As the summer was rolling on, it became apparent it would be a year without minor league baseball. Around the country, that hit some teams and their local communities pretty hard.
No games for the fans to see, no revenue for the teams to generate. But that didn’t keep Orioles farm teams from reaching out in their local communities to host events that brought some normalcy to fans and staff alike late this year. I’ve covered the minors long enough around Birdland to know that these clubs are much more than baseball teams. That are significant in so many ways in their respective areas.
This offseason, I will check in with some clubs around Birdland to see how that played out this summer.
The Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds have been a fixture in Salisbury and throughout Delmarva since Arthur W. Perdue Stadium opened in 1996. There were no South Atlantic League games at the stadium this summer, but there was still plenty to see.
The Shorebirds hosted youth baseball on weekends and hosted Delmarva baseball weekends for adults in June and August. There were about 75 players on several teams. The team hosted two drive-in fireworks shows with fans viewing from or very near their cars. They hosted a successful movie night in early September with fans watching from the field. In late August, there was a three-day baseball camp for kids.
When Maryland allowed some activities, the Shorebirds staff went to work. A staff led by Chris Bitters, who has been the Shorebirds general manager since November 2006. His club hosted the South Atlantic League All-Star Game in 2011, a game that featured Manny Machado and Bryce Harper when they played in low Single-A ball.
“All the things we’ve done, we had done before,” said Bitters. “But you just had to do them very differently in a pandemic. It takes a lot more staff and a lot more effort than in a normal year.”
Bitters said he was thrilled that many of the club’s sponsors and partners were willing to pony up some dollars to support the team and sponsor events.
The baseball camp was a success, even without the usual format.
“In a normal year, Shorebird coaches help run our camp for three days,” Bitters said. “This year, that wasn’t in the cards but we heard from a lot of people that loved our camp. So we worked with the coaches at UMES (University of Maryland Eastern Shore). We’ve got a good relationship with head coach Brian Hollamon and he was able to get some of his staff and line up some coaches from the area. We limited the numbers to make sure we were compliant and it turned out to be a real good camp. We had about 8-10 kids per coach for three days.”
Bitters said running events and having some activity in the ballpark was very meaningful for him and his staff.
“It was tremendous,” he said. “The first weekend we had youth baseball, I was there to make sure we observed all our protocols. But hearing that first ping of the bat - a metal bat, not a wood bat - to hear that happen was great. The parents thanked us for opening up the facility. Some were worried their seasons would never happen, and of course, some of the high school players had their seasons cut short or didn’t have a season. The thanks we heard from parents was unbelievable. For our staff, it brought some purpose and normalcy in our lives.
“What we do all winter and spring is plan for the summer, right? So this year, it kind of took the wind out of our sails once the season got paused. This gave our staff some enjoyment. I think it was good for our staff mentally to host some events.”
The movie night, where they showed “Sonic the Hedgehog,” allowed the Shorebirds to have fans in the park again.
“I remember the movie night. We were capped at 250 people, butut it took three times the staff to run an event with just 250 people,” Bitters said. “At the end of the night though, we were talking about having fans back in our ballpark and having concessions. We were all so prideful and happy and it felt normal to have fans in the park and the lights on. I joked with our staff that if this were a game night, we’d be real unhappy with just 250 people here, but with what we were dealing with, this was a huge success. It brought some normalcy to the community and to our staff. It helped everybody.”
Now we all wait amid uncertainty to hear about the future plans for minor league baseball. No doubt there will be fewer teams next year, but at this point, Bitters said he hasn’t heard from anyone in an official capacity about next season. The teams, like their fans, await some news.
“It’s been pretty quiet. No new information,” he said.
The Shorebirds will have a new broadcaster whenever they play again. Will DeBoer, their radio broadcaster for the last four years and also the broadcaster at UMES, has taken a new job. He will become an assistant director of sports information at Salisbury University. Congrats to DeBoer on his new position. During his time with the Shorebirds, he was extremely helpful to me in my coverage of the team.
And congrats to the Shorebirds. This is a well-run club that is always there for the Delmarva community. This summer, even without games, they proved that again.