By John Bohnenkamp
The breaking point, Kim Parker said, came when she was driving home on the day the Minor League Baseball season was canceled.
Parker, the general manager of the Burlington Bees, realized there was a strong possibility that the last Major League Baseball-affiliated game had been played at Community Field.
“I started crying in my car,” she said, remembering the thought that when the final out was made in the 6-3 loss to the Clinton LumberKings on August 30, 2019, no one knew that might be the last Midwest League game played in Burlington.
Major League Baseball ran out the clock on Minor League Baseball on Wednesday. The Professional Baseball Agreement between the two sides was expiring, and what comes next is going to be a reconstruction of the minors, and communities like Burlington could be left out.
MLB’s plan is to reduce the number of affiliates from 160 to 120. Every reported list of the 40 eliminated franchises has had the Bees on it.
Already, there have been changes around the minors. The Appalachian League, once a 10-team Rookie League, has been converted to a college summer wood-bat league. Other organizations in the short-season summer leagues may face a similar fate.
But there are teams in full-season leagues who could be contracted as well. The Class A Midwest League is not immune to changes, with teams like the Bees and the Clinton LumberKings on the list for possible contraction.
And even teams who do survive and are on the final list for saving may not be able to afford the changes that Major League Baseball wants in terms of facility and franchise standards.
The Burlington Baseball Association, which runs the Bees, was made aware of the possibility of contraction last winter. The plan was, if 2020 was going to be the last season of affiliated baseball, it was going to be a grand, if sad, goodbye.
“Minor league baseball or not, we’ve always been focused on how can we keep baseball in Burlington,” Parker said. “Community Field is such a beautiful place, and so it’s like, what can we do to fill it?
“So when we found out what was going on, it was like, ‘OK, if this is our last year, let’s make it big, let’s do more stuff.’”
But once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there was no chance of there being minor league baseball anywhere, and in the summer the season was finally canceled.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Parker said of that drive home on June 30, when the season was officially shut down. “I have a good relationship with everyone with the (Los Angeles Angels, the Bees’ MLB affiliate), the players, the coaches …
“I feel like we got cheated out of a possibility of a last affiliated season.”
Parker said that since Community Field isn’t landlocked, there was room for expansion of facilities that were going to be required by MLB — such things as a kitchen for a chef to cook meals for players, and expanded clubhouse space for more coaches.
“There is plenty of room to go up and go out,” Parker said. “Everything has a cost. If cost wasn’t an issue, absolutely we have the space to do that.”
There were other standards as well for travel — the Bees were going to have two buses for road trips this season because of added staff and equipment.
The pandemic also was going to lead to other expenses, including the expansion of dugouts for more space for social distancing.
All of that would have meant more expenses for the organization.
If the Bees are left off the MLB list, there are plenty of options for baseball here, everything from an independent professional league to college wood-bat summer leagues like the Northwoods League or the Prospect League, which feature Midwest teams.
“I do know that regardless of what happens, the board of directors are committed to keeping baseball here in Burlington,” Parker said. “There will be baseball in some form here. Once everything smooths out with Major League Baseball, and what’s going to happen, we’ll be able to announce where we’re at moving forward. We’re definitely going to have baseball in Burlington in 2021.
“Our biggest thing is, financially, what would be feasible, what’s the best fit for the community, that kind of thing. There are a few that could be ruled out pretty quickly, a few that we think would work well for Burlington.”
Parker and her staff would have already been preparing for a 2021 season, putting together sponsorships and advertising as well as getting ready to sell tickets for a Midwest League schedule that would have been in hand in the middle of the summer.
For now, that’s on hold.
“Our whole season has been ‘hurry up and wait,’” Parker said. “Wait for this, wait for that. When it comes to light what the final decision is, it will be quick for us to come to a final decision. Schedules have to be made, all of that other stuff.
“I’ve been talking to sponsors, letting them know there will be baseball in some form. ‘This is Option A, and then B, C and D’. … That waiting is like a dark cloud over you. You don’t know what’s going to happen. At some point in time, you want a decision, so you can either pivot, or move on.”
Moving on isn’t going to be easy. It’s been a quiet summer at the ballpark.
“Every summer for the last 20 years has been centered on baseball,” Parker said. “It’s very desolate at the ballpark. When you walk around, there’s not the noises that you’re used to hearing. It’s just been a real trying year, for everybody.
“It’s not only baseball, it’s everything else. It’s been a mental battle all year long. My life has been centered around my career in baseball. If you don’t have it, you lose a piece of yourself.”
Photo: Kevin Maitan rounds the bases after his eighth-inning home run in the Burlington Bees’ 9-5 loss to Clinton on August 29, 2019. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)