2020 season a whiff for most area minor league teams

The Southern Maryland Blue Crabs take on the Sugar Land Skeeters in an Atlantic League game Friday, July 19, 2019. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

Not that there was much hope by this point, but the agreement that gave the green light to Major League Baseball in 2020 also officially ended any hope of a minor league season for teams including the Bowie Baysox, Frederick Keys and Fredericksburg Nationals.

The decision by MLB to forego minor league seasons had long been considered a foregone conclusion by the time a deal was actually reached, said Brian Shallcross, the general manager of the Bowie Baysox.

It forced him to let go more than half the full-time staff, leaving seven full-time employees with the Baysox.

Shallcross said the shutdown of a minor league season hurts worse than most people might think.

“Our business has been essentially shut down since September of 2019. … We have no income in the wintertime.”

“For us, you’re looking at not reopening until April of 2021,” he added. “So from September 2019 to April 2021 — that’s an enormous amount of time to be closed.”

For now, the organization, along with other minor league teams, is brainstorming about other events that could be held at the stadium, which, being large and outdoors, could allow for social distancing. Shallcross hopes they’ll be able to host events by late July or August. There was a proposal for a drive-through fireworks display on July 4 in the large parking lot of Prince George’s Stadium. That was denied; Shawcross admitted that was probably the right call.

The Baysox have also been in talks with the Baltimore Orioles about the use of their facility when the big-league season resumes. Minor league teams won’t be playing games, but each team will have a taxi squad of players working out and playing ball in the event someone on the big league roster gets hurt or traded or simply isn’t effective.

Having that squad work out just a few miles outside Baltimore would offer an advantage,  compared with using the Orioles’ spring training facility in Sarasota, Florida.

“Those discussions are underway right now,” said Shallcross. “We’ll be an asset for the Baltimore Orioles. … We want to be a help and we have a facility here.”

‘Play ball’ in Waldorf

But while teams affiliated with Major League Baseball aren’t going to play, that’s not the case for the Waldorf-based Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, who play in the independent Atlantic League.

In the coming weeks, the team is expected to begin play in a 70-game season, with 35 home games, said Blue Crabs general manager Courtney Knichel.

“We’re really thankful to our local county commissioners who have told us that we can open in front of 25% capacity,” said Knichel. “That, mixed –hopefully — with some sponsorship revenue, some concessions revenue — it’s not going to be what we initially planned for before all of this happened in early spring, but it should be just enough to keep us viable heading into the fall and planning for the 2021 season.”

Knichel said she hasn’t had to lay off or furlough any workers yet.

The Blue Crabs’  season is expected to start sometime in mid- to late July, though plans haven’t been finalized yet.

Minor league baseball is known for in-game entertainment and silly moments between innings, and right now it’s not clear to what degree those aspects will be affected, though Knichel said solo gimmicks, such as a “sing for your supper” promotion or trivia games between innings, will likely continue. A playground inside the ballpark for young kids to run around in will be closed.

The Blue Crabs have been hosting other events inside their ballpark. This week, the team hosted a baseball camp — capped at 20 players per day — which sold out.

“We hope that we are able to provide a safe place for parents to feel like they can bring their children and still celebrate the game of baseball and have a little bit of normalcy,” said Knichel.

But while the Baysox and Blue Crabs are confident they’ll be able to get through this and return in 2021, other minor league teams may not be so lucky. MLB has been pressing ahead with a plan to cut up to 25% of minor league teams in the future: The Frederick Keys are one team rumored to be facing elimination.

Even without that plan, this pandemic and a canceled season is a lot for some of those teams to bear.

“It’s not a very profitable industry,” said Shallcross. “It simply is not.”

He said while the Baysox secured loans that will help the organization get through the rest of the year, “There’s no guarantee that other teams and other ownerships will do that, and will have the business prospects to pay back that loan as well. It’s kind of been a double whammy for us because you do have Major League Baseball looking to slim down the sport in general.”

“But the economic impact will be devastating to small communities.”

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John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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