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No baseball at Dodd Stadium as minor league season canceled

Norwich — It became official Tuesday evening that there will be no minor league baseball at the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium this summer, making it more likely that the newly renamed Norwich Sea Unicorns will never play a game.

Minor league officials in St. Petersburg, Fla., announced that Major League Baseball will not be assigning players to affiliated minor league teams at all levels of play because of the coronavirus. The Norwich Sea Unicorns are the Short Season Class A team of the Detroit Tigers.

“As a result, there will not be a Minor League Baseball season in 2020,” the news release from Minor League Baseball stated Tuesday.

“These are unprecedented times for our country and our organization as this is the first time in our history that we’ve had a summer without Minor League Baseball played,” minor league President and CEO Pat O’Conner said in the release.

During an online news conference following the announcement, O'Connor said as difficult as it was to cancel the 2020 season, it was the only conclusion, given the resurgence of the coronavirus and the inability to plan travel and fill stadiums safely.

"While we are disappointed to be unable to entertain our great fans this summer, we understand the unprecedented nature of the circumstances surrounding the news that there will be no 2020 Minor League Baseball season," Sea Unicorns General Manager Dave Schermerhorn said in a statement released Tuesday evening. "The most important thing is the health and safety of our community, the fans, staff and players that make Dodd Stadium a summertime home away from home for so many."

The Sea Unicorns will contact those that have purchased 2020 season tickets, mini plans, individual game tickets, group outings and sponsorships.

The team also is working with local and state officials to possibly host other events at Dodd Stadium this summer, with details to be announced.

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said he, too, was "extremely disappointed" but not surprised at Tuesday's announcement. He said he has been at the stadium recently, as the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce is considering holding events there.

Unlike Major League Baseball, minor league teams rely heavily on fans to attend games, buy concessions and souvenirs, view the sponsor advertisements. O'Connor estimated in-stadium revenue to be 85 to 90% for most teams. He said the discussion over whether teams could play without fans was the shortest one: "no," he said.

O'Connor estimated about half the current 160 minor league teams could be in jeopardy financially, meaning some could fold and others could be sold to new owners. Minor League Baseball officials are lobbying for congressional assistance through a loan program now part of a bill being considered in the House of Representatives.

While O'Connor expressed optimism that teams now can “begin planning for an exciting 2021 season of affordable family entertainment,” the Sea Unicorns' future was in doubt even before the coronavirus struck. The team signed a new 10-year lease with the city of Norwich last summer and changed its name in December to strengthen its connection to Norwich.

But the team and the New York-Penn League it plays in are slated to be eliminated under a controversial contraction plan that came to light last fall. The plan calls for cutting the minor leagues overall from 160 to 120 teams and eliminating the short-season Class A leagues entirely.

Under the plan, some of the teams slated to lose their affiliations could compete for some of the 120 affiliations with major league teams. Originally, the plan called for creating a so-called “Dream League” of independent teams with undrafted players hoping to catch the eyes of major league scouts. The plan was blasted by critics as not financially viable.

The current Professional Baseball Agreement that governs affiliations, expires Sept. 30, and MLB wants the proposed contraction plan to start in 2021.

O'Connor said negotiations for a new agreement — which Minor League Baseball hopes will include all 160 teams — stalled weeks ago as the coronavirus dominated all baseball discussions.

"This threat transcends that," O'Connor said of the coronavirus, with half the 160 currrent teams in "dire straits" financially.

He couldn't speculate on whether the coronavirus financial woes could shuffle the deck of teams slated to lose their Major League Baseball ties. He is concerned that the current conditions put Minor League Baseball in a weaker position in the negotiations.

"It doesn't help to be dark," O'Connor said. "Major League Baseball is hurting, maybe not as bad, because they have TV revenue. It's made us somewhat weaker. I don’t think it has challenged our resolve to stick together and get a good deal."

O'Connor said negotiations could resume once Major League Baseball starts its proposed shortened season in late July. He hopes a new agreement can be reached by the Sept. 30 expiration of the current agreement but talks could continue beyond that date if necessary.

Norwich Mayor Nystrom is not giving up on the possibility that Norwich can be one of the 120 affiliated minor league cities. He said he felt bad for the Sea Unicorns staff, including Schermerhorn and Senior Vice President C.J. Knudsen, who kept the full-time staff employed during the delay “not knowing what was going to happen.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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