With no Minor League Baseball in action this summer, the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball will join Major League Baseball as one of the few professional baseball circuits operating in 2020.
But that is not the only thing different this season according to commissioner Josh Schaub. The normally 12-team league will only have six teams participating – four with stadiums available – and attendance will vary based on local health guidelines. They will also attempt to fit 60 games in 70 days, starting on July 3.
“2020 is definitely not a typical year,” Schaub said. “This isn’t about economic opportunity; this is providing baseball to our communities. We’ve turned over every stone possible and pulled it off thus far. We wanted a credible season to bridge to 2021 and keep the recognition we have in the professional baseball landscape.”
Schaub said it was the NBA’s suspension in March that prompted thinking around special 2020 plans, including budgeting for if zero games were played. After another independent league commissioner said ‘this is our funeral’; Schaub knew there had to be a season and set a goal for an opening day in early July.
“We knew we didn’t want to go into an abyss, and we knew it was a moonshot and didn’t know if it’d be regular with all 12 teams, six teams, or a hub. But we came up with economic models,” he said.
Early on, only two teams could host fans at their stadiums, a key piece for the gate-driven league to work. Still, those economics “looked bad all around,” Schaub said.
Eventually, the franchise in Fargo, North Dakota, learned it could open, joining Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Milwaukee, and Chicago. The teams based in Winnipeg, Canada, and St. Paul, Minnesota, will be based in other ballparks. Schaub specifically hopes St. Paul will also be able to host fans. The Saints are among the top-drawing teams outside of MLB, including last year’s total of 394,970 fans.
Each team will welcome varying amounts of fans, as Chicago can host 20%, Fargo can host 50%, and Milwaukee starts at 35%. Sioux Falls has no restrictions but has reduced to 50% on its own accord.
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Although there will be other baseball ‘pod’ leagues, where several teams play at one stadium like the United Shore Professional Baseball League in Michigan and the City of Champions Cup in Joliet, Illinois, Schaub said the American Association would be one of the few leagues playing in a “traditional” circuit.
To accomplish that Schaub said the league has taken health and safety protocols from across sports leagues, including MLB.
“We’ve learned a lot from other leagues and have similar on-field protocols to MLB,” Schaub said. “We created our own that teams can adopt in whole or in part, but they’re guided by their local health departments, which are far more stringent.”
With the lack of minor league baseball, The American Association is also expecting a new influx and confluence of talent. The league held a dispersal draft with the players from teams that aren’t playing – those rights will return to the original team after the season. MLB also informed the independent leagues that their players are allowed to play with no MiLB season. The league’s service time classification system – which limits the types of players signed – is also suspended.
“These teams can sign anyone they want,” said Schaub, assuming the clubs stay within the $100,000 salary cap. “The talent will be better than ever.”
Alumni of the American Association include Washington Nationals pitcher and Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder David Peralta.
Schaub wants to get through the 2020 season and get back on the field with all 12 teams next season.
“Success will be getting through without having to shut down,” Schaub said. “We know players will test positive, that’s a fact, so it’s how we handle it and contain it and get through. We have to live with this virus, so how do we make sure everyone’s as safe as possible.”