How some minor-league teams, who might never host another game, are supporting communities during pandemic

Ryan Keur remembers learning about the September 11th attacks during his sixth-grade dance class, when his peers whose parents worked in New York were summoned away. (They were all physically OK.) Keur remembers where he spent that evening, too. He and an estimated 6,000 others gathered for a vigil at Skylands Stadium, a ballpark in Sussex County, New Jersey that housed the New Jersey Cardinals, then St. Louis’ A-ball affiliate. “That moment sticks out to me like no other,” he said last week during a phone interview with CBS Sports.

Some things have not changed for Keur in the 18-plus years since September 11. (“I’m still a terrible dancer,” he joked.) Some things have: He isn’t just a baseball fan anymore, he’s the team president of the Daytona Tortugas, the Cincinnati Reds’ High-A affiliate. Those memories, though not comparable or directly applicable to the current situation, have served as guideposts for Keur during the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. In turn, the Tortugas have been perhaps the most active minor-league team in community support.

The Tortugas have spread their efforts around. They’ve had pizza delivered to doctors, nurses, and other workers at local hospitals, and they’ve given gift cards to Publix employees, who are just as essential to a functioning community. (“We felt it was our obligation to support them,” Keur said.) They’ve also done their best to uplift and entertain fans. That means leveraging various social media platforms to share workouts and activities, and that means making the best of what was supposed to be Opening Day. The Tortugas couldn’t put on a game, but they streamed a live performance of the national anthem from their (empty) stadium. They also encouraged their younger fans to throw out the first pitch in the safety of their backyards.

“Our goal in our community right now is to provide some positivity,” Keur said. “Sports and entertainment have a way to bring people together in a way that not many other things can. Right now our community is hurting for that, they’re striving for that.”

For all the Tortugas have done for the residents of Daytona Beach and Volusia County during these trying times, there remains the unsettling possibility that they’ve played their final game.

Though the spread of the novel coronavirus is threatening the 2020 season, the Tortugas were an endangered club before the pandemic stirred. Over the winter, Major League Baseball reportedly proposed trimming more than 40 teams from affiliation, an idea that originated with then-Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. The Tortugas were on that list. A report from Ballpark Digest suggested talks between MLB and Minor League Baseball will resume on April 22, but all indications are that MLB will continue to push for a reimagined minor league.

Multiple insiders who spoke to CBS Sports on the condition of anonymity expressed confidence that MLB will use the pandemic to achieve its desired outcome. “I absolutely believe MLB is going to use this as their excuse to go forward with their contraction plans,” one source said.

Added another: “This is certainly an unfortunate manner in which they can claim plausible deniability, given the cash-flow considerations at play, while progressing their agenda on that front.”

Keur acknowledged that MLB’s proposal is “something that’s in the back of our minds.” One point that would seem to work in the Tortugas’ favor is Daytona Beach’s pledge of more than $4 million toward ballpark improvements. One of MLB’s supposed reasons for delisting teams includes facilities that it considers to be noncompliant with modern player development needs. 

The Tortugas aren’t the only team in the precarious position of supporting its community today without having an assurance about tomorrow.

CBS Sports identified a dozen at-risk clubs who have been active on social media during the pandemic. Some have offered printable coloring assignments, or games for children. Others have set up drive-by parades, with their mascot waving at fans from a safe distance. A few teams have even raffled off tickets to fans who have supported local businesses by ordering takeout. The most meta approach belongs to the Clinton LumberJacks, a Miami Marlins’ A-ball affiliate who have sold “Save MiLB” t-shirts while offering a no-contact pickup option.

While teams are doing their part to raise spirits and awareness, one team has been touched by the virus in an indirect way. 

The Erie SeaWolves, the Detroit Tigers’ Double-A affiliate, announced plans for a themed night in 2021 celebrating the movie “That Thing You Do!” hours before songwriter Adam Schlesinger died from Covid-19. (Schlesinger wrote the titular track for the film.) It was an unfortunate reminder of how the disease’s impact will spread far and wide. “We’re a half-hour from Ohio, we’re a half-hour from New York. We can get the daily briefings from Governors Cuomo and DeWine, and our own governor and local county health force,” said team president Greg Coleman.

Coleman is just as familiar with the challenges facing Keur and other at-risk teams. It’s impossible to complete planning on promotional materials when the schedule is in flux, or to sign-off on budgets when it’s unclear if a season will be played. (Per Coleman’s count, the SeaWolves have redone theirs five times, each time with a different start date in mind.) To further complicate matters, the SeaWolves are in the midst of improving their ballpark, with planned upgrades that will cost $20 million, including $12 million to be covered by a state grant. 

Coleman claims he doesn’t think about the possibility that the SeaWolves have bayed for the final time. Rather, he believes the team has had positive discussions in the time since MLB’s list went public, and he credits the Tigers for supporting them the whole way through. All the SeaWolves can do now is sit, wait, and hope, the same as everyone else. “We are planning on going forward as if we are playing a 2021 season. I think that’s all you can do,” Coleman said. “I just don’t see an outcome where there’s no Erie SeaWolves. 

“Again, maybe that’s just having a little faith.”

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