Benched by COVID-19, Pa.’s minor league towns hope for baseball’s return

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SCRANTON, Pa. — Baseball fans across Pennsylvania yearning for the crack of the bat are stuck with the sounds of silence.

Sports fans started feeling the pain of the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11, when the National Basketball Association announced it was suspending its season. The NCAA followed up shortly thereafter, canceling March Madness. With the start of the professional baseball season being postponed, Pennsylvanians saw the effects up close.

“This is local, this is in our backyard,” Kirsten Haas, Director of Membership for the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance told the Capital-Star. The Berks County city is home to the Reading Fightin’ Phils, the AA affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.

She pointed out how much of a grip minor league baseball has on its communities. 

“They’re like so many of our other members,” Haas said. “They’re an institution. Like any good business, they see the responsibility of being a good citizen.” 

In addition to Reading, 10 more minor league and independent teams call Pennsylvania cities home: Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Altoona Curve, Erie SeaWolves, Harrisburg Senators, Lancaster Barnstormers,, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, State College Spikes, Washington Wild Things, Williamsport Crosscutters, and York Revolution.

More than 2 million fans a season attend those teams’ games in Pennsylvania. 

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Minor league executives admit they don’t know when the games will be back. Business groups connected with those teams told the Capital-Star that  their communities are feeling the effects in different ways. 

They’re missing out on more than home runs and double-plays.

“Sports is such an important part of our culture,” Haas said. “It gives people an escape from day-to-day life. … I think it’s going to leave a big hole in our summer to-do list.”

Those stadiums also host non-baseball events in the summer, whether it’s Fourth of July fireworks and classical music, wine and beer festivals, or other fundraisers. During games, small town groups, ranging from  area Little Leagues to local churches host community nights.

Then there are the businesses that have sponsorships with their local teams. A law firm might own a box, an automobile dealership might sponsor a mascot race, a small business might have an advertisement on the right field fence.

All of that is being affected by the pandemic.  

Staying Put

For their part, the teams reiterated their commitment to their hometowns.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to make things right for our corporate partners, season ticket holders, community, and single-game ticket buyers,” Garett Mansfield, director of communications and broadcasting for the Altoona Curve, the AA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, told the Capital-Star.

Doug Eppler, the director of marketing and communications with the independent York Revolution echoed that sentiment. The team is actively trying to keep in contact with fans and sponsors throughout the epidemic.

“We’re trying to be as pro-active as possible,” he said. “We’re pleased to have the support of fans and the business community. … We’re just eager to get started playing the game we love.”

Gabe Sinicropi, vice president for marketing and public relations for the Williamsport Crosscutters, admitted teams are facing challenging times. The team is the short-season single-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. 

“It’s a difficult time to be out talking to businesses,” he said. 

None of the executives who talked to the Capital-Star said they knew for sure when minor league baseball would start back up. 

“Minor league baseball will take their lead from Major League Baseball, and the government,” Sinicropi said. 

Teams such as Williamsport and State College, an affiliate of St. Louis Cardinals, have it a little bit easier because they are short-season teams, which means that they don’t start their seasons until June.

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Their seasons regularly start later this summer. Meanwhile, teams such as Altoona, Lehigh Valley and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre would be starting in early April.

Assuming the season resumes, fans can expect players to spend a few weeks with a brief Major League Baseball spring training, team officials said. 

While the players get back into playing shape, front offices will be going through a pennant race-like stretch, trying to lock down sponsorships, get more season ticket sales, and schedule promotions.

“One of the biggest challenges is with giveaways,” Mansfield told the Capital-Star. 

The impact on fan nights

If the teams had a special event scheduled, such as a bobblehead giveaway that was to have taken place in early April, the teams still might be waiting on the figurines to be made. Appearances by celebrities, whether from entertainment or old ballplayers, might also have to be rescheduled, Mansfield said. 

“We put everything on hold,” Mansfield said. “We’ll come up with a plan once we find out when we are starting back up.”

One of the other areas being impacted by the delayed season is people who visit a community and spend a day or afternoon there before catching a ballgame.

Joel Cliff, director of communications and advocacy for Discover Lancaster, which promotes tourism in Lancaster County, said that spending a day in town, then hitting up the stadium is a good way to visit the region.

“[The Barnstormers] are very much a part and parcel of who Lancaster is today,” he told the Capital-Star.

Minor league executives and community officials don’t doubt games will be played this year. They look forward to umpires shouting, “Play ball.”

“A summer without baseball is something I can’t even imagine,” Jason Fink, president and CEO of the Williamsport and Lycoming Chamber of Commerces, told the Capital-Star. 

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyAbs.