It’s been a tough three-plus months for sports fans throughout the country due to COVID-19. But for Cleburne baseball fans, a tough year got even tougher with Friday’s news that the Railroaders won’t be playing baseball in 2020.
The American Association of Independent Professional Baseball announced late Friday afternoon that Cleburne is one of the league’s six teams that will not be participating in the 2020 season. The American Association will begin a six-team, 60-game season operating out of three hubs in Fargo, Milwaukee, and Sioux Falls on July 3.
“The Railroaders organization is tremendously disappointed that we did not have the opportunity to compete in 2020,” Railroaders President and Co-Owner John Junker said Friday. “Our organization has been working with community leadership and local health officials throughout this process, and given the current situation in Texas we are unable to play.”
In addition to the Railroaders, the Gary SouthShore RailCats, Kansas City T-Bones, Lincoln Saltdogs, Sioux City Explorers, and Texas AirHogs will not be participating in the 2020 American Association season.
The Winnipeg Goldeyes will operate out of the Fargo hub with the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, the Chicago Dogs will operate out of the Milwaukee hub with the Milwaukee Milkmen, and the St. Paul Saints will operate out of the Sioux Falls hub with the Sioux Falls Canaries.
In an interview on RailTalk Live with Railroader broadcasters Brad Allred and Denning Gerig on Monday, American Association Commissioner Joshua Schaub said the decision was a tough one, but the only viable option to have baseball in 2020.
“I’m doing this interview with a very heavy heart in respect to our six teams that are not participating this year,” Schaub said. “On one side obviously I’m excited for baseball returning in general, especially for the American Association, but doing it not with all of us involved is very difficult.”
The six teams selected by the American Association to participate in the 2020 season were based on cities allowing for fans in attendance at stadiums, geography, and the COVID-19 restrictions that persist in certain American Association cities.
Each team and stadium will have in place and enforce COVID readiness plans, approved by local health departments and government officials. Stadiums will be configured to return to play with limited capacity in order to allow for safe social distancing.
Schaub discussed how the league went through a number of scenarios in trying to figure out the best option in having baseball in 2020. After a couple months of tinkering with ideas, it wasn’t until this past Wednesday that everything finally came together.
“There were times ... where we didn’t think we were going to have a season,” Schaub said. “It just wasn’t feasible. We were coming up with economic models, scheduling issues, logistics, and government inaction — and we didn’t know what they were going to do. I would say not until Wednesday of last week did we finalize that we could have three host cities. That’s when we knew we could have a third host city to pull this off. ... This model was the only one that really worked.”
Schaub said the three-city hub model was the only option the league had due to local restrictions within the association’s 12 cities.
“The hub city concept was done out of necessity because as of right now nine of our cities preclude our teams from hosting games with fans,” Schaub said. “And it looks like it will be that way on July 1. So there’s only three teams that could even host games with fans and that’s how we got with Milwaukee, Fargo and Sioux Falls. ...
“So we had the concept where we had some host cities that could host and it was a matter of how many teams we could involve with those host cities. For a lot of factors, we were limited to only six teams. We just could not host all of those visiting teams in those cities from a safety perspective nor from an economic perspective.”
Throughout the Facebook Live interview, Schaub stressed on numerous occasions how difficult of a decision it was to move forward without the Railroaders and the five other teams, adding that some baseball is better than no baseball.
“I know this is extremely disheartening,” he said. “It was not easy for the league to have to inform teams we were going to move forward without them. Just know we’re doing this in the best interest of the American Association and the best interest of our fans, players and staff to put on baseball. This was the only way we could give baseball to America in general. ... We felt it better to provide baseball in those communities than to provide nothing at all. I hope [fans] take solace in knowing we’re not mired in the situation like Major League Baseball; we’re here to provide baseball games and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
While Major League Baseball is stuck in frustrating back-and-forth negotiations with the MLB Players Association — the two sides unable to agree on a return-to-play format — Schaub said the American Association’s primary goal was to bring baseball to its fans by any means.
“We don’t have billions of dollars we’re throwing around here, we’re simply trying to put on a season for our fans for the love of the game,” Schaub said. “We’re trying to pull off a season for as many fans as we possibly can. Unfortunately it only came down to six [teams] to pull it off. Something, in our mind, was better than nothing at all.”
Schaub added to that by saying the Railroaders should well-prepared for the 2021 campaign because of what the American Association will learn by having a season during the pandemic this season.
“COVID is not going away by the time the 2021 season comes around,” Schaub said. “We’re going to have a lot of best practices that we’ll gleam through this season with fan experience, player experience, vendor experience, corporate sponsorship.
“So for Railroader fans, just know you’re under great shepherdship from John Junker and Daryn Eudaly to get the Railroaders set for 2021. Although it’s really painful this season you’re not playing, you’re going to be well positioned in 2021 because of what we’ll learn in the American Association this year in preparation for the 2021 season.”
Cleburne players currently on the 2020 roster will have the opportunity to play for one of the six competing teams via a league-wide draft. The Railroaders will retain the rights of these players following the conclusion of the 2020 season.
“If Railroaders fans are able to tune in ... they’ll see some of their Railroader players playing on some of those rosters,” Schaub said. “They will be the most talented American Association rosters we’ll ever have.”
A truncated spring training will begin on June 25, with opening day scheduled for July 3. The American Association will experiment with new roster rules in 2020, highlighted by the elimination of rookie, LS, and veteran minimums and maximums on rosters, along with the league-wide draft of players from non-participating clubs to allow the best possible talent available to play this season. The regular season will end on Sept. 10, with a five-game American Association Finals pitting the top two teams from the regular season.
Junker also joined Allred and Gerig on Monday’s edition of RailTalk Live, and the team’s co-owner said Friday’s news still stings.
“Disappointing is probably the best word,” Junker said. “It was really difficult when it was announced we’re not playing. I can tell you guys there was no stone unturned to try to figure out how to play for our fans and get our players in here. There was months’ worth of work dealing with the Association and great ownership groups in our league and with the staff with ‘how do we do it the right way?’ It comes down to we care about our fans, we care about our players, we care about our staff. It just wasn’t in the cards this year. It was difficult.
“... No doubt that, given a little bit more time, it’s going to be even better. It’s hard to say that right now because we want to play. The decision was made so we have to move forward. We’re going to come out in 2021 stronger. You have to take this as an opportunity to come out even better and we will.”
Junker said the Railroaders will be in contact with season ticket holders to discuss their options moving forward.
“This decision came down Friday and this weekend was kind of a whirlwind,” Junker said. “We are going to get in touch with every season ticket holder, everybody that’s involved with the stadium and we will have a plan for them. We’ll get that taken care of. There’s nothing more important than our fans, our season ticket holders and the supporters of the Railroader organization.”
The Railroaders won 57 games in 2019, missing out on a playoff berth on a tiebreaker. Cleburne was poised to take an even bigger step forward this year as the ‘Roaders returned the majority of their core from last year, including five All-Stars, in addition to a few big newcomers.