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Norwich Sea Unicorns shut out in final minor league baseball reorganization

Norwich — The Norwich Sea Unicorns struck out in the team’s attempt to secure a Major League Baseball affiliate in the restructuring overhaul of the minor league baseball system that was finalized Friday.

The Norwich team initially lost its classification in fall of 2019, when the reorganization eliminated the Short-Season Class A New York-Penn League, and on Dec. 9, 2020, lost its contracted affiliation with the Detroit Tigers, when the major league team selected other locations for its four allotted affiliated minor league teams.

Sea Unicorns officials had held out hope that an affiliation with another major league team could open up. But that hope was dashed Friday, when the shrunken list of 120 minor league affiliates was announced, along with the final reorganization, eliminating long-standing league names and arrangements. The New York-Penn League had been the oldest minor league in the nation.

“If you’re someone left outside looking in, it’s rather hollow words,” Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said of the MLB news release promoting the restructuring as strengthening the minor leagues. “They say they’re promoting baseball, but they are shorting 40 communities.”

Sea Unicorns Senior Vice President C.J. Knudsen said the team now will focus on the future, considering either a professional independent baseball team or a summer collegiate wooden bat baseball team. He said he hopes to have a direction solidified within the next two weeks.

“The biggest thing is to ensure we have high-quality baseball at Dodd Stadium,” Knudsen said. “We have a great facility and a great fan base.”

Either option would be “a whole new ballgame for us,” Knudsen said.

With independent professional ball, teams must recruit and pay the players, managers, coaches, trainers and support staff and must pay for the equipment, travel and meals. With college ball, the players wouldn’t be paid but the team would have to recruit the players, either directly or through a service, and must pay for coaches, managers, equipment and travel.

Independent leagues typically play about 100 games per season from mid-May to early September, with half of those home games. Summer college leagues play 50 to 60 games per season in mid- to late May through mid-August, with half as home games, Knudsen said.

Whatever the future makeup of the newly named Norwich Sea Unicorns, the team ownership would need a new lease agreement with the city of Norwich, which owns the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium. The team and city signed a new 10-year lease in August 2019 — approved by Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred — that called for its continued affiliation with a Major League team. Formerly called the Connecticut Tigers, the team agreed to change its name to put Norwich in the title.

Mayor Nystrom and City Manager John Salomone will hold a teleconference meeting Monday with Knudsen and Sea Unicorns’ owner E. Miles Prentice to discuss the team’s status and future plans.

The 2020 baseball season, which would have been the first year of the new lease, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Prentice has kept the five year-round staff members working, with the team merchandise store open for online orders and curbside pickup of purchases. Team staff members have coordinated use of the stadium parking lot for the Backus Hospital’s COVID-19 drive-thru testing.

Knudsen said depending on COVID-19 and the state’s decisions on high school and college sports and public gatherings, the team hopes to continue to host high school baseball games at Dodd Stadium, college baseball tournaments and outdoor concerts. Limited attendance outdoor concerts were held last summer.

c.bessette@theday.com

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