Originally scheduled to kick off the 2020 season on April 9, the West Michigan Whitecaps remain in limbo along with 140 other Minor League Baseball teams across the country.
Acknowledging that each day that goes by without baseball activity is certainly not a good sign amid persistent rumors that the COVID-19 pandemic might wipe out the season entirely, Joe Chamberlin said the Whitecaps front office continues to wait for the official word from the league.
“I’m just trying to read the tea leaves in the press and see how things are progressing,” said Chamberlin, CEO of the Class A Minor League affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, which has been a mainstay in the West Michigan community for 26 years.
“Until they make some solid decisions at the Major League level, we will not have any firm answers on what something like the Midwest League will look like,” he said.
Chamberlin was referring to the fact Major League Baseball has yet to establish any semblance of a concrete plan on how to salvage the 2020 season, even while the NBA, NFL and NHL have developed, at a minimum, tentative plans to return from the shutdown.
The battle between the MLB and the players union continues. The latest development came on June 3 when the league rejected the players’ proposal for a 114-game season with no additional salary cuts. This year’s season could boil down to as few as 50 games.
Meanwhile, the Whitecaps and other Minor League teams are at the mercy of their parent organizations.
“We are directly dependent on what they decide,” Chamberlin said. “We get our team from the Tigers. We’re completely dependent on what the Major League clubs decide for the season and how they decide to handle the Minor League operations.”
If rumors and emerging reports are any indication, the future is not very bright for local baseball fans.
Not only have Minor League teams across the country made drastic roster cuts en masse but recent reports from Forbes and The Athletic cited sources inside the Washington Nationals’ Minor League organization who indicated the season is dead in the water.
Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner has yet to speak publicly about the fate of the 2020 season.
“Any speculation that you’re reading is the same speculation that I’m reading and seeing,” Chamberlin said. “We get questions as an organization about it. At this point, our answer is unfortunately that we don’t have the answer yet.
“As Major League Baseball and the players association hopefully come to terms with what a Major League season will look like, that is when I think we’ll get some quick answers about how Minor League Baseball fits into that.”
The Detroit Free Press reported that the Detroit Tigers would indefinitely pay Minor League players a $400 weekly stipend as the matter is sorted out and has avoided cuts to its Minor League rosters.
Compensation for Minor League players relies heavily on ticket sales, which highlights a caveat: If baseball returns, chances are high that it will be in front of few or no fans, which is a major blow to teams’ business models.
“(Major League teams) have other revenue streams that might make it worth their while to still play,” said Chamberlin, referring primarily to TV contracts. “In West Michigan, I don’t think it’s a hidden fact that we don’t have those revenue streams. Baseball doesn’t make sense for us if we can’t invite fans into the ballpark. … It’s a math equation: At what capacity does it make sense to open up the gates?”
Chamberlin also said that he was confident Major League Baseball would never force its Minor League organizations into an arrangement that was not viable.
Growlers, Bombers and Pit Spitters still optimistic
As if stressing over one team wasn’t enough, Chamberlin is also CEO of the Traverse City Pit Spitters, an organization that belongs to the Northwoods League, a summer collegiate wooden bat baseball league with Great Lakes and Great Plains divisions.
While many similar leagues across the country have folded up shop for 2020, including the iconic Cape Cod League, the Northwoods League plans to play baseball in some form.
The league is ramping up competition in Bismarck, N.D., home to the Bismarck Larks, which plans to host games in June. Additional teams are able to come on line over the course of the summer once health conditions in their respective states allow.
Chamberlin credited the Northwoods League for what he called “sophisticated operations” and “operationally-sound franchises.”
“They are very determined and are going to be as creative as they need to be to play baseball in 2020,” Chamberlin said of the League. “As a Northwoods League franchise, we feel good about that. They’re going to leave the door open to as many places as they can so that people can enjoy baseball in a safe and socially-distant way.”
The Northwoods League consists of collegiate players that are unpaid in order to comply with NCAA regulations. Still, ticket sales are the key driver for operations, which is why Chamberlin wants to welcome as many people as possible to Turtle Creek Stadium.
“I can say that opening up a ballpark for a group of 100 people is probably not going to get it done,” he said. “But hey, as things continue to progress over the next month or so, I think we’re getting to the point where we might have something we can take a look at.”
The Kalamazoo Growlers and Battle Creek Bombers also belong to the Northwoods League. Brian Colopy, managing partner for both organizations, did not respond to requests for comment on the upcoming season, but both teams continue to update their fans on the status of the season through social media.