GREENSBORO — Major League Baseball has pushed back its opening day until mid-May at the earliest because of the spreading coronavirus pandemic.
And that puts Minor League Baseball in a costly holding pattern as well.
Both the Greensboro Grasshoppers and Winston-Salem Dash were scheduled to open 140-game seasons on April 9.
Now? Who knows?
“We’ve closed our office to the public, and we’re working in split shifts,” said Donald Moore, Hoppers president and general manager. “Mainly, we’re working outside doing field- and stadium-related chores that need to be done before we play — whenever it is we do play.”
Moore paused a moment.
“It’s hard to sell tickets when you don’t know when you’re going to play. It’s pretty much brought us close to a standstill.”
Ticket revenue is critical in the minor leagues.
The Hoppers drew more than 306,000 last season, an average attendance of 4,710 per home game that ranked No. 2 in the South Atlantic League. The Dash, meanwhile drew nearly 265,000, an average of 4,272 that ranked No. 2 in the Carolina League.
“We have to await an official statement from Minor League Baseball,” Dash media relations coordinator Conor Clingen said. “I know there have been some things released by Major League Baseball that could affect the minor leagues. ... It’s a fluid situation. Things continue to change, but we’re continuing to work hard as if the opening night at our ballpark will be April 16th.”
Minor League Baseball’s last statement came Thursday, an eternity ago in the moment-to-moment changes wrought by the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I counted it up today,” Moore said. “If we started on June 1, we’d have 89 games. That’s what’s on the current schedule. So who knows? Eighty games? Ninety games, maybe? If they push it further back, then we’re like a short-season team.”
And that would hurt the bottom line. Short-season teams play 70-game seasons. The Hoppers and Dash both play schedules that feature 70 home games (before rainouts).
“You’re talking a couple of million dollars (in lost revenue). Easily,” Moore said. “It would be impactful, let’s put it that way.
“On the one hand, because we’re private, we’re positioned better than some other clubs. But on the other hand, we’re one of the very few minor-league clubs that has a sizable mortgage payment and pays property-tax dollars and pays all the expenses of running a stadium. Most teams have a municipality to take care of those things for them.”
Both teams are approaching the health crisis cautiously.
An unnamed Yankees minor leaguer became the first to test positive for COVID-19 at spring training and has been quarantined in Tampa, Fla.
“Our team,” the Dash’s Clingen said, “is in discussions with the Carolina League, in discussions with Minor League Baseball, and our top priority is the health and safety of fans. We’re going to follow whatever protocols and standards are set by Minor League Baseball, while also listening to anything put out by local, state and federal governments.”
In Greensboro, Moore said the Hoppers plan to keep all employees on the payroll “as long as we possibly can.” The team has curtailed whatever discretionary spending it can.
“Hopefully, we can keep everybody and get through this,” Moore said. “It does look like in a best-case scenario that we play no sooner than mid-May or the first of June. … Whenever anything is finally decided, you figure it’s going to be another two or three weeks of practice and training before we play. I don’t know. Nobody does. These are uncharted waters, no matter what vocation you’re in. That’s one of the biggest things right now: fear of the unknown.”