Like many subjected to a barrage of annoying robo calls, Naomi Silver usually avoids answering her phone if she doesn’t recognize the number on the screen. But in recent days she’s been less guarded. The woman who oversees Rochester Community Baseball has been answering pretty much every call, including ones from unfamiliar area codes.
“Just in case,’’ Silver sighed.
Rather than a solicitation for the latest cable TV bundle or a notification of a free, all-expenses-paid Caribbean cruise, Silver anxiously awaits word from Major League Baseball about the Rochester Red Wings’ new parent club. A decision is expected before month’s end. And, as far as Silver is concerned, it can’t come soon enough. “We’ve all been on pins and needles,’’ she said. “There have been many sleepless nights.”
In a year when it seems like uncertainty is the only certainty, Silver and the other dedicated souls who operate this community treasure of a baseball franchise have been dealing with profound loss and forced new beginnings. As if the COVID-19 pandemic that wiped out an entire Rochester baseball season for the first time since 1894 wasn’t enough of a burden, the Wings have been forced to deal with the existential challenge wrought by the contraction and realignment of minor-league baseball.
“2020 has been tough on so many levels, but I’m confident we are going to survive,’’ Silver said. “I think (MLB Commissioner) Rob Manfred and (U.S.) Sen. Chuck Schumer understand how vital Red Wings baseball is to our community. I thoroughly believe we’ll have a new major league affiliation, and then we can start planning for the future. We’re all excited about moving forward.”
The Wings would have been quite content continuing their waltz with the Minnesota Twins, their parent club since the 2003 season. The Twins would have been content, too. It had been a wonderful relationship, one that had seen future big-league standouts Justin Morneau, Francisco Liriano, Brian Dozier and Byron Buxton hone skills and make memories at Frontier Field.
But MLB, in a move I believe it will one day rue, decided to blow up the mutually beneficial, decades-long business model between the majors and minors. The plan was concocted more than a year ago, and has been hastened by a pandemic that is imperiling scores of small businesses, especially minor-league sports franchises. It calls for 42 minor-league teams, including New York-Penn League clubs in Batavia and Auburn, to be erased, as if they were meaningless lines on a corporate budget sheet. History and public financing of stadiums be damned.
Surviving franchises are being realigned into geographic clusters closer to their parent clubs, and this makes perfect sense for teams like the Washington Nationals, who would rather have a Triple-A franchise on the East Coast instead of 3,000 miles away in Fresno, Calif. Still, it would have been nice if minor-league affiliates had more say in these matters, instead of being forced into arranged, take-it-or-leave-it marriages.
Rochester’s baseball roots run deeper than Letchworth’s canyons, with newspaper accounts of the game being played here as far back as 1825, 14 years before Abner Doubleday mythically laid out the first ball diamond on a farmer’s field in Cooperstown. Our professional origins trace to 1877. We even had a major league team for one season in the summer of 1890.
Branch Rickey, best known as the architect of the Jackie Robinson experiment that helped integrate baseball and America, also was the father of the game’s farm system. And the Wings became part of Rickey’s innovation in 1928 as a minor-league club with the St. Louis Cardinals. That relationship was robust for decades, but soured in the mid-1950s. Thanks to the galvanizing leadership of Naomi’s father, Morrie Silver, a shareholder drive was staged, resulting in the formation of Rochester Community Baseball, and our franchise stayed put. The elder Silver would oversee the beginning of a beautiful partnership with the Baltimore Orioles in 1961, and the two franchises would flourish as future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray, Earl Weaver and Mike Mussina became part of the Flower City pipeline.
After that marriage deteriorated to the point where Orioles owner Peter Angelos was threatening to ruin baseball not only in Baltimore, but also here, Naomi found a new and marvelous suitor in the Twins. Like father, like daughter. Baseball in Rochester would be saved again.
In all likelihood, the Wings’ next affiliation will be with Washington. It’s not a perfect geographic match, but neither was Minnesota, and all 30 slots need to be filled. The Nationals are a big-market team with big-time aspirations that resulted in a World Series title just two years ago. They spent 10 seasons with Syracuse as its Triple-A team, during which time fans were treated to legendary prospects Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Small-market teams like the Twins rely heavily on scouting and player development rather than high-priced free agents, and the Wings benefitted greatly from that partnership, with numerous highly touted prospects and playoff contending teams playing here. The Nationals will need to replenish a farm system that Baseball America ranked 28th last season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates also have been mentioned. Makes geographic sense, with the Steel City just a four-hour drive away. But I can’t see MLB breaking up the Pirates and Indianapolis. You can forget about the New York Yankees — they have part ownership in Scranton/Wilke-Barre. Or the Mets — they own the Syracuse club. And the Boston Red Sox are preparing to move their International League team from Pawtucket, R.I. to Worcester, Mass.
Whomever the new partner, the Wings and every other minor-league team will have a difficult time picking up the pieces from a lost season. Despite encouraging news about the creation and distribution of reliable coronavirus vaccines, next year will be filled with uncertainties. Will fans be allowed back into ballparks? And even if they are, how many won’t be comfortable returning next season, if ever?
“It’s a real challenge for us to know what to expect,’’ said Gary Larder, RCB’s chairman of the board. “You can guess all over the place. The only thing we know is that 2021 won’t be a normal season.”
The Wings and other minor-league teams are heavily dependent on ticket sales and fannies in the ballpark. They can’t get by on the large television revenues MLB teams generate and count upon. Despite monies earned from clever promotions such as dinners on the diamond, cardboard fan cutouts and Frontier drive-in movies, and the two-month rental of the ballpark by the Toronto Blue Jays’ alternate team, RCB took a huge hit and will finish the fiscal year in a sea of red ink.
The franchise also will be hurt immensely by MLB’s decision to eliminate the Batavia Muckdogs. RCB had invested time and money in keeping the Muckdogs afloat. The NYP League took over the team two years ago, and had two owners lined up. As part of the Wings’ previous agreement with Batavia, they would receive 50 percent of the money the Muckdogs were sold for. Estimates put the sales price at about $5 million, meaning Rochester probably would have added $2.5 million to its coffers. Contraction means the club won’t be sold. It’ll just disappear, and so will that hefty chunk of change that could have helped the Wings through these draconian times.
Rather than dwell on what’s been lost, Silver is focusing on what RCB has. The Wings created a rainy day fund after several profitable seasons leading up to this year’s unforeseen debacle. Unlike 42 communities, Rochester will continue to field a baseball team next year. “The way I see it, a new affiliation will bring new opportunities,’’ Silver said. “It’s always exciting when you get to write a new chapter.”
Here’s hoping that chapter is similar to the long, mostly harmonious ones the Wings wrote with their previous partners.
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,” is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.