For a few hours late Saturday afternoon, all seemed right with our battered world.
Old friends were back at Frontier Field for the first time in nine months, munching on Zweigle hot dogs slathered in mustard, imbibing ice cold Gennys and conversing — face to face rather than on FaceTime — with longtime ballpark pals. The familiar voice of Josh Whetzel boomed over the loudspeakers as Rochester Red Wings drove in winning runs and made spectacular catches on the towering video board above the left field wall. Mascots Spikes and Mitzi table-hopped, their antics eliciting smiles and chuckles. And from his booth next to the press box, long-time organist Fred Costello tickled the ivories, entertaining the several hundred diamond dinner-goers with jazzy riffs and the comforting strains of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
This was a reunion. A homecoming. An emotional release from our caged homes during this deadly pandemic. And as Naomi Silver mingled with Wings fans aching for an opportunity to shelter at a ballpark, the woman who oversees Rochester Community Baseball couldn’t stop tears from welling.
“It was the first time we could open the gates since last September, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen people so happy to be at Frontier Field,’’ she said, her voice choking with emotion while recounting the scene of 50 tables spread out at safe distances from one another in foul territory between the stands and the playing field. “It was a beautiful night, and although we weren’t playing baseball it was so great to be able to see our fans, our extended family again. It just felt so right. It made things feel normal for a few hours.”
In her roughly three decades leading the ballclub as a president, chief executive officer and chief operating officer, Silver has faced her share of challenges. They’ve included making the emotional move from old, dilapidated Silver Stadium to a new Frontier in 1997. Five years later, she decided to sever ties with the suddenly unresponsive, uncaring Baltimore Orioles after 42 mostly blissful years and start a new affiliation with the Minnesota Twins. And, along the way, she’s also navigated several tricky, sometimes acrimonious stadium lease negotiations with Monroe County.
But this challenge has been like no other. COVID-19 came out of left field. It caught most people and organizations by surprise. “In business, you always try to anticipate worst-case scenarios, so you’ll be prepared to deal with them, but this was something so unexpected, so unanticipated,’’ she said. “It sort of took our breath away. No one knows for certain what the duration will be. You plan for long stretches of bad weather or an outfield fence falling down or advertisers and sponsors going away. But how do you prepare for this?”
Thanks to the wise leadership of Silver, board chair Gary Larder and general manager Dan Mason, the Wings had built a rainy day fund to weather difficult times. And so, despite the lack of a 2020 season, they’ve managed to get by so far. Unlike most minor league franchises, the Wings haven’t had to lay off any members of their hard-working front office staff. “Taking care of our people has been a priority,’’ Silver said. “We’ve been blessed not to turn over personnel the way other franchises do, and we want to make sure we reward that loyalty during this most difficult time.”
Silver says she hasn’t given up hope there still could be a truncated Wings season, but that seems unlikely. Avaricious Major League Baseball owners and players continue to squabble over their billions and millions, apparently oblivious to the fact nearly one-in-five American workers is unemployed. It boggles the mind and soul that there’s a real chance differences won’t be resolved in time to salvage the 2020 season. That, of course, would mean no minor-league baseball because MLB pays those players’ salaries, too. Unlike big-league clubs, who receive truckloads of money from broadcast rights and have reserves as deep as the Pacific Ocean, minor-league franchises survive by putting fannies in the seats. Their reserves are puddle deep, and evaporate quickly. It’s possible a third of the 160 minor-league teams with MLB affiliations may go belly-up as a result of this pandemic. MLB couldn’t care less. After all, it had been looking to abolish 42 teams any way, so the coronavirus did the dirty work — and then some — for them.
As daunting as things are for the Wings, Silver vows they will survive, even if, heaven forbid, the pandemic sidelines part of next season, too. During these gloomy times, she calls on the lessons of her father, Morrie Silver, who in 1956 spearheaded the shareholder drive that saved baseball in Rochester. The elder Silver was able to galvanize the community through a stock drive, and enough money was raised to buy the club and the old Norton Street stadium from the St. Louis Cardinals.
It took a village then, and it will take one again. Professional baseball has been a vital part of our community since the late 19th century. Besides providing us with opportunities to watch budding Hall-of-Famers such as Cal Ripken Jr., Stan Musial and Bob Gibson, the Wings have created an enjoyable, wholesome, family experience at affordable prices for decades. They became a pillar of our community, in part, by never resting on their laurels and becoming complacent. They’ve continued to innovate, continued to try new things to make the fan experience better.
And they’re doing so again with these Dinner on the Diamond promotions.
“If we can’t provide baseball entertainment this summer, then we’ll try other things, so that people can get out and about again,’’ Silver said. “And I promise that when we are able to play ball again, it’s going to be an unforgettable experience. This has been tough on all of us, but we’ll get through this. It’s going to take everybody’s support to make it happen. But we’ve done it before. We can do it again.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” was just published and is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.