Keys Stadium

Empty stadium seats at Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium.

By Tuesday evening, the novel coronavirus claimed another victim and summertime staple.

Minor League Baseball officially pulled the plug on its season, marking the first time in its history, dating back to September of 1901, that a summer will pass without any games being played.

That directly impacts the Frederick Keys, who will not field a team for the first time since the team was established in 1989 as the High Class-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.

"We know this community shares our vast disappointment in learning that we will not be playing baseball this season," Keys General Manager Dave Ziedelis said in a press release issued by the team. "We want to thank fans, corporate partners, suite holders, season-ticket holders and employees for their incredible patience and support during this difficult time."

The cancellation of the minor league season appeared inevitable for quite some time, as Major League Baseball owners and players dragged their feet on coming to an arrangement for a shortened 2020 season due to the pandemic.

With MLB set to begin a 60-game slate at the end of July in empty stadiums, it left no real space for a minor-league season, which typically ends in early September.

MLB had gone as far as to inform Minor League Baseball that it would not be supplying players for any of its 160 affiliated minor-league teams.

Plus, Minor League Baseball relies on fans being in the stands since there are no big television contracts to help offset revenue losses, and that's not possible at the moment due to COVID-19.

So, the writing on the wall became official.

"While this is a sad day for many, this announcement removes the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season and allows our teams to begin planning for an exciting 2021 season of affordable family entertainment," said Pat O'Conner, the Minor League Baseball President and CEO.

However, there is a great deal of uncertainly about when and how that might happen.

The arrangement that governs the way that MLB does business with its minor-league affiliates, the Professional Baseball Agreement, is set to expire in September, and the negotiations to renew it have been acrimonious so far.

A huge point of contention has been MLB's desire to chop roughly 42 teams from its affiliated ranks in hopes of cutting costs and improving conditions for the players.

In November, the Keys appeared on a published list of teams that might be contracted, catching the team and the community off guard.

"I was surprised because the Keys are a successful franchise," team owner Ken Young told the News-Post in early June.

The team is consistently one of the top-drawing teams in the Carolina League in terms of attendance, ranking first or second in the 10-team league for the last eight seasons.

Last season, despite losing 10 home games to weather cancellations, the Keys attracted 263,528 to their stadium and led the Carolina League in average attendance (4,329).

The team has 18 full-time employees and 250 seasonal workers and estimates its annual impact on the local economy at more than $15 million.

Through the assistance of a Payroll Protection Program loan from the U.S. government, the Keys were able to maintain a full payroll through June.

The team plays at Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium, which is owned and operated by the city of Frederick.

According to the city's most-recent budget, the Keys accounted for for the bulk of the city's admissions and amusement tax, which accounted for $376,614 in 2019.

"As a follower of fan websites relating to the Orioles, there is a general puzzlement as to why the Keys are included among the teams to be eliminated," said Jack Topchik, a Frederick resident and longtime season-ticket holder.

"They are close to the parent club geographically [49 miles], the attendance is good, and, if the goal is to eliminate a Class-A level team it should be [Low-A] Delmarva and combine the Keys and the Shorebirds."

The coronavirus pandemic has completely changed the dynamic of the Professional Baseball Agreement negotiations and left many minor league teams to wonder if they could survive a lost season financially.

The Keys are not worried about their financial survival, according to Young. But there are questions about whether they will remain an Orioles affiliate or even have a major-league affiliation at all the next time they take the field.

"We now turn our focus to 2021 and the hopes of playing a full season next year," Ziedelis said.

The Keys announced that all corporate partners, suite holders, season-ticket holders and group and hospitality customers will be contacted directly by their account representative from the team.

Follow Greg Swatek on Twitter: @greg_swatek

(1) comment

francesca_easa

I am not technically savvy but if someone who knows how to can start a Go Fund Me page for the Keys I would certainly contribute

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