Cubs

How Cubs affiliates are tackling financial challenges of coronavirus pandemic

How Cubs affiliates are tackling financial challenges of coronavirus pandemic

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans were scheduled to host a happy hour on Thursday. But Tropical Storm Bertha, which hit the South Carolina coast Wednesday morning, had different plans. General manager Ryan Moore rearranged his schedule, pushing back an interview 15 minutes, to address the fallout.

“So 2020,” he posted to Twitter.

The Cubs Class A Advanced affiliate postponed happy hour until next week.

With the Minor League Baseball season suspended indefinitely, and an increasing number of states reopening their economies, the Cubs affiliates are relying on other activities to help weather the blow of the coronavirus pandemic. The MiLB season hasn’t been officially cancelled, but it’s expected to be.

Officials from all four of the Cubs full-season affiliates wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a minor league season, but all four acknowledged that their optimism was fading.

“Personally, I don’t think we’ll have a minor league season,” said Chris Allen, president of the Double-A Tennessee Smokies. “I hope we do; I hope I’m wrong. It just seems like there are too many moving parts to put this together. I see what they’re trying to do at the Major League level, and it seems like it’s just too much to pull off with every state and municipality having different rules and regulations.”

The Oakland A’s actions this week supported Allen’s suspicions.

MLB announced in March a league-wide commitment to providing minor league players with $400 weekly stipends and medical benefits through the end of May. The White Sox and Rangers have promised to extend that support through the month of June. As of Wednesday evening, the Cubs had not announced their plan. But on Tuesday, the A’s reportedly informed their minor league players that their stipends wouldn’t continue past May 31.

“When you're reading articles like that,” said Joe Hart, president of the Class-A South Bend Cubs, “I think that just kind of further lessens my optimism about having a season because you're not going to stop paying guys if you're going to actually have a season.”

MLB’s official decision on the fate of the minor league season has taken a back seat to negotiations with the MLBPA. Until the league delivers its final word, the Cubs affiliates are scheduling what events they can.

“The timing of this couldn't be any worse for Minor League Baseball,” Moore said. “We've incurred the majority of our expenses already, ramping up for the start of the season, and have zero revenue.”

Players and coaches are on the parent clubs’ payrolls, but the affiliates are responsible for most of the other costs associated with running a baseball team. Unlike MLB, which has lucrative TV deals, the minor leagues’ business plans rely on fans in the stands.

“I don’t have any revenue if I can’t sell tickets, and I can’t sell Cokes and beers and hot dogs and souvenir hats,” said Sam Bernabe, president of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. “That’s how I make my money. I don’t have any other revenue sources.”

Even sponsorship money disappears when there’s no one to see the advertisements in the ballpark.

“Given the opportunity to play games without fans, we would actually lose more money,” Hart said, “because now you're turning on lights, you’re trying to maintain the field on a daily basis to play at that level.”

Minor League teams are already practiced in fan and community engagement – that’s often a key piece to drawing crowds – but they’ve had to get even more creative since the season suspension.

The I-Cubs, Smokies and Pelicans all plan to host high school baseball events this summer. The South Bend Cubs are scheduled to host travel ball tournaments in June. All four are poised to welcome fans into their ballparks for those games, with health-and-safety restrictions like social distancing in place.

The teams are considering non-baseball events as well, like company picnics, outdoor religious services, food and beer festivals.

The Pelicans also obtained a Paycheck Protection Program loan, according to Moore, but he describes it as a “Band-Aid.”

“Where we need a tourniquet,” he said.

That is the case for many of the minor league teams’ workarounds this summer. Bernabe estimated that the Iowa Cubs would still need a least the next two years’ revenue to cover the losses from this season. If the U.S. is hit with a second COIVD-19 peak, it will take longer to recover.

Even layers of Band-Aids can’t do the job.

Cubs' David Ross waiting for COVID-19 test result, won't attend Monday's workout

Cubs' David Ross waiting for COVID-19 test result, won't attend Monday's workout

Cubs manager David Ross and five other Tier 1 individuals won't attend Monday morning's workout as they wait for Saturday's completed COVID-19 testing results.

The Cubs said the majority of Saturday's results have been reported but Ross and the five other individuals "anticipate further clarity" later on Monday.

“We’ve decided to do the prudent thing so myself and the five others will not attend this morning’s workout,” Ross said in a statement. “Out of an abundance of caution, we think it makes sense for the six of us to wait for clarity. 

"Situations like this have not been a worrisome indicator of a positive test result to date.” 

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The Cubs are the only team in Major League Baseball without a player testing positive through the first two weeks of intake and monitoring testing.

The Cubs pushed back last Tuesday's workout while waiting for their test results from July 5.

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Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

If Yu Darvish thinks baseball can pull off this high-risk, three-month season during a pandemic, maybe there’s reason to dream on the long shot coming in.

Then, again, the Cubs’ potential Opening Day starter has not ruled out changing his mind about playing — which underscores the daily fragility of the thread holding this 30-team, 30-site process together.

“Definitely, I came here to make sure everybody’s doing the right thing,” Darvish said through a translator. “I had in my mind if they’re not, I was ready to go home.”

Darvish was the first player in the majors last spring to publicly express fear of the COVID-19 spread and lethality of a virus that was blamed for fewer than 10 American deaths at the time — weeks before major sports were shut down across the country.

Four months and more than 130,000 U.S. coronavirus-related deaths later, he made the “tough” decision to play — with plenty of reservations.

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“Yes, definitely, I still have concerns,” he said Sunday, two days after Giants star Buster Posey became one of 11 players without a pre-existing, high-risk condition to decline to play this season.

MORE: Tracking MLB players who have opted out or declined to play in 2020

Under rules in the COVID-19 health and safety Operations Manual, players with high-risk conditions are allowed to change their minds in either direction when it comes to the opt-out decision. And they earn full service time for the year and prorated salary for the 60-game season if they don’t play.

Those such as Darvish who are not in that category don’t get service time or pay for the year if they decline to play and are not allowed to return once that decision is made official.

Asked if he still is leaving open the possibility of opting out of the season, he said, “Maybe. But at this point no, I don’t think so.”

In a baseball vacuum, Darvish offers the Cubs their best chance for success during a 60-game season and any playoffs that might follow.

“The way he finished the season last year, how good he was for us, that’s the guy we’re counting on,” manager David Ross said, referring to a second half that included a 2.76 ERA and a 118-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts.

But Darvish, a native of Japan, hasn’t viewed baseball in a vacuum since the year began — approaching Cubs officials upon his arrival for informal work before spring training began in February to address concerns about reporters who might travel from possible virus hot spots in Asia to cover him.

“I’m really worried about it,” he said then.

And then on March 5 he left the Cubs’ spring facility to see a doctor for a test after experiencing a cough, out of a fear he might expose teammates if he had the virus.

By the time MLB and the union agreed last month to terms for a season, the thought of playing during a pandemic had only become more serious for Darvish and many others throughout the game.

“It was tough because I have small children,” Darvish said of the decision. “During the spring we had a lot of thoughts about that, and it was tough decision.”

He said seeing teammates with similar family dynamics and concerns choose to play made it “a little easier to make the decision to play.”

But it’s a discussion among players and their families across the majors that isn’t going to go away — and figures to only intensify every time another batch of test results shows up late or another player tests positive somewhere.

MORE: Cubs COVID-19 tests return negative, Theo Epstein cautions against complacency

Not to mention continued spikes in new cases and deaths in cities and states across the major-league map.

“I think we’re all a little nervous. Nobody wants to get this thing,” Cubs veteran Jon Lester said. “You have to just believe in the testing process; you have to believe in kind of the bubble community we’re trying to create here; you have to believe in these things.”

That’s when Lester held up a mask during the Zoom session with reporters.

The Cubs — the only team in the league without a player testing positive through the first two weeks of intake and monitoring testing — have shown a commitment to safety protocols from top to bottom in the organization. Third baseman Kris Bryant wore his mask again while taking ground balls at third base Sunday, despite plenty of safe distance from the nearest player or coach.

“I know that some of the players are uncomfortable wearing it, but they do wear it,” Darvish said. “So it’s nice to see. I used to wear [masks] all the time in Japan so I’m very comfortable with this.”

Getting comfortable with the larger experiment, especially when teams begin to travel and inherent risks increase, could be an ongoing adjustment — for everyone from
Darvish, Lester and Bryant to Angels superstar Mike Trout, who continues to express concerns with his first child due next month.

“There’s a lot of stuff where you’re putting yourself out there and just kind of hoping,” said Lester, whose successful battle with cancer more than a decade ago qualifies him for a high-risk exemption to opt out.

“My own personal health really wasn’t my concern,” said Lester, who said the team doctor consulted with his oncologist in Chicago on the issue. “We do have some family stuff we’re trying to stay away from. But I think you just have to dive into this head-first and go with the protocols and wash your hands and be careful.

“You really have to concentrate on that and hopefully everything else kind of takes care of itself.”

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