The road from “The Joe” to “The Show” has been forced onto an exit ramp.
After serving as the short-season Class A New York-Penn League affiliate of the Houston Astros since the franchise’s creation in 2002, the Tri-City ValleyCats learned Wednesday that they are among the 40 teams that lost their affiliation with Major League Baseball as part of MLB’s massive restructuring of the minor league system.
The team said it would continue to operate at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy and is “in the process of evaluating other options to maintain professional baseball in the Capital Region” after finding out it didn’t receive a Player Development License under the MLB plan that will reduce the number of affiliated minor league teams from 160 to 120.
“We’re surprised and disappointed at the announcement,” ValleyCats general manager Matt Callahan said in a phone interview. “We feel like we’ve put forth a top-notch operation, both on the baseball side and the fan entertainment side, for a number of years. We really don’t have much information as to why or how the decision was made, and how the process unfolded. It’s the hand we were dealt, and now we’re looking to our new opportunities.”
The loss of the ValleyCats leaves the Capital Region without an affiliated minor league team for the first time since the eight-year gap between the Albany-Colonie Yankees’ departure in 1994 and the ValleyCats’ arrival in 2002.
Since the team’s inception, the ValleyCats won three New York-Penn League titles and more than 80 former players later had MLB careers.
Team management expressed frustration with a lack of communication from MLB officials about how the process of selecting the 120 affiliates was conducted. In a radio interview Wednesday afternoon with “Levack and Goz” on 104.5 FM, ValleyCats team president Rick Murphy said the club didn’t learn of its fate via official sources, but rather when the entire list of affiliates was posted by Baseball America.
“Over the last year, our organization, and myself personally, have been disappointed with the communication from Major League Baseball,” Murphy said. “We found out today because the list was posted on Baseball America. That’s the way we found out we didn’t get an invitation.”
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., expressed his disappointment in the decision.
“For 18 years the ValleyCats have delivered both good players and fan satisfaction that minor league franchises strive for,” Schumer said. “In return, fans turned out in droves always putting the team at the top of the league in attendance. The fans and the team deserved better. Still, baseball teaches us that if you keep swinging, a bitter disappointment one day can lead to success the next. And, I will keep advocating until affiliated baseball returns to the region.”
The ValleyCats’ loss of affiliation is the latest blow in what’s been a rocky period for professional sports in the Capital Region.
Times Union Center in Albany spent 24 years as home ice for minor league hockey franchises, both the Albany River Rats and Albany Devils, before the New Jersey Devils moved their American Hockey League affiliate to Binghamton in 2017.
The Albany Empire joined the Arena Football League in 2018 and played a pair of seasons, winning the
ArenaBowl in 2019, before the AFL ceased operations later that year. A revived Empire franchise under new ownership is set to begin play in the National Arena League this spring.
The only other professional sports franchises currently operating in the Capital Region are the Albany Patroons of The Basketball League, who play at Albany’s Washington Avenue Armory, and the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL, who call Glens Falls’ Cool Insuring Arena home.
While low attendance was one of the driving forces behind the Devils’ departure, other professional sports ventures in the Capital Region in recent years have done well at the gate. The Empire was a consistent draw during its AFL tenure, the traveling Premier Lacrosse League packed UAlbany’s Casey Stadium for a weekend of games in 2019 and the ValleyCats were in the top-three in attendance in the New York-Penn League every season since 2014.
“We’ve talked to a number of folks throughout Major League and Minor League Baseball, and our reputation’s always been solid,” Callahan said. “We’re well-regarded. I don’t have an answer for why we were left out of the list. Major League Baseball hasn’t communicated anything directly to us, or any of those reasons. . . . I think the lack of communication in the process is probably the most disappointing part.”
In his radio interview, Murphy cited Baseball America’s reporting of four factors that shaped MLB’s decision-making process: Geography, stadium facilities, the desires of MLB teams and political considerations.
For the ValleyCats, the next step brings the franchise into uncharted territory. While a handful of former affiliates, including four former New York-Penn League clubs — the Williamsport Crosscutters, State College Spikes, Mahoning Valley Scrappers and West Virginia Black Bears — were reorganized into a summer wood bat league for college prospects dubbed the MLB Draft League, Tri-City’s intention has always been to keep professional baseball in the Capital Region, even without an affiliation.
That likely means wading into the waters of independent baseball, with the Atlantic League and Frontier League being the most likely options based on geography. Callahan said the ValleyCats’ intention is to play baseball in 2021, with the hope of making an announcement about the club’s future by the end of this year.
“We feel like so much of the ValleyCats experience is about the entertainment, about the community coming together at the ballpark to enjoy a night out — whether it’s a Houston Astros affiliate, or a different form of baseball,” Callahan said. “That’s what we’re going to focus on going forward. There’s a couple of independent leagues that could be options, and we’ll continue to pursue those paths and try to make the best decision for our fanbase.”