Affiliated minor-league baseball isn't going to happen in 2020. That official announcement, which was widely expected, came down Tuesday afternoon.
But Metro Detroit will get some minor-league baseball, of the independent variety.
Despite Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's decision Tuesday not to move the state into Phase 5 of reopening from the COVID-19 shutdown, the United Shore Professional Baseball League based out of Utica decided it would start its season Friday.
There will be fewer than 100 fans in the stands, to comply with Whitmer's Phase 4 restrictions. The USPBL is allowed 100 people total, but that includes players, coaches and ballpark staff.
It's not ideal, but it's something.
"We're excited to get started," Andy Appleby, the league's founder and CEO, told The Detroit News on Tuesday night, hours after he informed his staff, players and coaches that the season is about to get underway.
"We know that we've got a very small window here with the weather."
The four-team league still is planning to play a full 75-game schedule, albeit with some doubleheaders, that would take the season into late September, about two weeks past its typical finish.
The league was supposed to hold Opening Day on May 8, then pushed it to May 29, then again to June 10.
They're past the point of any more extensions, said Appleby, who acknowledged he was "disappointed" in Whitmer's decision — believing his outfit is tailor-made for social-distancing.
Jimmy John's Field has nine distinct sections, from picnic areas, to lawn seats, to suites, to grandstands.
Either way, the USPBL will mark the first professional sports league in Michigan to start its season since COVID-19 shut down the sports world in mid-March.
"We think we can set that example for others," Appleby said. "If we do it well, we think we can pave the way."
The USPBL this spring compiled a whopping 172-page return-to-play proposal, complete with scores of health and safety measures, from the obvious (hand sanitizer everywhere) to the not-so-obvious (only the game's nine starters and the manager will be in the dugout; the rest of the roster must sit in the stands or other areas). By comparison, Major League Baseball's similar-focused proposal was only 67 pages.
Players for the four teams — the Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers, Eastside Diamond Hoppers, Utica Unicorns and Westside Wooly Mammoths — took their physicals this week.
Fans, meanwhile, will have temperatures taken upon arrival in the ballpark, and must wear masks, at least until they get to their seats.
As for picking which fans get those coveted seats under Phase 4, Appleby said he has to prioritize his high-end partners, including suiteholders, Diamond Club members and holders of front-row tickets. Eventually, more of the general public will have opportunities to purchase tickets, or at least that's the hope.
Appleby said that's contingent on Whitmer eventually opening up Phase 5 — which would eventually allow for 20- to 25-percent capacity, or about 1,000 fans — before it's too late for the USPBL. There will come a time, Appleby said, that if that doesn't happen, he will have to shut down the season. He's already lost revenues well into the six figures, despite being able to open some of his park's restaurant and bar options.
"Right now, we can still save the season," he said.
The USPBL streams each of its games on its YouTube page.
This is the fifth season of the USPBL, which has been a remarkable success, given its affordable pricing and family friendly atmosphere. It also has sent more than three dozen players — most of whom are right out of college, with some veterans trying to resurrect careers — on to contracts with major-league organizations.
While Single-A affiliated teams in Comstock Park (Whitecaps, Tigers), Lansing (Lugnuts, Blue Jays) and Midland (Loons, Dodgers) won't have seasons, the Northwoods League, made up of college players, announced plans to start this week, with six teams in Traverse City, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.