Contraction of minor-league teams lurks behind Covid

A groundskeeper mows the field at Day Air Ballpark earlier this week. Marc Katz/CONTRIBUTED
A groundskeeper mows the field at Day Air Ballpark earlier this week. Marc Katz/CONTRIBUTED

Last Monday, on a bright and warm morning that morphed into a beautiful night for Dayton Dragons baseball, a single groundskeeper rode a tractor/mower over the vast outfield at Day Air Ballpark, formerly known as Fifth Third Field.

Except for those in traffic along First Street who might glance over, and residents in the new apartments beyond right field, the groundskeeper’s handiwork was seen mostly by himself.

Viewed from outside the field from the fence between right field and First Street, the field appeared to be in perfect condition and the concourse and seating areas were clean enough to finish the regular season, which was to end Monday, on Labor Day.

Playoff games might have extended the season, but we’ll never know. In March, major league baseball shut down its season, eventually reconfiguring it into a 60-game sprint to playoffs.

The minor leagues were forced to drift for awhile until the entire 140-team schedule was cancelled on June 30.

In what would have been their 21st season, the Dragons – who sold out every game attracting about 8,000 fans a night - never took the field.

“No one could have predicted this,” said Joe Eckley, marketing director of Day Air Credit Union, whose 10-year stadium naming rights agreement was extended to 11 years by the Dragons to help make up for the lost season. “It happened to everyone.

“We are looking forward to a terrific Opening Day in 2021, launching Day Air Ballpark to the community.”

In early March, during Spring Training, players and officials were hurried out of facilities that became locked to them, not only because of the virus, but of major league baseball’s interest in contracting the minors from 160 teams to 120.

“My initial reaction was I was kind of shocked; kind of surprised,” said Brian Rey, who played part of the 2019 season with the Dragons and expected to start this season at Daytona, Fla. “It was the first time in a long time a major sport was shut down and the athletes had to stay home.”

While the coronavirus pandemic shut down the game, it is unclear if the situation will bleed into another season and what that season will look like when the minor leagues are restarted.

Shawn Pender, vice-president of player development for the Reds, hears the rumors but is not involved in the negotiations.

“We don’t know yet,” Pender said, although he thought it unlikely the Reds would be able to retain three rookie-level teams (in Billings, Arizona and Greeneville, Tenn.).

There are also considerations given to Dayton’s low-Class A Midwest League swapping level designations with the advanced-A Florida State League, although if the Dragons did become an advanced-A team, it would not be expected to change operations for the franchise.

Through 2019, Pender was the point man for filling seven minor league state-side rosters, including three teams designated as rookie level. At least four of those locations (Billings and Greeneville, advanced-A Daytona and Class AA Chattanooga) were designated by the majors as franchises to be disposed.

In another cost-saving measure, the majors reduced June’s free-agent draft from 40 rounds to five, but a proposal for 20 rounds in the next draft have been made.

Pender also praised Reds majority owner Bob Castellini, who chose to pay all minor leaguers left in the organization (some were cut early) throughout the season as the Reds scrambled to find them workout facilities.

Meanwhile, players such as Rey work out mostly on their own. He said he trains six days a week near his home in Deltona, Fla., and takes live batting practice with other minor leaguers who live nearby.

“And I’m getting ready for winter ball in Puerto Rico, just like I did last year,” he said.

All the while, the field at Day Air Ballpark is being mowed again. It’s not too soon to get ready for Opening Day, 2021.

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