The lost 2020 minor league baseball season is a still life interpreted with different hues, a notion made tangible by the very different visions of an empty calendar for the Red Sox’ three New England affiliates.
The Pawtucket Red Sox straddle a divide between a ballpark they are leaving in Rhode Island and one they are building in Worcester, trying to honor their legacy in one city while creating one in another. With the contraction of 42 minor league teams and the elimination of short-season leagues expected, the Lowell Spinners stare into an abyss of the unknown, their future as a Red Sox affiliate — and even as an affiliate of any big league team — uncertain.
Elsewhere, teams face potential bankruptcy, or questions about whether they’re willing to continue to invest in their employees and team. With 2020 revenues all but wiped out for minor league teams that depend on the in-person ballpark experience, and a shadow of uncertainty hovering over 2021, numerous minor league franchises confront profound change — and perhaps elimination — by next year.
And then there are the Portland Sea Dogs — a Double A franchise whose year without baseball has merely reinforced the strength of the organization’s roots in their city and region. Unlike the other local Red Sox minor league affiliates, a largely empty year at Hadlock Field represents not an end, but instead a painful, temporary interruption.
“There could very well be teams that just stop not because the majors want it, but because they can’t make it through it,” said Bill Burke, who owns the Sea Dogs with his sister, Sally McNamara. “We are committed to this franchise. It’s family ownership. There are other franchises with 10 to 20 owners. That can get tricky when times are tough. Some want out, others don’t want to invest. We don’t have that issue.
“Every indication from the Red Sox is that they are pleased with us. Knowing we have their commitment is really important to us. We have a long-term lease with the city of Portland. Everything is in place. It’s going to be really hard, but we’re committed to getting through it.”
Because of their stable position, in fact, the Sea Dogs were in position to head directly toward the hardship early in the season. In mid-March, the team stared unblinkingly at its likely fate.
Minor league teams make, on average, $70,000 in revenue per game from tickets, merchandise, and concessions, a figure that Burke characterized as “directionally accurate” for the Sea Dogs. Before the start of the season, Portland accepted that it would make almost none of that as the COVID-19 pandemic exploded and shut down industries across the country.
Nonetheless, the team committed to paying all of its full-time employees (18) and game-day staffers (roughly 250) through the season. Before the end of April, though the season hadn’t been canceled, the team likewise committed to refunding the money of any 2020 ticket holders.
“We basically decided as an ownership group with our front office staff that we’re going to lose a lot of money this year. There’s no way around that,” said Burke. “What we don’t want to lose is our relationship with the community, the trust the sponsors have in us, the faith the fans put in us, our relationship with the Red Sox — those are the things we wanted to make sure we continued to invest in. That’s been our focus. So early on, with all the uncertainty, we decided let’s not make everybody wait.”
Yet with that early commitment by the team came striking evidence of reciprocal sentiments from the fan base and community. According to team president Geoff Iacuessa, roughly 75 percent of season ticket account holders and the “overwhelming majority” of sponsors told the team to keep their money and roll it over into the 2021 season.
For some, that commitment was a product of the scale of minor league baseball. Money spent on tickets wasn’t merely disappearing into a corporate black hole, but supported Hadlock Field staffers who are on a first-name basis with many patrons.
“I’m all in for next season. Part of the reason for that is I think it’s important for the price of my season tickets to go to support the effort that the Sea Dogs make,” said season ticket holder Craig Gray. “If they can use some of my money to make sure that one of the ushers gets paid, I’m all in. I know I’ll be there next year or in the future. I want to make sure that the Sea Dogs always remain an important and a viable part of the Maine community, the greater Portland community. I think they have a very important role here in the fabric of Maine society.”
That role, of course, has been challenged in unprecedented ways in 2020. The absence of games as community events represents a significant disruption in the daily rhythms of Portland’s summer, whether those who attend as spectators or those who work at Hadlock.
“It’s like I have a family [at Hadlock] — not only the employees and management but the fans. You know the season-ticket holder. You get to know the people with disabilities. I think that’s the big void,” said Hadlock Field ambassador Rod MacPhie. “It’s a nine-inning vacation. When the gates open and the fans come in, it feels like we’re improving the happiness of these fans coming in here. … The thing that I miss is the friendship and the daily routine of going into the ballpark.”
Without games, the Sea Dogs staff has looked for ways to serve the community — including pursuing a virtual model for the team’s longstanding Strike Out Cancer In Kids program, and promoting blood and food drives. More recently, the team has tried to bring people back to their ballpark, initially with curbside food and merchandise sales in June, and more recently with the transformation of Hadlock into “Hadlinks” — a socially distanced, nine-hole target golf course this month.
The reopening of the ballpark, even in an atypical form, offered a measure of hope for the franchise.
“Just seeing how beautiful the field looked, even with golf pins on it, you can’t help but think about what it’s like when it’s packed,” said Burke. “That sort of helps us get through, visualizing how much fun that’s going to be. We don’t know when it’s going to be, but it’s coming and we’ll get there.”
But when? That remains unresolved. The Sea Dogs would love to say that by the start of 2021, Hadlock will throw open its doors.
But it’s almost impossible to anticipate the public health environment and regulations next spring, forcing Portland officials to plan for a number of scenarios in a potential 2021 season. The path forward has yet to be defined — and is certain to be challenging.
The money that ticket holders and sponsors kept invested in the team this year represents revenue that won’t be available next season. Meanwhile, there are no guarantees regarding the number of fans who will be allowed back into the park, at least at the start of 2021.
“I’m optimistic that within a few years, things will be able to be back to the way that they were last season and the previous seasons, but I don’t know that that’s going to be for next year — at least right now,” said Iacuessa. “I’m staying optimistic. I believe we’re going to get back to a place and time where you’re able to get together in large gatherings, and baseball is hopefully a big part of the recovery. … It’s tough to say that’s 2021. Realistically, we have to prepare ourselves to have a different looking season.”
Even so, the Sea Dogs and their fans have the benefit of knowing that they have time to find their way to the other side of the pandemic, and that at some point, thousands will once again congregate at Hadlock.
“The Sea Dogs are synonymous with Portland. It’s refreshing,” said MacPhie. “They’ve come out and said, ‘We will be back.’ It will be different, but they will be back.”