Baseball haven braces for summer without games

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - As the Allegheny foothills that frame Williamsport turned green this April, the COVID-19 outbreak sparked an unrelated anxiety, one that spread quickly through the aging mansions of Millionaires Row, the turreted minor-league ballpark alongside Lycoming Creek, the hilltop fortress of Little League baseball.


That unease, as raw as the wind that throughout this unusually cold spring swept off the Susquehanna River and whistled eerily through a suddenly deserted downtown, could be condensed into a single question:


What if there's no baseball in Williamsport this summer?


With May's arrival, the city, whose historic connection to the summer game has provided civic balm during its long winter of economic and population decline, may soon find out.


On Thursday, expressing concern for the safety of players and spectators, Little League officials canceled August's World Series. "This is a heartbreaking decision for everyone," said Stephen Keener, the organization's president and CEO


Major League Baseball responded by calling off its Little League Classic, a nationally televised Red Sox-Orioles game that was to be played Aug. 23 at historic Bowman Field here.


If that weren't sobering enough, the pandemic could cause baseball to red-line the 2020 season of Williamsport's Crosscutters, the Phillies' single-A short-season affiliate which since 1994 has provided summer diversion at Bowman, the nation's second-oldest minor-league park.


And even if, as seems increasingly unlikely, the Cutters' season is somehow salvaged, they might no longer exist in 2021.


The coronavirus hasn't hit north-central Pennsylvania nearly as hard. There have been just 68 confirmed cases in Lycoming County, and no related deaths. But the bad baseball news has been a profound punch in the gut for a city that, maybe more than anyplace but Cooperstown, N.Y., has its identity and economy wound around the game.


"The reality is nobody knows about Williamsport other than baseball," said Mitch Rupert, a Williamsport Sun-Gazette sportswriter. "That's the brand. Everything here is tied to baseball. To not have that identity for a summer, I don't know what that would look like. I do know it would be devastating economically."


Over its 11-day span, according to the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce, the annual Little League event attracts between 350,000 and 500,000 spectators who spend an estimated $30 million. To put that number in context, the City of Williamsport's budget for 2019 was $27 million.


"It will be a big hit," said Jason Fink, the chamber's CEO. "It's not only the hotels, it's the restaurants, the other shops, the gas stations. And you're looking at a hospitality sector that's already been devastated by COVID-19 restrictions."


It could get worse if persistent reports about the Cutters prove accurate. According to various news accounts, as part of a new agreement between minor- and major-league baseball, Williamsport's franchise, as well as 41 other teams in similarly tiny markets, could disappear next year.


"Like all minor-league teams, we await word as to what is happening with the 2020 season and if it will be delayed and/or canceled due to COVID-19," Gabe Sinicropi Jr., the Cutters' public relations executive, said in an email. "As for 2021 and beyond, we await details."


"This is where it's pure," said Lee Miller, a mechanical contractor who volunteers at the Little League World Series, hosts minor-leaguers in his home, and regularly attends Cutters games. "This is where fans are made. Kids from Williamsport, they might drive down to Philly to watch a game once or twice a year, if their dad can afford it. But they'll go every day to the Crosscutters. I don't understand what baseball is thinking."


Watching a game at Bowman, said James Quigel, a Williamsport native and minor-league historian, was like "stepping back in time."


"People marvel at it," Quigel said. "They say, 'Wow, this is the way baseball used to be.' It doesn't have all the bells and whistles, but there's a sense of history you can't duplicate. And this is one of the last places in Williamsport where people gather as a community."


Should the worst happen, it's possible an independent or college-summer league club could replace the Cutters. Bowman would be a step up for most. MLB replaced its surface in advance of the first Little League Classic in 2017.


Built in 1926, the photogenic, city-owned ballpark, located just across West Fourth Street from where Stotz staged the first Little League Series in 1947, might end up being the savior for minor-league ball here.


"As long as MLB wants to play the Little League Classic here every summer, they're probably going to want a team in the stadium so that it's kept up," said Rupert. "MLB invested $1.5 million in that surface, and without a baseball team to play there, what incentive would the city have to keep it up?"


"When Williamsport got involved with the New York-Penn League, it was relatively mid-sized," said Quigel. "Now probably only Batavia and Auburn are smaller. And you're seeing short-season teams in bigger cities like Brooklyn and Burlington."


Baseball's impact here extends beyond economics. Thousands of residents volunteer at the Series or the Classic. Dozens of families annually host minor-leaguers. A Cutters game is a summer ritual for most.


For 17 years, Ron Frick, a native Philadelphian who's the CEO of the Lycoming County United Way, has been a World Series "uncle" _ a combination concierge and surrogate parent for visiting Little Leaguers. His downtown office looks out on Market Square, where a giant Little League logo is surrounded by statues of baseball-playing youngsters and Carl Stotz, the Williamsporter who founded the organization in 1939.


"People here all have a story about the Series, about seeing Jason Varitek or some other major-leaguer as a kid," Frick said. "It's such a great experience for so many. I come back to work the week following the Series and it's like withdrawal. It's a little depressing. Working as an uncle you get attached to them. Two years ago, a kid from 2001 invited me to his wedding in Florida."


"I remember coming downstairs one Saturday and Rhys and the other guys who were staying with us that summer were standing at the stove in the kitchen with my wife," Miller said. "She was showing them how to make an omelet.


"It's a joy to watch them at this level. They're just starting. They all have the same dream. Everything is ahead of them. And they become part of your family. They let the dogs out when we're not home. They take care of the house. Without them, it would be a real empty summer."


"We take pride in baseball and especially the World Series," said Fink. "It's a good thing. It's not something that makes you whisper where you're from. You're proud to say you're from Williamsport. There are a lot of communities like us throughout the world that are very similar but don't have Little League baseball. It's something that evokes positive, warm feelings about your youth.


"But I guess the cold reality will come this August when there's no World Series," he said. "That's when we'll be reminded of what we lost."