I couldn’t help but smile when the slide popped up on my laptop screen during the annual Rochester Community Baseball shareholders’ Zoom meeting last month. The graphic depicted a face mask. Across it, were written the words: “I’m getting tired of being part of a major historical event.”
Aren’t we all?
Few local institutions have been harder hit by the global pandemic than Red Wings baseball. Last year, for the first time in 126 years, Rochester did not field a professional baseball team, unless, of course, you count the intra-squad games played by the Toronto Blue Jays practice squad at fan-less Frontier Field. The Wings’ hard-working, ingenious front office staffers tried to make the best of a bad situation, selling T-shirts boasting 2020 as the first undefeated season in Rochester baseball history. But neither that clever promotion, nor socially distanced Dinner on the Diamond gatherings or drive-in movies in the ballpark’s parking lot could stop the bloodletting. A spring and summer without baseball resulted in a 92 percent reduction in revenues and a loss of $2.6 million.
Thanks to rainy day funds accrued from several bountiful seasons, the Wings were able to survive. Just barely. Sadly, draconian measures still needed to be taken, such as furloughing more than half of the minor-league team’s staff.
“That was the worst day of my baseball career,” recalled Dan Mason, who is in his 27th year as Wings general manager and 31st year overall. “It was like laying off family.”
Mason is optimistic the lost season of 2020 will be followed by the comeback season of 2021. It won’t be business as usual this year, but neither is it expected to be the unpredictable COVID washout of a year ago. There could be fans in the stands when the Wings home season opens on April 13 — real-life fans, not the cardboard cutouts people purchased to occupy several hundred seats during Blue Jay practice squad games last August and September.
There is reason for optimism, based on recent coronavirus numbers. We’re not out of the woods, but COVID cases are down dramatically from the peaks of a month ago, and that trend figures to continue as vaccinations increase significantly in the coming weeks and months.
“It appears we are getting closer to the light at the end of the tunnel,” Mason said. “We can’t wait to welcome our fans back home. It’s going to be another positive milestone for our community when that happens.”
As it stands, New York state is allowing a 10 percent seating capacity, meaning 1,060 fans if you base it on Frontier’s permanent seating bowl of 10,600, or 1,460 fans if you use the ballpark’s total capacity of 14,600. Neither figure would off-set the Wings additional expenses to ensure fan and ballplayer safety during the pandemic.
“It would be challenging to break even at 10 percent,” Mason said. “Even 25 percent would be tough. But we’re hopeful the state and MLB will adjust those restrictions and allow a much higher percentage of fans if the COVID numbers continue trending downward.”
Ohio recently announced it will allow 30 percent stadium capacity for Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds games, so there’s hope New York could follow suit before Opening Day, too.
Regardless of what’s decided, the spectator experience is sure to be different this year, with masks required and clusters of fans socially distanced from one another. But Mason is confident people will adjust to the temporary new normal.
“If you think about it, these are things they’re already used to doing when they go to the mall or Wegmans or restaurants or schools,’’ he said. “It’s kind of second nature. We’re going to have to do many things differently. We can’t have crowds waiting in concession lines or at ticket windows. We’re making contingency plans to address those issues, but we really can’t do anything definitively until we receive more information from the state and MLB.”
And that includes the purchase and distribution of tickets.
“We just ask our fans to be patient, while we wait for answers and sort things out,” he said.
No spectators have been able to attend Buffalo Sabres or Rochester Americans hockey games, or Syracuse University basketball games in the arena formerly known as the Carrier Dome. An average of 6,700 fans were allowed to attend the two Buffalo Bills playoff games in Orchard Park, but, as Mason notes, what worked for the National Football League wouldn’t work for the Wings and other minor-league teams. Bills fans were required to undergo COVID tests at their own expense (roughly $60 dollars per person) several days before those games.
“It’s not apples to apples,” Mason said. “Unlike football, we don’t play once a week; we play almost every day. And so much of our business is reliant on spur-of-the-moment, walk-up sales, where people decide on the day of the game that they going to come out to Frontier. It would be cost and time prohibitive to require fans be tested before every game.”
Despite the many challenges, Mason is looking forward to the return of baseball and its fans. There were some anxious moments in the off-season when MLB took control of minor league baseball, lopping the number of franchises from 160 to 120. Mason said he always believed the Wings would survive the cut, given their long, rich baseball tradition and strong community support. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some tense moments, while awaiting MLB’s decision to pair Rochester with the Washington Nationals after the Minnesota Twins had severed ties with the Wings.
“The longer you’re a free agent, the more you worry, especially when you see how some communities that thought they were going to get a major-league affiliation wound up being blind-sided,” he said. “But it’s worked out well for us so far. The Nationals have been extremely accommodating in trying to build a business relationship, and help us with our marketing and our partnerships. I think we both share the goal of turning as many Red Wings fans into Nationals fans as quickly as possible.”
Mason looks forward to working with new Wings manager Matthew LeCroy, whom he got to know when the former big-league catcher played for Rochester in 2007.
“Every team has a veteran player who’s kind of a clubhouse leader, and that was Matt,” he said. “He was a fun-loving guy, who was awesome with his teammates, the front office staff and the fans. I’ve talked to him quite a bit since he was assigned here. He’s really excited to be coming back. He’s familiar with the ROC, and the passion and knowledge of Wings fans. This is his first Triple-A manager’s job, so he’s really pumped.”
To reduce travel and mitigate COVID outbreaks, the Wings will play a 144-game schedule against the five teams in their division. That means numerous six-game homestands and six-game road trips against Buffalo (Blue Jays), Syracuse (New York Mets), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (New York Yankees), Worcester (Boston Red Sox) and Lehigh Valley (Philadelphia Phillies). Familiarity breeds contempt, so this actually could intensify some rivalries. And Mason likes that the Wings will be playing lots of games against the affiliates of Rochesterians’ favorite MLB teams.
He also likes the Nationals philosophy of drafting, big, hard-throwing pitchers, though he’s quick to point out that star position players such as Bryce Harper, Juan Soto and Trea Turner also came through their system.
Though numerous questions abound about COVID protocols, things are looking up. Hopefully, fans will be back at the ballpark in seven weeks, and that major historical event quickly becomes a thing of the past.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.