Minor League Baseball is Back
By Brian Sherman
The game itself has been tweaked, the schedule might look a little different than in recent years and the fan experience won’t be quite the same, but, after a year in limbo, minor league baseball is back in business.
The season opened May 4 in baseball-starved communities in South Carolina and across the country after a hiatus of nearly two years. A limited number of spectators were welcomed back into stadiums that have hosted other events during the Covid-19 pandemic but have been without the sights, sounds, family-oriented fun and dreams of someday reaching “The Show” that are unique in places like Charleston, Columbia and Greenville.
Minor league baseball’s absence has been painful for fans of one of America’s most popular pastimes; it has been financially gut-wrenching for the people responsible for filling ballparks with paying customers.
“By opening day, we will have gone 621 days between baseball games,” said John Katz, president of the Columbia Fireflies, a team that was supposed to play in the South Atlantic League during the ill-fated 2020 season but now, after Major League Baseball realigned the minors, is one of 12 teams in the Low-A East. “We take in all our money between the first of April and the end of the season and spend it in the off-season. Unfortunately, we had spent our money for 2020, and the season was canceled.”
With revenues down by 90 percent during the pandemic year, the Fireflies survived because the team’s sponsors and partners agreed to let their contributions ride until 2021.
“They trusted us, we trusted them, and it ended up working out well for us,” he said.
The same was true for two other South Carolina minor league teams, according to Dave Echols, president and general manager of the Charleston RiverDogs, and Eric Jarinko, general manager of the Greenville Drive.
“When we realized there would be no games, we had to go to our fans and corporate partners who had prepaid and discuss with them if they needed the money back or if they would roll over to the 2021 season. 90 percent or more allowed it to roll into 2021,” Echols said. “When we had to operate on a shoestring, they allowed us to remain in operation. Our corporate and fan community really helped us weather the storm.”
There was no minor league baseball in 2020, but the management teams in all three South Carolina cities continued to seek revenue streams and remain connected to their communities. In Greenville, for example, the Drive partnered with BlueCross BlueShield to turn Fluor Field into a site where local dentists could pick up personal protective equipment; produced to-go meals for families in need; and held blood drives, a socially distanced Halloween party, brunch with Santa and a concert that was part of an annual salute to veterans.
“We always pride ourselves on being part of the fabric of the Upstate community,” Jarinko pointed out. “We wanted to assist people in need in our community and support community members who were hurting.”
In Charleston, the RiverDogs held youth baseball camps at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, turned their event space into a catering facility for takeout orders and donated food to frontline health care workers and first responders.
“We tried to focus on giving back as much as we could,” Echols said.
Meanwhile, the Fireflies turned Segra Park into a restaurant, hosted American Legion baseball games, comedy shows and the “wildly successful” dining event with the South Carolina Philharmonic, as well as other events.
“We wanted to keep the community and the staff engaged,” Katz said. “Anything you can do to bring people together is what we did. We’re in the people business. It’s a community ballpark for our community. We exist to bring people together and to make memories.”
All three teams were ready to open the season with a limited number of fans in the stands. Echols said Riley Park would be at around 30 percent capacity, or around 2,200 people, while at Segra Park, some sections will allow room for social distancing while other areas of the stadium won’t.
“We’re comfortable opening with 5,000 people,” Katz said. “The majority of the seating will be socially distanced, but our mantra now is our fans need to have a choice. The response from our fans for allowing them the choice has been well-received.”
At Fluor Field in Greenville, the attendance is expected to be between 2,200 and 2,300. Jarinko said that will include season ticket holders and “a limited number of others.”
“The feedback has been nothing but positive. People are looking forward to getting out to the ballpark,” he said.
It’s obvious that local baseball fans are ready for the return of minor league baseball.
“It’s the essence of the American pastime,” said Mount Pleasant resident John Cox. “It’s a slice of Americana. You can get close to the field and close to the players. It’s a uniquely American experience.”
Cox said he missed the opportunity to see the RiverDogs play in 2020, and he wasn’t all that psyched up about the abbreviated Major League campaign either, calling the pandemic-shortened season “pretty unsatisfying, but better than nothing, I suppose.”
Shane Griffin, who has deep roots in minor league baseball, having served as the play-by-play announcer for the Delmarva Shorebirds in Salisbury, Maryland, from 1999 to 2003, plans to spend some time this season at Riley Park.
“It’s a great place to sit and enjoy a beer and some peanuts. There’s nothing like baseball in person. The sounds, the smells, the camaraderie. It’s a beautiful thing,” he mused. “Minor league baseball helps bind a community together. You’re all rooting for the same team. Baseball is a game for everybody – for people of all ages.”
A lifelong Orioles fan who now lives in Charleston, Ed Gold considers baseball to be more than just a sport. He remembers going to games in Baltimore with his grandfather, and now he looks forward to taking his grandchildren to Riley Park.
“It’s that family connection – father, brother, friend. There’s something really special and unique about baseball. It connects to a very deep part of me,” he said.
“I really like seeing guys on the way up,” he added. “I love the wonderful funkiness of minor league baseball – all the nutty things that happen between innings. And I love the sound of the crack of the bat.”
An important addition to the experience in Greenville and Columbia that probably will continue post-pandemic is that fans will be able to use a mobile app to order food and beverages, then pick them up or have them delivered to their seats. RiverDogs fans will be able to use an app to order food as well, and they’ll be notified when their order is ready at a concession stand.
There will be changes on the field as well this season. In all Low-A leagues, pitchers will be able to attempt only two pickoffs per at bat. In the Low-A Southeast, an electronic strike zone is to be tested, and in the low-A West, there will be time limits for pitches, breaks between innings and pitching changes.
The RiverDogs and Fireflies will compete in the Low-A East, while the Drive is now in the High-A East, where a new rule requires pitches to step off the rubber before throwing to any base.
Another big change, of course, will be Major League Baseball’s realignment of the minor leagues. The RiverDogs and Fireflies are now part of the Low-A East, where they will compete with teams in South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia. To cut down on traveling, the schedule is made up mostly of six-game series, an oddity in the days of pre-Covid minor league baseball.
The Drive, meanwhile, have been bumped up into the High-A East with teams from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, North Carolina and Georgia. Their longest road trip will be to Aberdeen, Maryland, a distance of about 565 miles.
The RiverDogs, previously affiliated with the New York Yankees, are now with the Tampa Bay Rays, while the Fireflies, a Mets farm team since they moved to Columbia from Savannah after the 2015 season, are now connected to the Kansas City Royals. The Drive haven’t switched Major
League Teams since signing on with the Boston Red Sox in 2005, and a change probably isn’t on the horizon. Fluor Field was built in 2006 as a replica of Fenway Park in Boston, complete with the famed “Green Monster” in left field.
With an assist from their local communities, the minor league baseball teams in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville evolved and survived and apparently will continue to thrive.
“We always talk about being a nimble business that can pivot when we need to. As an industry, we’ve done that. Some of these best practices will set the framework for what we do moving forward across the industry,” Katz concluded.