The last frontier was the first frontier for summer baseball to fall victim to COVID-19. The Alaska Baseball League, ranked the most competitive collegiate summer baseball league outside of New England in 2019 by CSBN, is facing uncertain prospects for a 2020 season. The ABL’s Peninsula Oilers were the first collegiate summer baseball team to cancel their season in mid-March.
“It’s tough to ask our sponsors, donors, community and our host families to put forth their time and planning of the summer if we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Kyle Brown the Peninsula Oilers general manager. “We were reading the situation and projecting what’s going to happen in the future.”
The state of Alaska is nearing 300 COVID-19 cases with a peak expected on April 18 according to the University of Washington’s Center for Health Trends and Forecasts. Currently, those entering Alaska from out of state are required to quarantine for 14 days. That mandate along with a shelter-in-place order in Alaska is to be re-evaluated by Governor Mike Dunleavy on April 21.
Brown’s decision went behind health but in fact, started with considerations of the community and economy.
“Our main revenue streams are the bingo halls and pool tab rooms,” said Brown. “With our revenue streams getting essentially turned off [with the shelter-in-place order] we did not see us conducting a 2020 summer.”
While the other four ABL teams are located within 45 minutes of each other in the Anchorage metro area the Oilers need to drive three hours from the Kenai Peninsula. Lodging at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a bus are needed for all road games.
With one team down the remaining four teams in the ABL are planning to go ahead with a 2020 season.
“We are in a wait and see mode,” said the ABL’s 2020 president, Chris Beck who is also the general manager for the Chugiak Eagle River Chinooks. “We are monitoring the government regulations on what social distancing orders will be in place.”
The non-profit ABL has no central governing system but is run collectively by all five independent teams. The four remaining ABL teams have been in frequent communication on prospects for the 2020 season but one threat looms largest.
Host families. ABL teams are primarily composed of division one players from universities and hometowns across the “lower 48.” All ABL teams rely on local Alaskan families to house players.
Will Alaskans open up their doors to players that may be coming from COVID-19 hotspots? Will players' parents be willing to send them over 3,000 miles away from home during a global pandemic?
The Oilers do not see an affirmative answer to those questions, but Beck remains vigilant to listening to government regulations as the situation evolves. The ABL has a contingency plan to push the start of the league schedule back to June 15 or even July 1st. Furthermore, the league will act more as a “developmental league.” The teams have already agreed to not have a postseason and have expanded rosters anticipating playing doubleheaders.
The loss of the Oilers will also change the schedule, but the remaining four teams will only lose one home game under a revised schedule.
One contingency plan will not be discussed for this summer.
“None of us can operate without fans from a revenue standpoint,” Beck said. “That would make the decision for us if Alaska isn’t going to lift social distancing orders until July or August. We are trying to make it work and kids want to go this summer. It just might not be feasible cause none of us want to put people at risk.”
In an informal survey on CSBN’s twitter page, only 46.8% of the over 100 respondents said they would attend a collegiate summer baseball game this summer if no vaccine is developed.
The Oilers plan to return to the ABL in 2021 after a one-year hiatus. The fate of the rest league will rest on governmental mandates and decisions of families, players and communities.
“They want this season to happen,” Brown said. “The Alaska Baseball League has been around since 1968 and they have not missed a season. There is a lot of rich history in the Alaska Baseball League that this pandemic is putting in jeopardy. Each organization is incredibly proud of its history and the players they have put into the draft and the major leagues.”
Even the famous Midnight Summer Game, not a part of the ABL, that has been played in Fairbanks for over a hundred years on the summer solstice is under threat. Only one league has followed the Oilers lead and canceled the 2020 season- the Valley League in Virginia. However, for a geographically and economically unique ABL that reflects the Oiler's predicament, time is running out for a 2020 season.
“This is the toughest decision the Oilers have ever made,” said Brown. “It hurts but the coaches and players I’ve talked to, they understand.”
Keep track of league cancellations here https://csbn.co/2020leaguecancels.html