Norwich and Lowell, Mass., forge bond to save their baseball teams

Norwich — Norwich and Lowell, Mass., are following similar paths to try to keep their minor league baseball teams intact past the 2020 season, and the spirit of cooperation could extend to the baseball diamond this summer.

Both the Norwich Sea Unicorns and Lowell Spinners, who play in the New York-Penn League, are slated to lose their Major League Baseball affiliations — Norwich with the Detroit Tigers and Lowell with the Boston Red Sox. A contraction plan by Major League Baseball to eliminate 42 affiliations would be part of a new player development agreement after the 2020 season.

Officials in both cities are being assisted by their congressional delegations co-sponsoring resolutions urging MLB to scrap the plan. Both cities are stressing the economic, cultural and community value of hosting minor league teams. Both recently signed new long-term leases with team owners and rejected the concept of reducing the teams to unaffiliated lower-level independent status.

“I think that Lowell and Norwich are on parallel tracks,” Norwich City Manager John Salomone said during a conference call Thursday with Lowell Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin. “It seems like we’re doing almost exactly the same thing.”

Officials invited each other to visit their respective stadiums this summer.

The Sea Unicorns and Spinners open the 2020 season June 18 at LeLacheur Park in Lowell. The teams play at the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium on July 28. Salomone suggested joint news conferences at each stadium.

“It’s never been done before, the opposing team gets to throw out a pitch to show our solidarity,” Salomone said.

Baldwin called that a “wonderful idea” and confessed he had to buy the new Sea Unicorns T-shirt, as his eldest daughter’s favorite sea animal is a narwhal.

“It’s really encouraging I have to say again to hear some of the efforts that are underway in Connecticut because of how important how minor league baseball can be to a community and I’m glad to hear that you folks recognize that,” Baldwin said.

He proposed a second conference call next week with more participants from other cities and towns on the proposed contraction list. Norwich participated in a conference call Jan. 22 with 26 other municipal leaders to formalize the Mayors' Task Force to Save Minor League Baseball.

After the call, Salomone and Nystrom said Norwich hasn’t quantified the total economic impact of the team. Beyond the lease agreement — which Salomone said would cost slightly more than revenues generated — local businesses supply everything from drinks and food to the concession stands and players, to stadium supplies, services and hotel rooms for visiting teams.

The team, formerly the Connecticut Tigers, also has contributed $1.6 million to charitable organizations over the past 10 years and has hosted numerous local events.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal held a news conference at Norwich City Hall to announce a bipartisan group of senators on Monday would introduce a resolution in the Senate, identical to one introduced in the House, urging MLB to scrap the contraction plan.

MLB released a statement Thursday in response to Blumenthal’s news conference: “MLB is confident that we can modernize our minor league system, improve working conditions for players and protect baseball in the communities where it is currently being played,” it said. “MLB has already made the decision to increase compensation for minor league players unilaterally. However, other MLB priorities such as improving working conditions and reducing the travel burden for players can only be accomplished at the negotiating table with meaningful participation from Minor League Baseball.”

The Norwich and Lowell leaders, however, said they have made major upgrades to their stadiums — Norwich with new $500,000 LED field lights last year and planned clubhouse, ventilation and protective netting extensions this year — and disputed any claims that their stadiums are substandard.

“That’s certainly not the case in Norwich,” Salomone said.

“Nothing could be further from the truth in Lowell, as well,” Baldwin said. “We’ve made some significant investments ourselves, and I think that’s what got us a little bit riled up. We tried to put our best foot forward in terms of investing in the facilities and to have this happen on the foot of that is unnerving.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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