The 2020 season was supposed to be a celebration for the Fredericksburg Nationals. After 35 years, the team had moved from Woodbridge, Virginia.
They built a new ballpark, but unlike in “Field of Dreams,” no one came. The minor league baseball season was canceled.
“We’ve been trying to build a new ballpark for more than a decade, and we’ve built a new ballpark,” said Seth Silber, whose family has owned the P-Nats, now FredNats, since 1990. “It is beyond a dream for our family. We just need to be a little bit more patient to have affiliated baseball played on our field.”
The Fredericksburg Nationals are the Nats’ Single-A affiliate.
The Bowie Baysox have been the Orioles’ Double-A affiliate since 1989. Brian Shallcross has been their general manager since 2003.
Even though he knew that news the minor league season was going to be canceled was coming, Shallcross said it still hit him hard.
“This is my life’s work as far as my career. So, on a personal level, when your life’s work is ripped from you, it has to hurt, and it certainly does,” he said.
Shallcross said he gets emotional because he had to lay off staff, and he thinks about all the families that have enjoyed experiences at Prince George’s Stadium.
“I often say that I work for smiles,” he said. “When you don’t see those smiles and all you see is an empty stadium, you really feel a little bit lost, like you’re not playing a role in the community that you’re supposed to play.”
Most minor league teams are locally owned, and Silber said the bond goes both ways.
BEFORE THE PANDEMIC: Minor League Baseball under threat of contraction
“We’ve been reaching out to all our season ticket holders and sponsors, and the support has been overwhelming,” Silber said. “They’re just excited to show up next year and they’ll all be here.”
Silber said the Fredericksburg Nationals are a long-term family business with every generation from father to grandkids involved.
“This is a lifelong dream,” he said. “We take a long view of it. We feel so beyond fortunate to be in Fredericksburg. They’ve welcomed us, they supported us.”
He added emotionally, “We’ll get by a pandemic, we’ll move on and we’ll have a blast here for decades to come.”
First, they have to survive this year.
Minor League President Pat O’Conner said minor league teams generate up to 90% of their revenue through game-day ticket sales, concessions and advertising.
“There isn’t big TV or radio rights in minor league baseball,” Silber said. “So, we rely on the fans and the local businesses to support us and the support here has been tremendous. We’re selling for 2021.”
Shallcross added that there’s no way — from a business perspective — that they could have played without fans in the stands.
“We receive almost nothing from TV rights, and everything is about the experience at the ballpark,” Shallcross said.
Looking optimistically ahead, Silber said sponsorship and ticket sales, for the most part, will roll into next year.
“In some ways, coming to this community at this time was the greatest thing to happen for us, to be in a place where the support really is that strong,” Silber said.
The Baysox have a similar bond with their fans.
Shallcross said he is encouraged that people have reached out to him.
When he asks them to roll over their ticket plan, he said the response is often, “‘Brian, we’ll see you in 2021. Keep our money.”
Shallcross said that tells him that they’ve been a good partner. “
“We’re a local business,” Shallcross said. “When you talk about the cliché of shopping local, there is nothing — I mean nothing — more local than shopping at a minor league baseball team.”
After all, Bowie and Baltimore are just 27 miles apart.
“We look at ourselves as the breeding ground for Orioles fans,” Shallcross said. “Just like we take the young players to be up with the Orioles, we feel the same way about the fans. We’re cultivating the fan base.”
While the minors provide family fun at an affordable price, they also prepare players for the Majors, and Silber takes great pride in that.
“For the current Nats, 11 guys on the World Series roster played for us,” Silber said. “Seeing [Juan] Soto and [Ryan] Zimmerman and all these guys succeed, we take tremendous pride in that.”
Shallcross said the Baysox also feel proud the first day one of their players gets called up.
“You’ve built the relationship not only with the player, but the family,” Shallcross said. “To be any part of that pure joy of making the Major Leagues, that’s what separates, I believe, baseball from other sports.
It’s that grind. Almost no player goes directly from college or high school to the Major Leagues. That’s why minor league baseball is so important in our sport.”
However, losing a year of development may eventually end that dream for many.
“It certainly is going to be a setback,” Silber said. “Baseball is the hardest game to play and develop and get up to the Big Leagues and most people don’t realize how many years these guys spend in the minors. It’s two to five years for a lot of guys, and those are the guys who make it.”
Even though there won’t be any baseball, the ballparks won’t remain idle. Owners are coming up with ideas on how to generate money.
Silber said the team is allowed to have 1,000 people inside the facility. So, they’re planning to hold movies and concerts. Stripes on the artificial turf will allow for social distancing.
“We can have people sit on the field,” Silber said.
The FredNats are also planning to have an ice-skating rink during the winter months.
The Baysox are going to rent out their field in one hour increments for a group of friends or family to participate in socially-distant batting practice.
They also want to host a drive-in movie theater and a drive-in fireworks show.
Still, the fields are made for baseball.
Shallcross became emotional when asked what he misses most.
“I miss the people,” he said. “I miss the families. A lot of these families have seen my family grow up. So, it’s been difficult.”
In 2020, there is no joy in Mudville.