Opinion: As MLB restarts, Minor League Baseball survives and waits its turn
Altoona, Pennsylvania — As the scent of fresh-cut grass delicately fills the air, so do the aromas of hot dogs and hamburgers coming from the grill on the lower deck. Just past right field, there is an amusement park where you can hear the slow clink, clink, clink of the roller coaster as the carriage climbs its ancient wood scaffoldings. The kitschy music found at any ballpark in America echoes throughout.
The pitcher has taken the mound; the catcher is crouched in position; and an eternity passes as glances and signs are exchanged. The pitcher winds up, stretching his left hand behind his back. The ball sails toward home at a smidge over 90 mph, and POP! It lands in the weathered glove of the catcher.
All of the chords of America's pastime have been struck. Almost.
The fresh-cut grass was not done by a professional grounds crew. That was David Lozinak, the COO of the Altoona Curve team. The grill on the lower deck was fired up by the handful of staff who weren't furloughed, feeding not fans but the players and coaches a late lunch.
There is no one in the stands, nor any team in the visitor dugout, only the taxi squad for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who practice here daily.
There is no mascot doing cartwheels on the upper deck, and there are no T-shirt tosses for kids. There are no fireworks nights, which make Minor League Baseball's very existence a community event. It's a place for all ages, particularly for families to be able to have an affordable night out and good food — their hot sausage sandwiches are legendary — and be able to see young talent prepare for the big leagues.
It's been nearly a month since Minor League Baseball announced it was canceling its season, and nothing about the void that decision left has really gone away or been replaced.
Having the Pirates taxi squad practice here almost makes the loss worse. At least before, there were no physical reminders of what could have been. Now they are here daily, and no one is watching the next Gerrit Cole throw his first pitch on his way to greatness far outside this beautiful ballpark at the foot of the Allegheny Mountains.
It is arguably the best view in the minor leagues. Peoples Natural Gas Field, purposely designed to resemble a roundhouse, a homage to this region's railroad past, is the home of the Altoona Curve team, itself an homage to the nearby railroad engineering marvel Horseshoe Curve.
The team is the Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. With its 2020 season canceled, it's relying heavily on creativity and survival tactics to fill the gap between the last pitch of the 2019 season and the start of the 2021 season.
Minor league teams aren't deep-pocketed enterprises living off the revenues of Major League Baseball. They are often small, family-owned businesses on the brink, like many other businesses that rely on in-person attendance.
"We are technically just like a mom-and-pop business," said Lozinak, fresh off a 90-degree field that gifted him a thin film of perspiration for his efforts to keep the diamond manicured. "Whatever needs done, I do it. That's another thing about minor league baseball, because your staffs are a little bit smaller. Especially this year, when you have zero revenue, you got to do what you got to do."
The county owns the ballpark; the family owns the franchise. Of their 26 full-time employees, they have had to furlough 15. But the team worked with local businesses to get their furloughed workers new jobs in the community.
Minor League Baseball is part of a ladder of systems, nearly all independently owned, that help prepare players competitively, emotionally and physically for a spot on a major league team. They also provide the promise of tomorrow to communities, families and children in small- to midsized towns across the country, people who often do not have the means, transportation or desire to travel to a major league stadium to see a game.
On July 26, JT Brubaker made his MLB debut for the Pirates, becoming the 171st Curve alum to reach the majors.
Today, despite the relentless sun and heat, locals steal a peek of the taxi team from the fences located hundreds of yards away, along the parking lots or near the amusement park.
They say they are here just to hear the crack of the bat, or to follow the signals, or to see the game they love, or maybe even to catch a ball knocked out of the park.
No matter how fleetingly the moment passes, they want to try to capture a glimpse of their former lives, of all of our former lives.
"This past week, we introduced trivia night," said general manager Derek Martin. "We purchased a membership with Kahoot! and displayed the game on the Jumbotron, had our regular announcer serve as the MC and held it during the happy hour we have on the lower deck every Friday." It's a way to give people access to the park and to create some revenue. Only 250 people were allowed in.
Martin began his career with the Pirates as an intern in Pittsburgh, went on to do a couple of stints at other minor league organizations, returned here as an entry-level ticket salesperson and then left baseball and Pennsylvania once he started his family.
"My wife actually saw an ad for the general manager job in the newspaper and called me and said, 'Hey, did you look at the paper today?' I said yes. She was like, 'I think you should put your name in for it because that's always been your dream, to be a GM.'"
Martin got the job, the ability to live the dream and be close to family. He's optimistic about next year, saying: "We'll be here. Baseball will be here. I can't wait for that first pitch."
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.