During a normal Fourth of July week in Durham, thousands of locals and out-of-town guests would stream to Durham Bulls Athletic Park to watch a ballgame and a fireworks show.
This holiday, there will be no game, no sparkles in the sky.
Minor League Baseball on Tuesday cancelled the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The decision was widely expected, but the official news was unprecedented in the league’s history.
“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,” MiLB President & CEO Pat O’Conner said in the press release.
There were many factors that played a role in this decision, a big one being that Major League Baseball announced that big-league teams would not send players to affiliated minor league teams this summer, making play impossible.
The clincher was the fact that minor league teams across the country cannot welcome crowds into their stadiums in the midst of a pandemic. And teams can’t stay afloat without the money fans bring.
Back on May 19, the Durham Bulls — the Triple A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays — held a town hall meeting for its season ticket holders, 919 Club members. Team Vice President Mike Birling made it clear then that to have a season, fans were required.
The MLB makes money from television revenue, but O’Conner estimated that 85 to 90% of revenue for minor league teams depends on what fans spend, from ticket sales to concession sales and parking.
The DBAP holds up to 10,000 fans, but North Carolina — still in Phase 2 of reopening until at least July 17 — does not allow for outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people.
Last year, the Bulls broke the record for their three-game home series attendance, welcoming 35,052 fans over the June 14-16 weekend.
The cancellation of the Durham Bulls’ season is a huge loss for many, including local vendors that sell popsicles to hotdogs and beer at the ballpark, and the 400 seasonal workers on the Bulls’ payroll.
This week it was the fans who were loudest in their mourning. “Heartbroken that for the first time in more than two decades, I won’t be spending summer nights in this magical place. See you in 2021, @DurhamBulls,” fan Mike Sundheim posted on Twitter.
“It doesn’t even seem like summer if you do not get to sit in the heat and humidity in July for Bulls’ baseball. Better safe than sorry,” Ron Martin tweeted.
The organization had furloughed 55% of its staff back in April, hoping to bring them back in September or early October. Birling said Wednesday morning that he does not anticipate having to furlough any more employees.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, the cancellation of the minor league season has also put more than 5,000 players officially out of work for the season. But at least some Bulls’ players will be on baseball teams this summer because MLB teams were allowed to increase their rosters this summer.
The MLB is set to start training today, July 1, with games resuming later this month. The Rays’ 60-man roster had 31 former Bulls players, including 23 who were on the 2019 teams here in Durham.
Players who didn’t make a big-league roster will continue to get paid, said Birling. As of right now, seven teams are committed to paying players through Labor Day, what would have been the end of the minor league season. Birling stated that the Rays are committed to paying through July 31.
“I can’t make decisions for the Rays but I would be surprised if they didn’t continue the trend that some of the other teams are doing,” said Birling, on paying MiLB players through the season.
The last time the Durham Bulls cancelled play was in 1934-35 due to the Great Depression. Now the team enters a new era in history, with high hopes to be back on the mound as soon as next year.
But during an interview Wednesday, Biring made clear that he doesn’t expect next year’s season will be normal either.
“Do I anticipate having 10,000 people in the ballpark next April? No,” Birling said on a phone call Wednesday morning. “I think the virus will still limit us to some sort of percentage of capacity.”
9th Street Journal reporter Daniela Schneider can be reached at email@example.com
At top: Photos of Durham Bulls players will stand in for the real thing at Durham Bulls Athletic Park this summer. Photo by Henry Haggart