The unveiling Thursday of the master schedule put plans in place for most of the minor league baseball franchises across the country. And it is hailed as good news throughout, because it means there is intent to play ball this year after COVID-19 shut down play on the farms in 2020.
But the joy in Albuquerque is tempered. The 142-game schedule that has the Isotopes playing the opener here on April 8, a Mother’s Day game (May 9), or the three dates on the Fourth of July (3-5) weekend? Aspirational at best, fictional at worst, due to the lingering impact of the pandemic.
The state’s public health order continues to prohibit pro sports in any county in the yellow, such as Bernalillo currently, for certain COVID rates of test positivity and average daily cases.
It also prevents any fans from attending pro sporting events, which is even a bigger strike that has the Isotopes down 0-2 in the count.
John Traub, Isotopes vice president and general manager, said Thursday, “Basically we can’t play without fans, because we need to generate revenue to cover expenses and travel and operating the facility.”
And so along with the announcement of the Triple-A team’s 142-game schedule came this caveat:
“… (T)he Isotopes will not be able to play at Rio Grande Credit Union Field at Isotopes Park without fans in the stands. Therefore, should the State of New Mexico’s restrictions prohibit home games from being played, the Isotopes will work with (Major League Baseball) to determine what will happen to the schedule in that scenario.”
That could mean the 2021 version of the Isotopes could be an all-road team, or play home games at the Rockies’ spring training complex in Arizona. Or there may be another plan that must be devised by Major League Baseball, which has taken over many of the operational aspects of the minors – and ambitiously set early April dates for the 30 Triple-A teams when it set openers in May for the other 90 teams in lower-level leagues. (Click here for the master minor league schedule, covering all teams.)
Asked if he believes the Isotopes will play in Albuquerque this year, Traub said, “I certainly hope so.
“For everybody’s sake, For a lot of reasons. Baseball is a part of that healing in our community and throughout the country, an important part of the healing for whatever situation that has called for healing. I really hope that’s the case this year. … We will open up the ballpark when it’s safe and when the state says we can open it up. Hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.”
The Covid-Safe Practices guidelines already would allow a fan-less pro sporting event in town today if the county were green (average daily COVID cases no more than 8 per thousand and test positivity no greater than 5 percent) and with rigorous testing regimens. As they currently stand, they would have allowed Isotopes Park to be the alternate training site last summer for the parent Colorado Rockies, who were to pay the expenses. But stricter public health guidelines then nixed that.
Traub says the Isotopes are in constant communication with Major League Baseball, the Rockies and the governor’s office. With encouraging virus trends, he acknowledges the possibility of a relaxed public health order later at some point that allows a return of games with a certain percentage of fans in the stands.
Then the business of the Isotopes, now with seven full-time employees, would have to figure out how much seasonal hiring to do, how fans could safely attend, if certain areas of the ballpark would need to be shut down given lesser staffing – or even if that could happen, given the need to space out fans for health reasons.
In that case, “we have a commitment to MLB and the Rockies to operate under certain circumstances,” Traub said. “I would put it this way, we need enough fans in the ballpark to be able to cover the expenses we’d have. Those are still being flushed out.”
In the meantime, the message to the team’s fans and corporate partners Thursday was to stay tuned.
“I’m just happy that we have a schedule,” said Traub. “I’m happy that MLB continues to press forward with the concept of playing and knowing how important our teams are to the major leagues.”