Minor League Baseball in Pennsylvania brings more than just games to its communities
Minor League Baseball attendance surged by more than one million fans in the 2019 season. According to Minor League Baseball, the 176 teams that played in 2019 attracted 41,504,077 fans to ballparks and an increase of 2.1 percent increase over 2018.
Still, there has been much discussion in recent months about contracting minor league baseball. On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported both Major League Baseball and the minor leagues “are prepared to agree” to a move that would trim minor league teams by 40.
Both sides are engaged in a battle that centers on Major League Baseball’s attempt to enhance the lives of MiLB players through addition by subtraction.
In cutting teams, MLB seeks to increase minor-league players’ salaries and train its focus on providing minor-league players nicer facilities and updated and improved ballparks.
Eight minor league franchises in Pennsylvania are affiliated with the majors: Altoona Curve (AA, Pittsburgh Pirates), Erie SeaWolves (AA, Detroit Tigers), Harrisburg Senators (AA, Washington Nationals), Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs (AAA, Philadelphia Phillies), Reading Phillies (AA, Philadelphia Phillies), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (AAA, New York Yankees), State College Spikes (A, St. Louis Cardinals) and the Williamsport Crosscutters (A, Philadelphia Phillies).
As MiLB ponders its future in the face of uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and changing baseball landscape, three Pennsylvania franchises – Erie, State College and Williamsport – find themselves in the crosshairs.
“Prior to COVID-19, things were as always – minor league baseball has had a great and successful footprint in history in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and we’ve certainly been happy to be a part of that for over 25 years,” said Gabe Sinicropi, vice president of marketing and public relations for the Williamsport Crosscutters.
The Geneva Cubs moved to Pennsylvania in 1994 as the Williamsport Cubs. The team changed its name to the Crosscutters in 1999. The organization competes in the New York-Penn League and is affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillies. It previously held affiliations with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs.
In 2019, Baseball America obtained a list of 42 teams rumored to be considered for elimination. Williamsport, State College and Erie appeared on the list.
“Those are negotiations that are currently going on between Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball,” Sinicropi said. “There’s not much I can say to it except that if we as minor league baseball had our druthers, 160 teams would still be around come 2021. I don’t think that’s going to be the case… I really can’t predict how those negotiations are going to go, but we certainly hope that both State College and Williamsport are still left standing when it’s all said and done.”
Similar to Williamsport, the Altoona Curve is the only professional sports show in its town. The Curve first played in 1988, and since 1999, it has been affiliated with Pittsburgh Pirates. The franchise competes in the Western Division of the Eastern League, where it’s won four division titles and two league crowns.
Altoona’s attendance numbers last year were on par with the rest of the league, as 308,464 fans attended home games — an increase of 5,063 from the 308,464 in 2018. Attendance in Altoona has been on a gradual rise. The Curve attracted 272,640 fans to the 7,210-seat Peoples Natural Gas Field in 2016. That number jumped to 301,302 in 2017.
“We’ve been pretty steady,” said Derek Martin, general manager of the Altoona Curve. “For example, in 2016, that was the biggest difference we saw – from ’16 to ’17. That was a pretty significant increase for us.”
In addition to fielding a good product – the Curve won the 2017 league championship – Martin said the club’s geographical location is conducive to attracting fans.
“We’re very fortunate to be located in Altoona because our community supports us very well,” Martin said. “We draw very well from a 60-mile radius, so we’re very fortunate to be located where we are – very centralized. We have a great support system from Blair County, the surrounding counties, down to Maryland, in West Virginia.”
Martin said minor league baseball’s uptick in attendance is also a product of the grassroots efforts from front offices in Altoona and beyond.
“I think it’s work ethic through front offices,” Martin said. “Our staff is very talented. They’re very dedicated, and they take pride in creating a very fun, family atmosphere at minor league ballparks. We put a strong emphasis on that, and we ramped up our ticket sales staff and added a couple additional employees so we could reach more people.”
Williamsport plays its home games at the iconic BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field. The 2,366-seat facility each year takes center stage on ESPN for the Major League Baseball Classic game played on a Sunday night in the middle weekend of the Little League World Series.
While the elimination of the Crosscutters would be deflating for minor league fans, its effects would be wide-reaching. Williamsport attracted 64,148 fans (1,944 fans per game) to BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field, some of which lodged in local hotels and patronized area businesses.
“It’s not just of the team itself and the players. It’s fans, it’s tourism, it’s the team and business that you do in the area,” Sinicropi said. “It’s a big economic factor.”
Bryce Edwards is a manager at Williamsport’s Moon and Raven Public House restaurant. The Moon and Raven Public House is an eight-minute drive from BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field, which makes it a popular dine-in attraction for Crosscutters and Little League fans.
“We’ve definitely been impacted greatly by the Crosscutters and the Little League World Series, both in-season and offseason,” Edwards said. “They bring people from all around the world and people from Pennsylvania to our small town of Williamsport. I know our bar, and many other bars in the area see a high influx of guests and customers and wonderful people from all walks of life, and it’s a great chance for everybody in the restaurant industry to get to know more people and get to serve more people. I think we’re all grateful for both the Crosscutters and the Little League World Series to have an impact on Williamsport and bring a lot of revenue to this area.”
Holiday Inn Altoona General Manager Heather Macharola said her hotel has experienced the same type of impact with the Altoona Curve.
“We have very dedicated fans who come here almost weekly – they have season tickets – to come watch the Curve,” Macharola said. “Some of our regular guests are Curve fans in the summer. During the playoff season, we do have people who travel to stay here to see the playoffs… We have some couples from the Pittsburgh area who come stay here and they go to all the Curve games. It’s an event for them. They come into the hotel, go to the game and have a nice dinner there on the weekend and catch a couple of games.”
The Hagerstown (Maryland) Suns are a single-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. Suns’ General Manager Travis Painter said, according to the city’s visitor bureau, the team routinely draws fans from Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia. The team’s annual economic impact study for 2019 credited the club for generating $168,414 in local hotel and meal revenues.
“Over the last four seasons – 2016-2019 – we've averaged nearly 1,200 (fans) a game,” Painter said.
AAA-affiliated Lehigh Valley drew 585,110 fans (8,605 per game) to the Allentown-Bethlehem area in 2019, while fellow AAA affiliate Scranton/Wilkes-Barre hosted 414,891 fans (6,383 fans per game).
AA-affiliated Reading attracted an Eastern League third-best 398,314 fans (5,945 fans per game), while Harrisburg drew 258,999 (3,864 fans per game). Erie’s attendance total for 2019 equaled 215,444 (3,315 fans per game).
Single-A affiliated State College saw 119,120 fans (3,219 fans per game) attend games at Medlar Field and Lubrano Park. Like Williamsport, the Spikes play a short-season format that begins in June and includes nearly 70 games.
Nationally, legislators from Pennsylvania and other states have joined the fight to save minor league teams. On Feb. 28, Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) introduced H.R. 6020, legislation “To require an evaluation by the Government Accountability Office of the social, economic, and historic contributions that Minor League Baseball has made to American life and culture.”
The legislation currently has 24 co-sponsors, who include Pennsylvania representatives Fred Keller (R-12th District), Mike Kelly (R-16th-District) and Brian K. Kilpatrick (R-1st District).
Keller’s congressional district includes State College and Williamsport.
“Baseball is not only America’s pastime, but it is emblematic of the American dream,” Keller said in a statement released on March 4. “For decades, Minor League Baseball has been the conduit through which players hone their skills, test their merits, and pursue their dream of one day playing Major League Baseball.
“Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District is fortunate to be home to two minor league teams: the State College Spikes and the Williamsport Crosscutters. These franchises have been great community partners, providing our region with affordable entertainment while contributing to our local economies.
“We all must work in a way that ensures the continued viability of these teams and the family-friendly entertainment they provide. Additionally, I believe H.R. 6020 is an important step as we continue to fight for teams like the Spikes, the Crosscutters, and the preservation of Minor League Baseball across America.”
On March 11, H.R. 6202 headed to the United States Senate, where it was “received in the Senate and read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.”
‘Resort town in reverse’
Penn State’s baseball team shares Medlar Field and Lubrano Park with the Spikes, and the 5,570-seat stadium routinely hosts various community events. Mount Nittany offers a picturesque backdrop behind the outfield.
Shortly after the Spikes were rumored to be in consideration for elimination, “Save Our Spikes” bumper stickers made their way around State College and were affixed to many area businesses.
A Change.org petition in support of keeping the Spikes in State College as of April 24 has received more than 1,000 signatures.
While much of State College’s economy is infused by its Penn State University Park campus, there’s a lull that accompanies the less-active summer months. The Spikes’ games during that period have helped fill that void.
“We’re like a resort town in reverse,” State College Mayor Ronald Filippelli said. “Most resort towns, the summer is their big season, and the winter and the fall are less good for them economically. In our case, it’s reverse. So when the university is largely closed… obviously, any activity that brings people into town is an economic boost to the town and to the region.”
Filippelli also said having the Spikes in the city makes it an attractive destination for conventions and other large-scale meetings, as it gives provides attendees a family friendly option to enjoy outside of work-related functions.
“When conventions come here, when meetings are held here, the Spikes are a draw for that,” Filippelli said. “In other words, it encourages people to come. It encourages organizations to choose State College as a place for their meetings. It’s just an Avalon to a lot of other events that go on in the community, which helps fill in the gaps when the university is pretty much operating a very low level.”