TROY — There will be pro baseball at Joe Bruno Stadium this summer, after all.
The Tri-City ValleyCats were left adrift when Major League Baseball took over the minors and declined to offer a Player Development License to the ValleyCats and many other teams, but the independent Frontier League has pulled the ValleyCats aboard, making Tri-City its 16th member.
The Frontier League regular season is 96 games, so there will be 48 home games at The Joe starting sometime in mid-May.
In the meantime, the team front office will be scrambling to put together a team under circumstances it has never experienced, with no MLB affiliation, after 19 years with the Houston Astros.
But they’re just thrilled to be playing ball again.
“The overused Mike Tyson quote is everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” said Doug Gladstone, chairman of the ValleyCats ownership group. “We were surprised to not be a part of affiliated ball, as we had indications all the way that that wasn’t going to change.
“We’re so happy to have found a home in the Frontier League. They are like-minded about baseball, which is what our organization has always been about. No affiliation is a different experience for us. As we take stock in what we want to bring to the market, that has not changed at all.
“We want to bring an exciting brand of baseball, entertainment for our fans and a reason to keep coming out to the ballpark. So it wasn’t quite expected, but the solution is quite exciting.”
Since 2002, the ValleyCats played in the New York-Penn League, a Class A short-season league whose season spanned June to early September.
The ValleyCats did not play in 2020, as the season was first postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic before being canceled on June 30. Then Major League Baseball took direct control of Minor League Baseball and shut down short-season ball as part of a restructuring.
Tri-City still held out hope that it would be included among the 120 remaining minor league clubs designated for affiliation, but that didn’t happen. So the club began looking for an alternative, and settled on the Frontier League, which is considered an MLB Partner League but is independent.
Team president Rick Murphy said the ValleyCats were looking for what could be a long-term commitment, and not just a stopgap to get in a 2021 season somewhere.
After much deliberation and interaction with the various independent leagues, they settled on the Frontier, in which each team plays 48 homes games and 48 on the road for 96 total. The NY-P League played 76 total.
“For the ValleyCats, having come from the New York-Penn League and short season and unfortunately not being a part of the 120, we were anticipating and planning for the 2021 season to be a longer season, regardless of where we ended up,” Murphy said.
“We spent a lot of time and energy over the last four weeks dedicated to analyzing that. There were times when we went through the process that we kept asking more questions and wanted more information. At the end of the day, we didn’t want to make a decision that was a short-term decision. We wanted the highest probability, when we looked at the risk-reward, of being successful in the marketplace.”
Murphy said it will be more expensive to play in the Frontier, perhaps as much as $250,000 more in operating costs.
Playing 10 more home games should offset some of that.
Finding a manager is job one right now, though. Then the ValleyCats can start digging around for players.
“It’s going to be fast-forward,” general manager Matt Callahan said. “We’re going to need to move quick here. We’re already a little behind our normal timeline to get ready for a season from an operational standpoint. Now we’re adding into the mix the on-field and baseball components, which certainly will be a challenge.
“Hire a manager is first priority so we can lean on that individual for player procurement and to build a roster. We’re going to move as fast as we can and make sure we’re ready to go when the first pitch flies.”
The Frontier League has a much broader geographic span, with teams in Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, New York and Canada.
Teams recruit and sign players, typically undrafted college players or free agents who have been released.
Rosters are limited to three players older than 29 as of Oct. 1, and for the 2020 season each team had a total salary cap of $85,000.
“The ValleyCats have proven themselves to be one of the top organizations in all of minor-league baseball,” Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee said. “They have a strong and formidable ownership group, led by Doug Gladstone.
“Doug and I have had an opportunity a couple times to talk on the phone, and I’ll tell you what, folks, what a class act he is. Their strong operations and management skills have been reflected in the great attendance numbers they’ve produced over the years.”