survive without congressional intervention or equity infusions, and the effects could linger for as long as until the 2024 season, Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner said in a teleconference Tuesday night.
“We are in dire straits, and I still have grave concerns,” said O’Conner, who speaks for an industry dependent on having fans in the stands. Add on the fact that minor league baseball already was facing a precarious future because of contentious talks with Major League Baseball over a new Professional Baseball Agreement, and the magnitude of Tuesday’s development is apparent.
“This is the perfect storm,” added O’Conner. “There are very many teams that are not liquid, not solvent, not able to proceed under normal circumstances, and these are anything but normal circumstances given the PBA and the uncertainty of the future for some of these ball clubs.
“I think the coronavirus has really cut into many clubs’ ability to make it. I think we’re looking at, without some government intervention, without doing something to take on equity partners, you might be looking at half of the 160 who are going to have serious problems.”
MLB had put off a formal decision pending the resolution of protracted negotiations with the MLB Players Association over the contours of a shortened major league season. The sides agreed last Tuesday on a 60-game schedule beginning July 23 or 24.
In the 160 communities across the country where affiliated minor league teams play, fans have been without their low-cost family-entertainment summertime option since early April for full-season leagues. For New England-based Red Sox affiliates, they include the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox, who were scheduled to play their final season at McCoy Stadium in Rhode Island before moving to Worcester next year, and the Double A Portland Sea Dogs in Maine.
The Lowell Spinners of the short-season New York-Penn League were supposed to begin playing June 17.
In a statement, the PawSox noted that this will be the first season in 137 years — since the International League was founded in 1884 — that there will be no baseball. They hope to stage a “fitting farewell” to their home park, 78-year-old McCoy Stadium, before moving to Worcester’s Polar Park next year.
“Naturally, as baseball fans, we are deeply disappointed to not have a summer of PawSox baseball, especially in our 50th anniversary season,” said club president Dr. Charles Steinberg. “Yet all of us recognize that the health, safety, and well-being of our players, fans, and entire community are paramount. But we will keep the faith; this may not be how the story ends.”
Fans with tickets to 2020 PawSox home games will be contacted by the club’s ticket office for refund options.
In a statement, the Sea Dogs said: “While this decision was not unexpected, we are saddened to know we will not be hosting games at Hadlock Field this summer. As an organization we are now shifting our attention to planning and preparing for 2021.”
The Sea Dogs said fans can hang on to their 2020 tickets for the 2021 season or request refunds.
In their statement, the Spinners said they are “officially on hiatus” but “look forward to developing opportunities to bring joy and excitement to LeLacheur Park at the appropriate time later this year.” The club also said all ticket deposits and group purchases for 2020 will be credited for next season at 110 percent of ticket value.
With no fans coming through the turnstiles, minor league teams have been trying to find alternate revenue sources. The PawSox have established “Ballpark Dining” at McCoy Stadium, while the Sea Dogs will open a nine-hole, target-style golf course at Hadlock Field in early July.
The development of thousands of players in the farm systems of the 30 major league clubs was interrupted when the pandemic prompted the closing of spring training camps in Florida and Arizona in mid-March.
Spring training resumes Wednesday, with major league clubs inviting varying amounts of minor leaguers to camps. The numbers will increase to fill out “taxi squads” when the games begin in late July.
O’Conner had been hopeful that MiLB might be able to stage its own shortened season, but the spike in COVID-19 cases in certain areas of the country dashed those dreams.
O’Conner is more hopeful that a new loan program before Congress will help keep clubs afloat.
Talks with MLB over a new PBA are at a standstill, but O’Conner believes they can resume once MLB is able to get its abbreviated season underway in late July.
“I don’t think there’s any question this will change minor league baseball as we know it going forward,” said O’Conner. “Regardless of the number of teams, there is going to be some attrition along the way, either financial or logistical. This is going to change the country, it’s going to change the way we look at our country, the way we operate as a country. Baseball is not going to escape that change.”