The 2020 New York Collegiate Baseball League season, at least as we’ve come to know it, is over.
This past weekend, NYCBL vice president and Olean Oilers owner and manager, Brian O’Connell Jr., made the decision after a discussion with staff members.
The Oilers’ one-year leave of absence followed similar decisions by fellow West Division members Genesee (Houghton), Hornell, Niagara and Dansville (formerly Wellsville) leaving Mansfield (Pa.) as the only member of the group still hoping to play at least a partial season.
The six teams in the East – Syracuse Salt Cats and Spartans, Rome, Cortland, Sherrill and Rochester – are still pondering an abbreviated intradivision schedule that might also include Mansfield.
But the scaled down NYCBL slate – a 10-team, 32-game, two-division set-up scheduled to begin June 15 – has now been scrapped.
“IT’S BITTERSWEET,” admitted O’Connell, owner of an Olean law firm. “There’s some relief to know that we’re making a decision and we believe it’s right for the players, staff and community. But it’s bitter in that we were very hopeful that we could field a team this year that would have been the best one since 2016 (which won the NYCBL title in dominant fashion). We recruited very well so (the cancellation) is unfortunate.”
O’Connell, the league’s legal adviser, said of the abbreviated schedule formulated barely a week ago, “There was so much uncertainty we were trying to come up with a modified plan in case conditions changed. We felt like it was our responsibility, just like Major League Baseball and every other sport is doing ... ‘OK, if we get the green light, how can we make this work?’ But at some point you have to make a decision.”
He admitted, “It’s difficult … the Oilers held out as long as we could but there were a number of things I was considering as president of the organization. First and foremost was the health and safety of the players.
“One of the concerns I had looking at the science, our medical professionals were telling us that this virus is not going to go away anytime soon. It’s going to be with us … we can minimize the spread but we can’t negate it entirely. So what I was concerned about was bringing players in from other parts of the country, housing them at St. Bonaventure, and making sure the community and our staff would not somehow be at risk.”
O’Connell conceded, “Baseball is not a contact sport but you’re in very close proximity to your teammates, opposition players, umpires and fans. I was looking at all the social distancing guidelines and my understanding of how the economy would start opening up (was) that sporting events and large gatherings would be the last to open. I just didn’t see that would happen in time for a safe manner in which to play.”
AND THERE was another factor, given that the East Division might try its own shortened season.
“If (the Oilers) played a modified season we would have to travel quite a bit throughout the summer and basically play all East teams … essentially bus trips (rather than cars) and the economic cost would be absolutely incredible to deal with, especially in a year when sponsorships are completely down, given the (pandemic) situation,” O’Connell said. “In my conscience, I could not contact the sponsors that we have throughout the year and ask them to participate since a lot of them are closed down. The last thing on their mind is whether they’re going to be sponsoring the Oilers for the summer … they’ve got to take care of their businesses, their employees, their families.
“We told everybody on Facebook that if you purchased a 2020 season pass it would be good for 2021. If they want a refund, they can contact my law firm by phone and we’ll make arrangements to get them reimbursed. And the limited sponsorship money that has come in will be refunded in full.”
He added, “We rely on community sponsors ... our budget is around $75,000 a year. We do get fees from players, sign sponsors and concessions and we hope to break about even … some years we do, some we don’t. But without the community sponsorship money, you can’t go forward on a yearly basis.”
OF COURSE, one concern for the NYCBL teams would have been stocking their teams in a year when the NCAA canceled spring sports, leaving summer league baseball players to scramble getting into shape, even if their college coaches gave permission.
“We discussed that quite a bit during our meetings and our commissioner, Joe Brown, the Cortland State coach, had talked to a number of college coaches and all of them were in a wait-and-see approach to see if it would even be possible,” O’Connell said. “And if the decision would have been made to go forward, we would have reached out to each college coach individually – especially with pitchers in terms of innings pitched – to discuss a game plan and having a trainer on staff, which we always do, to minimize any potential adverse impact for our athletes.”
The other division might still give it a try.
“A number of East teams may still play because they’re geographically close to one another and could potentially have a modified season starting mid-to-late June or early July with social distancing and no fans,” O’Connell said. “But the economic impact on those franchises is different than for ours and some of the other ones that have already indicated they won’t play … and the biggest is travel.”
That issue, given the current economic climate, was too much for the Oilers’ organization to overcome.
The team’s still committed owner concluded, “We’re going to work really hard to come back in 2021 and put a product on the field that the community can rally behind and support as they have in the past.”
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)