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It has been an excruciating year for ‘Topes

There hasn’t been any minor league baseball at Isotopes Park this year during the coronavirus health pandemic. Here, Albuquerque’s Elliot Soto dives into the seats for the ball last season.
ROBERTO E. ROSALES/JOURNAL

A rain delay that goes on for weeks with no break in the forecast.

That’s what 2020 has been like for the Albuquerque Isotopes, who have been stuck in a frustrating holding pattern as the clock continues to tick.

With baseball season shut down by coronavirus restrictions, the Isotopes and other minor league franchises are in an unpleasant situation entirely beyond their control. The ‘Topes haven’t played a game this season, and all indications are there will be no minor league season in 2020.

John Traub, Isotopes general manager

Still, Isotopes general manager John Traub and his staff can’t simply take their bag of balls and go home. Major League Baseball has made no official decisions regarding its season or if any sort of minor league games will be played this summer.

“We’re trying to prepare for anything from 50 games to zero,” Traub said. “We haven’t heard a word from the MLB side, and their decisions obviously affect us. At this point I’m not overly optimistic, but we have to stay ready and we will.”

Traub’s lack of optimism is understandable. While other sports have begun announcing gradual returns from the COVID-19 shutdown, MLB’s owners and players continue to squabble about revenue and player salaries. As of Friday no plans for 2020 were in place.

There have also been media reports of organizations cutting minor league players and employees, along with rumors that Major League teams will maintain expanded “taxi squads” of available players in place of minor league rosters.

None of this bodes well for the Triple-A Isotopes.

“Taxi squads could be what the minor leagues are this year,” Traub said, “but right now everything is just speculation and we can’t base what we’re doing on that.”

Traub and the Isotopes’ 29 full-time employees have other hurdles to consider. Even if MLB comes up with a 2020 plan that includes a minor league presence, state and local governments have banned large gatherings in many states, including New Mexico. Such bans would have to be lifted for the ‘Topes to play because minor league teams’ revenue is almost entirely attendance-based.

“We’ve been working on a reopening plan that would allow for limited attendance,” Traub said. “You have to figure in things like ticketing, concessions, traffic on the concourse and additional cleaning. We could be ready pretty quickly if it gets to that point.”

It seems more likely, however, that Traub and the Isotopes will have to adjust to a lost season. That eventuality would include financial consequences and some creativity to keep staff and the ballpark occupied.

Financially speaking, canceling the season would cost the Isotopes and Albuquerque revenue and tourist dollars. The Isotopes also have a $700,000 annual rental agreement with the city that includes payment of 12.5% of the club’s gross revenues above $5.5 million. The team makes quarterly payments and often makes public check presentations during the season.

Traub said the Isotopes have not yet made their first quarterly payment for 2020. That too remains on hold.

“There are caveats in the agreement for a canceled season,” Traub said, “but the season is not canceled yet. We’re having discussions with the city and they’ve been very understanding. We intend to honor our obligations, and we have a very good track record.”

The Isotopes also signed a naming-rights agreement in February, changing the ballpark’s official name to Rio Grande Credit Union Field at Isotopes Park. Signs sporting the new name recently went up at the stadium and the agreement won’t be impacted by the pandemic, Traub said.

In the event there is no baseball at the park this summer, Traub said the organization intends to find other ways to use the facility. Possibilities include an on-field catch such as the ‘Topes have offered for Father’s Day games, movies shown on the ballpark scoreboard or a “dining on the diamond” promotion similar to one being offered at Pawtucket’s minor league park.

The Isotopes recently began allowing local high school valedictorians to make videos of their speeches on the baseball field free of charge. The club also plans to begin offering curbside pickup of ballpark food.

“We’re absolutely considering a lot of those things,” Traub said. “Our staff is pretty creative and we’ll swap ideas with other organizations. Promotions are a big part of minor league baseball and that’s not going to change.”

For the moment, however, Traub and other minor league officials are forced to keep waiting for a final call on 2020.

“It is frustrating to have zero control of your own destiny,” Traub said. “We need to hear something, one way or the other. I hope it happens soon.”

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