Before Minor League Baseball (MiLB) can begin to define a season schedule, Major League Baseball (MLB) would have to make a plan. MLB team owners have reportedly approved a proposal to return to the field sometime in July, but negotiations between team ownership, medical experts, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association are just beginning on how and when to start the 2020 season. For Minor League teams like the Triple-A Reno Aces, it’s wait and see what MLB decides.
“The connection we have with Major League Baseball is deep and wide,” said Eric Edelstein, president of the Reno Aces, in a phone interview. “With all of our players providing feeders into the Major Leagues, everything dovetails off of what they do, and they’ve got to figure themselves out first. So they have to get through the process of figuring out their restart before they can really even look at what happens next with the minor leagues.”
Playing baseball in stadiums with no fans is an economically viable possibility for Major League teams. Major League teams, large and small, have broadcast agreements for television and new media distribution.
Minor League teams do not have significant broadcast revenue streams and rely on ticket sales, stadium concessions and advertising to pay the bills. A season without fans in the seats is a nonstarter for the Aces.
“I don’t envision a situation whereby we would be playing Minor League games without fans,” Edelstein said. “I would be happy to be proven wrong, if there was a model or situation that we went forward with that, but I just don’t generally see it.”
Guidance is lacking. No major American sport league has yet to declare a firm schedule or publish protocols for screening and seating fans. Wimbledon has been cancelled. The NHL and NBA seasons have been indefinitely suspended.
The corporation that operates the Reno Aces also runs the Reno 1868 FC soccer team. Both teams play in the 9,013-seat Greater Nevada Field on Evans Avenue in downtown Reno. Edelstein says he and his management staff are carefully watching how teams in Asia and Europe are rolling out baseball and soccer. Professional baseball is being played in Taiwan and South Korea.
“We’re watching that very closely, understanding the cultural differences, political differences, but still looking for clues on how to safely do what they’re doing.
“In Taiwan fans are back in the stadium at social distance. And then this weekend, the German soccer, both the first and second divisions, are scheduled to restart. So for us, having a baseball and a soccer team, we’re watching leagues around the world and seeing which ones get off the ground, and hopefully, knocking on wood, doing it safely and providing us a blueprint we can follow.”
Should Minor League Baseball clearly define a schedule for 2020, there are many moving parts to a Triple-A baseball team. Edelstein says it would take his organization at least 30 days to get rolling, especially if there are enhanced seating and screening protocols.
The logistics of a baseball game with fans in the stands during the summer of 2020 is a dark labyrinth for minor league teams. The details of taking ticketed fan temperatures and isolating potentially sick attendees, for instance, could be but one added responsibility for the Aces’ game-day staff. Because the season has yet to start, there is an added human resource challenge of reconnecting with more than the usual number of seasonal workers.
“We envision having more restroom attendees, more ushers, we just have to have many more sort of directional assistance employees throughout the stadium, so we have to get them hired, get them trained, build out how that plan would work,” Edelstein said.
“So there is, there’s a significant amount of work. If we had 30 days, it would be a really, really challenging 30 days, but I would say we need at least 30 days to ramp up.”
Whenever Major League Baseball gets underway, Edelstein says it is not a given that Minor League ball will start at the same time.
“The return to Major League Baseball doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to fast follow. But once that (MLB baseball) is in motion, it should allow for more time to be paid to looking at what could happen here,” Edelstein said.
The Aces are one of 16 teams in the storied Pacific Coast League. As a Triple-A affiliate for the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Aces travel to 15 cities spread across a dozen states, from El Paso, Texas to Tacoma, Washington.
“We play across a number of states, so all of those state and local guidelines will have to be fulfilled and managed. And then secondly, of the 15 cities that we travel to in the Pacific Coast League, we only bus to two of them currently,” Edelstein said. “There’s a reality that commercial air travel may not get us everywhere we need to be, so schedules need to be rewritten. And we may be looking at playing our local or more regional rivals more so that we can have more bus travel this season while air is down.”
Baseball Culture – Spitting
Baseball players spit, a lot. They spray sunflower seed husks and sometimes tobacco-laced spittle, big wads of gum. In the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic, dugouts and playing fields are biologically hazardous places. Is this the end of spitting?
“The interesting thing is, I think the cultural changes are going to happen at the broad community level and they’re going to trickle down to baseball,” Edelstein said when asked about baseball players spitting. “I would argue that a casual spit is probably not going to be okay in the world. And that’s probably going to be the case in baseball as well.
“In fact, I believe Taiwan actually banned spitting as part of their return to play protocols for this league. So I think the way we greet each other and what bodily functions are acceptable, it’s going to be from a broad-base community level, and it’s all going to trickle down to baseball. I don’t think sports is necessarily going to lead those cultural changes. I think they’re gonna follow those cultural changes.”
Consumer Sentiment and the Future of Reno Aces Baseball
Not to diminish the maniacal exuberance of all sports fans, but baseball fandom in the United States is noted for a near religious zeal. Eric Edelstein said he is confident sports and the Aces will return.
“The great news, and I think my counterparts (other Minor League executives) across the country have seen this in their communities, is we miss sports. We miss it a lot. So I don’t think there is any doubt that sports is going to come back. It’s the unknown of the sort of patterns of enjoyment of exactly what fans are going to expect from us.
“So we’re continuing to do surveys and understand that I think there’s going to be changes who people attend games with. I think we’re going to see a lot more family and close friends attending, potentially fewer corporate events. School field trips are probably going to be slow to return.
“On the flip side, if there’s a period where travel is less certain, then I think there’s an opportunity. There’s more folks that are local that are going to be looking for the best thing that they can be doing in northern Nevada, and I think we provide that. So there are definitely going to be some shifts and changes. And, you know, if you ask me next week, I’ll try out a slightly different answer than this week because it’s just evolving that fast.”
Will the Reno Aces play baseball this year?
“I want to stay optimistic. The discussion has gone on that a season could go into the fall, potentially. So, the schedule could be pushed back,” said Edelstein. “Do I think we’re going to get all 70 home games in? No, I’m fairly confident it would be some degree less, even in a later season situation.
“So I envision that it’s still possible. I still think we have some things that need to be sorted … testing and potential other therapeutic medicine, your general like world stuff I guess you’d say, that still has to fall into line before it can really trickle down to thousands of people going into a baseball stadium.”
Edelstein is circumspect. From his perspective as team president, the safety of fans, Aces’ staff and players is more important than rushing back to play.
“If I had to give up my season this year to make sure that we’re a thousand percent safe and committed to getting back next year, that’s okay,” Edelstein said. “As much as I want to play this year, I don’t want to rush to play and I don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way. So I’m only really excited about our return, if we believe that we can do it safely for everyone involved, players, staff, and our fans.”
Brian Bahouth has been a public media journalist since 1994 and has lived in Reno since 2000. He first came to northern Nevada to be news director at KUNR, Reno Public Radio and has subsequently filed scores of reports for National Public Radio, Nevada Public Radio, Capital Public Radio and KVMR in Nevada City, California. He is co-founder of KNVC community radio in Carson City. Support his work.