Pete Christopher was at Hermon Brothers Field on Friday afternoon, putting equipment in a new shed near the Mat-Su Miners clubhouse. There was still some snow along the left field fence but the grass was thick in other places, always a welcoming sight after the long winters that separate baseball seasons in Alaska.
Earlier in the day, he spent $800 on fertilizer, an investment in optimism as Christopher, the general manager of the Valley’s Alaska Baseball League team, holds out hope there will be a 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a tough decision to make,” he said. “My gut tells me we’re going to play.”
On Friday, the ABL delayed making a decision whether to the cancel the season, originally scheduled to begin June 4, or play a shortened season beginning July 1, Christopher said.
“We’re gonna wait till May 15 (to decide),” he said. “We’ll know more because we’re going to talk to the state so we can find out what they’ve got planned.”
Since 1969, the amateur summer league has showcased some of the nation’s top college baseball players, including current Major League Baseball stars like Aaron Judge and Paul Goldschmidt and past stars like Tom Seaver and Randy Johnson.
Four teams — the Miners, the Anchorage Bucs, the Anchorage Glacier Pilots and the Chugiak Chinooks — are among those who still might play this year. Two other teams have already decided to take the summer off — the Peninsula Oilers, Kenai’s ABL team, and the Fairbanks Goldpanners, a league founder that has played an independent schedule in recent years.
Christopher said the fate of the season rests with the state of Alaska and the municipality of Anchorage, both of which have instituted health mandates making it unrealistic if not impossible to play ball.
“It’s up to the powers that be to decide — (Alaska Gov. Mike) Dunleavy and (Anchorage mayor Ethan) Berkowitz,” he said.
Christopher said he has 32 out-of-state players on his roster. Under current health mandates, each would have to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival before going anywhere, including the ballpark.
“That’ll kill us,” he said. “I can’t quarantine (that many) players.”
Other mandates that could keep the season from happening: Rules against gatherings with more than 20 people and 6-foot social distancing guidelines.
Anchorage parks — including Mulcahy Stadium, home of the Bucs and Pilots, and Lee Jordan Field, home of the Chinooks — are closed because of the virus. The earliest they could open is June 1, and one issue the ABL and other organized leagues will need to address is how to sanitize bleachers, restrooms, handrails, dugouts, clubhouses and other areas after every game and practice.
Beyond that, the ABL relies on residents who serve as host families for players for the duration of the season and on businesses that provide financial support. It’s unknown if enough residents will open their homes during a pandemic or if businesses hurt by closures will be able to continue their support.
ABL president Chris Beck said in an email that there are “many questions to be answered, but our heart is to play this summer as long as it is safe for all involved.”
Playing ball would mean gate and concession revenue for teams that took a financial hit in March and April because of business closures during the pandemic.
The sale of pull tabs provide significant revenue for most teams — the Bucs and Pilots both operate kiosks at the Dimond Center and the Miners have pull tabs at three bars in the Valley. Malls and bars shut down in March, halting that reliable stream of income — Christopher said the Miners lost about $15,000 to $20,000 in expected revenue in a span of about six weeks.
“If we don’t have a season,” he said, “I’m worried about my team next year.”
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