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Orioles’ affiliates come to grips with canceled minor league season: ‘It’s extremely disappointing'

After months of speculation, Major League Baseball informed Minor League Baseball on Tuesday that they wouldn’t be providing players for the 2020 season, meaning minor league affiliates across the country and Orioles affiliates locally won’t hold their seasons as planned.

“While this is a sad day for many, this announcement removes the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season and allows our teams to begin planning for an exciting 2021 season of affordable family entertainment,” Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner said in a statement.

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For the Orioles, there’s both a baseball impact and a business impact as Double-A Bowie, High-A Frederick, Low-A Delmarva and Short-A Aberdeen are all located in Maryland, with Triple-A Norfolk the only club outside the state.

To the players, it means official knowledge that while they’ll be paid through the end of the season, many won’t get the opportunity to play meaningful baseball and continue their development as they look to be part of the team’s homegrown rebuilding project.

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Ken Young, who is president and owner of Norfolk, Bowie and Frederick and holds a seat on the Minor League Baseball Board of Trustees, said that missing out on all the talent that could be coming through the Orioles’ ascendant farm system this year at his affiliates stings, as does losing all that goes along with the family-friendly atmosphere of minor league baseball — even if they saw it coming for weeks.

“It’s extremely disappointing, because fans are there to see the players, have fun, socialize, and unfortunately that’s just the way it is right now — you can’t socialize very easily, at least with the larger groups,” Young said. “That’s a setback, too, for fans. They just want to have a good time with their families and friends.”

Young said that his three affiliates kept their year-round, full-time staff employed after obtaining a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. But with that program ending Tuesday, he said “slightly over half” the staff at Frederick and Bowie were laid off, and “a little bit more than that” at Norfolk.

Remaining staff will be responsible with communicating with ticket holders and sponsors, while aspects like groundskeeping must continue whether there are games or not. Young said that the laid-off employees were told they could be welcomed back in the new year should the 2021 season be held in any capacity.

He called the layoffs “a matter of survival,” which he believes his three local affiliates will be able to do.

“While I won’t downplay the losses because they are very, very high, we can survive that,” Young said. “And we’ll come back strong next year, hopefully, and from a financial end, that’s the way I look at these franchises. We’re in pretty good shape, and we’ll absorb our losses. They’ll be strong. Obviously, we know what we projected, and I think our projections are correct, so now we can plan on, ‘OK, this is where we are.’ Hopefully, we can open next April to, you would hope, 100% capacity. But even if it’s less than 100%, we can open to a good number of fans.”

Minor league affiliates face added uncertainty because of the looming threat of minor league contraction that MLB has been pushing this year, with Frederick being one of the teams reportedly on the contraction list when the plan surfaced in the fall. At the time, Young said that he believed the Keys would remain an Orioles affiliate. He reiterated that Tuesday.

“MLB certainly hasn’t gotten back to any team that was on that list at this point, although there’s certain leagues that as you know that may not be in existence,” Young said. “But we just don’t know anything more. But I don’t think the Frederick Keys as we knew them have played their last game.”

The impact of no minor league season is being felt all around the state. Without baseball, the Delmarva Shorebirds said in a statement that they’d be transitioning Perdue Stadium in Salisbury into a hub for community events for the rest of the summer.

“It is our goal to transition the stadium into a community entertainment center in the meantime, while we will continue to plan for making the 2021 season and the years to come some of our best years yet,” general manager Chris Bitters said in a statement.

At Aberdeen, general manager Jack Graham said local elected officials and the business community came together quickly to put together drive-in fireworks at Ripken Stadium on Saturday to provide “a little bit of normalcy among what otherwise would be a pretty dark Independence Day.”

The Ironbirds had staff reductions too, he said, though they’ll aim to bring those employees back when they’re able. In the interim, he said the understanding of their fans and community members about the canceled season and excitement about when baseball returns is “overwhelming and great.”

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Other than the fireworks, they hope to be able to use Ripken Stadium for community events, including movies or possibly some signature Cal Ripken Jr. games on the video board, or crab feasts on the concourse.

“A baseball stadium is no good if it’s empty,” he said.

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