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Sea Unicorns on hold as New York-Penn League suspends season 'indefinitely'

Norwich — There will be no minor league baseball at Dodd Stadium “indefinitely,” and it remains questionable whether the newly named Norwich Sea Unicorns will ever play a game.

“Due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, the start of the 2020 New York-Penn League season is being delayed indefinitely,” the 14-team league that includes the Sea Unicorns announced Friday. “The League and its clubs will continue to monitor the situation and work with our Major League Baseball affiliates, while following the recommendations of public health officials and adhering to local re-opening guidelines. As always, the health and safety of the New York-Penn League fans, players and staff members are our top priorities. Additionally, the New York-Penn League All-Star Game has been canceled.”

The Sea Unicorns had been scheduled to open their season June 18 on the road, with players arriving in Norwich on Sunday. The home opener, the first for the new-look team with its new 10-year lease with the city of Norwich to play at Dodd Stadium, was scheduled for Sunday, June 21.

In addition, the team is one of about 40 minor league teams slated to lose its Major League Baseball affiliation at the end of the 2020 baseball season in a widespread contraction plan that would shrink the minor league system from 160 to 120 teams. The New York-Penn League would be eliminated entirely in the plan, with just a few of its teams converted to a full season – starting in April – Class A level. The contraction plan puts the future of affiliated minor league baseball in doubt in Norwich.

Sea Unicorns Senior Vice President CJ Knudsen said he is holding out slim hopes that a truncated season can begin in about August, but while Major League Baseball is discussing returning without fans, that would not work for minor league teams.

“Our hope is that we’re playing minor league baseball in games,” Knudsen said Friday. “That’s what we want. That’s what our fans want and that’s what our sponsors want.”

Knudsen said he would discuss with the team owners a process for providing refunds to season ticket holders and event sponsors. He thanked the fans and sponsors for their support and for understanding the unprecedented challenges the pandemic has caused.

Knudsen said team officials have discussed several alternative uses for Dodd Stadium this summer, including target golf off a tee, a disc golf course, dinner and a movie projected on the video scoreboard and private parties.” Potentially, the field could be used for AAU baseball games if allowed. All would be subject to state mandated COVID-19 safety protocols, Knudsen said.

“It is really an unfortunate event for everybody,” Knudsen said. “At the end of the day, it’s out of everyone’s control. Obviously, we were looking forward to a great opening day, with a great new name, and new logo and to be ready for another decade of baseball at Dodd Stadium.”

The Sea Unicorns' lease, signed in August 2019 – before both the COVID-19 pandemic and the MLB contraction plan – includes a provision for stadium rent relief if there is suspension of baseball caused by “Force Majeure,” defined as manor natural disasters, labor disputes, sabotage, enemy government action or “law, statute, ordinance, order, rule or regulation or requirement of any federal, state or municipal government or any appropriate agency,” or “any other condition beyond the reasonable control of a party.”

The lease provision would allow the city the right to use the stadium for any purpose during the suspension period, with the city retaining revenue from any such events.

But Mayor Peter Nystrom said the city has no desire to run any events at Dodd Stadium during the baseball suspension period, preferring to allow the Sea Unicorns to retain control of the stadium and host events if possible.

Nystrom, City Manager John Salomone and city Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll will meet Monday to discuss the baseball suspension and then will meet with Knudsen and Sea Unicorns General Manager Dave Schermerhorn Monday “to discuss all matters with regard to rent.”

“We’re not interested in having the city run events there,” Nystrom said Friday. “CJ has quality staff there, and they are looking to hold onto them. As far as events up there, that makes a lot of sense. It has been open for other events all along. It could enhance the opportunity for some revenue. Clearly, it is not surprising that we are looking at this issue.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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