Dave Baggott gets his best ideas while mowing the outfield at Lindquist Field in Ogden.
With baseball temporarily on hold because of COVID-19, the president of the Ogden Raptors has spent his time on the padded seat ruminating on how to get people to the ballpark if the virus prevents the minor league baseball team from playing this season. Social-distancing measures and state lockdowns have postponed the start of Major League Baseball, to which the minors are intrinsically linked. And though regulations are starting to loosen, it remains uncertain if health experts — or even fans — will deem mass public gatherings safe again anytime soon.
But Baggott, and those in the front offices of the Orem Owlz and the Salt Lake Bees — Utah’s two other minor league teams — have continued to mow their outfields and rake their infields. They remain optimistic that the crack of a bat and the bark of an umpire will be heard in their stadiums this season, even if just for a few games. And if the signal comes, they want to be ready.
“We are prepared to start whenever we get the word,” Pioneer League President Jim McCurdy said. “The minute we get the players, we are prepared to start.”
First, though, MLB has to make a move.
Minor league teams can’t get going without the big clubs’ permission because the MLB provides the players. With MLB’s season also in limbo, filling out farm teams isn’t exactly a top priority.
“MLB, I would imagine, is way more concerned about getting their own season going over ours,” Owlz owner Jeff Katofsky said. “There’s zero chance there’s going to be minor league baseball if there’s not going to be major league baseball.”
A recent report by ESPN indicated some movement on that front, however.
According to the report, the league is expected to send a proposal to the MLB Players Association early next week. At that time, it will suggest starting training camps in mid-June and games in early to mid-July.
That would be welcome news for all the local teams, but especially Bees president Marc Amicone. The AAA team’s season opener at Smith’s Ballpark was scheduled for April 9, but a month later, the field still hasn’t seen a game.
As with any business, each vacant date is a hit to the bottom line. Amicone said he has been able to cut his losses by holding off on perishable food orders and by not having to pay for team travel or hourly workers. He even sees the delay as a little bit of a boon since the team escaped playing in April and May, when a snowstorm or downpour is as likely as a 75-degree day.
Still, he’s eager to put some players on the field and fans in the seats — so long as it is safe. To determine that, he’ll be listening to federal, state and city guidelines.
“In our specific case, we’re going to have MLB say it’s time to get going and we’ll react to that and make it happen,” he said. “The second prong is, what’s the health situation? We’re going to adhere to that no matter what.”
The crux of whether minor league teams will play or not this season is, as Amicone called it, “the health situation.” More specifically, it’s whether teams can get fans into ballparks.
MLB, which makes the majority of its money off local, regional and national TV contracts, can get by with playing in empty stadiums. Not so for minor league teams, which are almost wholly dependent on ticket sales. Katofsky estimated 90% of the Owlz’s revenue comes from ticket sales, with the rest funnelling in from sponsorships and sales of merchandise and food.
Baggot said his staff estimates that to abide by the 6-foot social-distancing guideline, the Raptors would have to have four seats separating each fan. That would mean cutting capacity at Lindquist to about a fifth of its current capacity of 5,001. To even worry about that dilemma, though, the clubs first need to see Gov. Gary Herbert lift the restrictions on gatherings of more than 20 people.
Even those options are better than the alternative, though. Some minor league teams may be stuck playing in empty stadiums so they can live up to the player-development part of their contracts with MLB.
The Bees may very well find themselves in that situation. If MLB attempts a season, its teams will need a squad to which they can send injured or under-performing players and from which they can call up those players’ replacements. Their Triple-A affiliates seem like the obvious choice, though Amicone indicated that would be a less-than-optimal situation for the Anaheim Angels affiliate.
The idea sounds even worse for minor league teams lower in MLB’s hierarchy. Baggott, whose Raptors are a rookie-ball team affiliated with MLB’S Los Angeles Dodgers, expressed stronger sentiments.
“There would be no way, economically, that minor league baseball can operate with no fans. It would be 100% expense,” Baggott said.
“There would be zero benefit,” he added. “Everything I do is for the fans and the community. Without them, it’s pointless.”
Katofsky said the Owlz already stream their games online and usually end up losing money on it. Even with a captive audience as people shelter in place, he said that avenue isn’t a viable option for offsetting the revenues lost by limiting or halting ticket sales.
“Will the team make money in 2020?” Katofsky asked rhetorically. “There’s no chance.”
The Raptors and Owlz both play in the Pioneer League, a short-season Rookie Advanced league. The league’s 2020 season was scheduled to run from June 19 to Sept. 15. Yet even under the optimistic proposal reported by ESPN, those teams will lose at least half their season. They might start in July but probably can’t go beyond September because of weather and restrictions built into some teams’ stadium leases.
They might also not have enough players. As the second-lowest tier in the MLB farm system, they generally field first- and second-year players picked in the lower rounds of the MLB Draft. Because of the virus, this year’s draft is expected to start June 10 and will likely be limited to five to 10 rounds instead of the standard 40. In addition, MLB teams will face stringent limits on the amounts they can pay to undrafted players. According to Baseball America, an 11th-round pick who could have made up to $125,000 on a signing bonus last year would be eligible for a max bonus of $20,000.
All that adds up to considerably fewer players casting their lot with MLB teams and instead opting to play at least one more season of college ball. Still, those who do turn pro will need someplace to hone their skills.
At this point, Katofsky and Baggott would be content to have just a handful of games with fans. That would allow them to recoup some of their expenses while also keeping the team in the public eye.
“Right now, I don’t care how many games are played,” Baggott said. “We just want to play."
Especially this season, staying relevant is critical for the Raptors and Owlz. MLB and minor league baseball are currently negotiating a new agreement, one MLB opened by asking for a contraction of minor league teams from 162 to 120. Squarely on the chopping block are short-season rookie-ball leagues like the Pioneer League.
If they are cut from MLB, the Pioneer League could still exist as a “Dream League” for undrafted players. Under that arrangement, teams like the Owlz could still have ties to the Anaheim Angels under a franchise-like arrangement, albeit at a higher cost to the local club.
Having to take a hit like that after weathering the financial fallout caused by the coronavirus makes the future look pretty murky for some minor league teams. But the management behind the Raptors and Owlz say they’ll make it through. It just may take some extra time on the lawn mower to find a way.
“If you’re asking if we’re going to survive,” Katofsky said, “the answer is, ‘Yes.’”