For the first time in more than a quarter-century, there will be no minor-league baseball in Fort Wayne in 2020.
This afternoon, less than a week after MLB announced its agreement for a 60-game season that will begin in late July, Minor League Baseball officially announced what had been all but certain for weeks: There will be no 2020 season for the 160 MiLB teams because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. This will be the first season without Midwest League baseball in the Summit City since the Fort Wayne Wizards moved to town in 1993.
While MLB can hold games without fans or with very limited attendance because major-league teams also have revenue streams from lucrative TV deals, no such backstop exists for minor-league teams. With fans still unable to attend games, it was almost inevitable that MiLB would not be able to operate without losing a significant amount of money every game.
The cancellation of the season, while expected for some time, is still a devastating blow to communities and fans across the country. MiLB teams will have to go at least 19 months without any home games before play can hope to resume in April 2021 and it's possible that some teams will not make it to the other side.
The TinCaps, with a picturesque downtown ballpark and well-maintained facilities, regularly are one of the biggest draws in all of MiLB. Even a team as previously healthy as the one in Fort Wayne has had to furlough some of its more than 30 employees as it expects to lose as much as 95% of its revenue for this season.
"(Baseball) is what we do," TinCaps president Mike Nutter said. "Yes, we do other events, we do a lot of incredible community things, but the main driver of attendance and revenue is Fort Wayne TinCaps baseball.
"It's been challenging, it's been stressful.... The goal with (team owner) Jason Freier, myself and everybody was to get through it and get through (the pandemic) with the same group (of full-time employees). We're not through it yet."
"It's incredibly disappointing and disheartening, frustrating," Nutter said of the lost season. "But also understandable. With the cards that we've all been dealt, there's no way in the world (we can play).... Nobody could have predicted that in (one of) the top five or 10, no arrogance there, most successful franchises in the country at any level."
Nutter said he hopes that in the coming weeks -- if the pandemic remains under control in Indiana -- the TinCaps will be able to re-open Parkview Field for some company events and be able to stem the tide of lost revenue to some extent. Though such events would help, he acknowledged there are going to be some difficult months ahead.
"The message to the fans is that we're hanging in there, obviously that we appreciate them over the years," the team president said. "We're a small, locally owned business that for years has done our best to entertain people and improve the quality of life and the quality of place in northeast Indiana, and we're hurting a little bit right now.
"I've got staff members who I believe are some of the best in the country at what they do and they're not around right now."
The TinCaps are also trying to stay afloat with some payouts from the business-interruption insurance the team's ownership group has been buying for years. As of now, the insurance company has said the team's policy does not cover COVID-19 stoppages and the TinCaps have joined with 14 other teams in a lawsuit against a group of five insurers to try to recover some of the lost revenue from this season. The suit, filed June 23, remains in its early stages.
"This has been a tremendous blow to the organization," Freier told The Journal Gazette. "We are hopeful that ultimately, we will be able to recover on the insurance that we spent years paying for."
With the 2020 season canceled, attention now turns to what could be a contentious off-season between MLB and MiLB. As far back as October, an MLB plan to cut as many as 42 minor league teams during re-negotiations of the agreement between the two organizations became public.
Before the pandemic grabbed the country's attention, the early stages of negotiations about that proposal were public and heated, with a group of more than 100 members of Congress, including Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, addressing a letter to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred condemning the proposal and saying it would "devastate" communities with MiLB teams.
It's unclear how those negotiations have progressed in recent months as the pandemic and preparations for the 2020 season have taken center stage, but MLB has not publicly backed off its proposal and seems prepared to fight for a significantly leaner MiLB system starting in 2021. Under the proposed restructuring, the TinCaps would be safe because of their strong attendance and modern facilities, but two fellow Midwest League teams, the Burlington Bees and Clinton LumberKings, could be affected.
For now, the focus remains on the season that won't happen. Nutter expressed regret that hundreds of MiLB players won't be able to take the field at least until fall and winter leagues and sadness about the loss of communal gatherings in downtown Fort Wayne this summer.
"It's a community within those walls (at Parkview Field), and it's not happening right now and I miss it," Nutter said. "More than anything, I miss the fans, I miss the banter, I miss somebody telling me after somebody goes 4-for-4 that they hope he doesn't get called up. This is all I've ever done and it's all I want to keep doing, but I miss it.... I miss the camaraderie."
"But man, I can't wait (to play again)," he added. "It's going to be an emotional thing. It's going to be a party, it'll be a pretty hot ticket I'd guess, under whatever constraints."