It was over before it was started.
On Tuesday, officials with Minor League Baseball confirmed the disappointing but not unexpected news: The 2020 MiLB season has been officially canceled after a conference call between MLB’s board of trustees.
“Major League Baseball has informed Minor League Baseball that it will not be providing its affiliated Minor League teams with players for the 2020 season,” MiLB’s press release stated. “As a result, there will not be a Minor League Baseball season in 2020.”
“These are unprecedented times for our country and our organization as this is the first time in our history that we’ve had a summer without Minor League Baseball being played,” Minor League Baseball president and CEO Pat O’Conner said in the release. “While this is a sad day for many, this announcement removed the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season and allows our teams to begin planning for an exciting 2021 season of affordable family entertainment.”
MiLB and O’Conner hosted a video press conference Tuesday afternoon. He called the situation “dire” and stated “north of half” of MiLB teams could either have to sell or go insolvent without governmental or other assistance.
“This is the perfect storm,” O’Conner said. “There are many teams that are not liquid, not solvent.”
Spokane Indians team president Chris Duff remained confident in the team’s future during a video conference hosted by the team.
“Speaking for the Spokane Indians, I think we can say very confidently that we’re in a position where we’re going to figure out a way to weather the storm. We will be around in 2021 and beyond,” he said.
“This is a sad day for the Indians and for all of minor league baseball,” Spokane Indians Senior Vice President Otto Klein said. “We’ve got Indians fans that have been coming to the stadium for years and decades, and for us not to be able to put the product on the field this year is tough.
“It’s a tough, challenging day, but at the same time we need to look forward and realize where we are as a community and we’ll get through this.”
The Northwest League announced June 12 that the 2020 season would be postponed indefinitely.
Opening Day was originally scheduled for June 17.
The last time Spokane went a summer without baseball was in 1957, when the Indians folded after completing two seasons as charter members of the NWL.
Duff said the team “saw the writing on the wall,” about cancellation of the season for a while.
“I would be dishonest with you if I didn’t share that we’ve been thinking about this for a long time and we’ve been preparing, you know, not only for a partial season or no season with our staff for a few weeks now … I think everyone in our industry also saw that as well.”
Duff said both team leadership and the ownership group are “committed to the long-term viability of the Spokane Indians here in Spokane.”
The team furloughed nine employees – roughly 40% of its staff – earlier this year. Duff said Tuesday’s announcement shouldn’t affect the team payroll and the organization hopes to bring back that staff as soon as feasible.
“We’re going to be full steam and bring our entire staff back and be ready to rock and roll for 2021,” Duff said.
The pandemic has altered the landscape of baseball from the top down, and the cancellation of minor league baseball is multifaceted.
With COVID-positive test rates soaring in many areas, a return to fans in the stands – critical for most MiLB franchises to operate – is not possible or prohibited by state and municipal guidelines in many locations.
“We’re in a butts-in-seats business,” Klein said. “We need fans to be able to operate.”
Since affiliated minor league rosters are stocked by their parent clubs, the pandemic has forced MLB to restructure many aspects of its normal course of business with the minors to try to salvage at least part of a big league season and playoffs.
The MLB draft, conducted the first week of June, was reduced from 40 rounds to five this season, due to spring seasons being canceled, limitations of scouting due to the pandemic and, of course, cost savings.
In addition, MLB has created 60-player pools, announced earlier this week, for its teams to draw upon should the big league season occur, including many of each team’s top prospects and MLB-ready players. Those players became unavailable to minor league affiliates.
The 101-page 2020 MLB Operations Manual addressing the pandemic takes into account scheduling, travel, testing and safety protocols. Adding 160 minor league clubs into the mix would have been a logistical nightmare.
“The reality of getting all those markets to a space where we can all move forward together seemed unrealistic for the last several weeks,” Duff said.
Though most minor league affiliates have good working relationships with their parent clubs, there’s no way to ensure the health and safety of roughly 5,000 minor league players, coaches and staff spread out in markets big and small across the country – in some cases thousands of miles away from the parent club – with varying state and municipal guidelines regarding social distancing and mass gatherings.
“It became clear we could not overcome the justified governmental protocols, let alone the protocols to get players into and out of stadiums, onto buses,” O’Conner said.
Another complicating factor to the MiLB season is MLB’s plan to reduced the number of teams in affiliated minor leagues by 40 starting next season, a plan that was met with derision and threats of lawsuits when it was released last November, but grudgingly acknowledged and accepted earlier this year as the pandemic ravaged minor league franchises of operating revenues.
It all just became too much.
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