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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, January 15, 2021

Safe at home: Lookouts avoid MLB walk-off


Contraction will still reshape baseball scene in smaller East Tennessee cities



Baseball fans love to chomp on statistics and analytics in the same way their children attack a box of buttery popcorn.

They ardently serve up a home plate of hot stove palaver, consuming everything from RBIs, HRs and OBP to ERA, SV and WHIP, then wash them down with other of abbreviated terminologies and trends about their favorite players and teams.

So, here’s a milestone stat that may surprise fans of the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts and Tennessee Smokies:

Early January marked 500 days since either team played a home game due to the 2020 Southern League season being canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And that cancellation came on top of the uncertainty of contraction issues and the reorganization of Minor League Baseball.

“It’s been a tough year. It’s been a really tough year,” says Rich Mozingo, president of the Lookouts. “I mean, we were full-steam ahead until March 13 last year, looking forward to a great 2020 season. And then the pandemic started and we stopped all operations.

“After missing the entire 2020 season, it will be good to get back out there and play baseball again.”

Another issue the Lookouts had to deal with: In late 2019, they were put on an MLB contraction list of 42 teams facing potential elimination of their major league affiliations. Chattanooga survived contraction, being invited to return to the Cincinnati Reds.

“That’s been a difficult transition for all of us. With the lingering major league baseball contraction, we didn’t know where we stood on that one,” Mozingo notes. “Now at least we’ve got that hurdle crossed and we know that we will be (playing) affiliated baseball with the Cincinnati Reds. And now we’ve got to get this pandemic straightened out and get back to our normal lives.”

Pandemic-related delays are expected with spring training for Class AA teams, meaning it could be another 100 days before either team begins the 2021 season.

While nothing has been announced, it has been reported major league and Class AAA teams will open camp in mid-February, then play a spring training schedule of games through March before opening the regular-season around April 1.

When spring training ends for those teams, the Class A and AA teams will report to camps in Florida and Arizona to get in shape.

“That’s what I’m hearing, as well. I believe that to be correct,” says Chris Allen, president of the Smokies. “Basically, the first-tier players are going to go there (first). And due to COVID-19, they just can’t have all those players there at one time because they can’t properly distance everyone.

“Once those guys break camp and head (north) to start their seasons, that’s when – to my understanding – the rest of Minor League Baseball will head to spring training. And I’m assuming we would start (the regular season) a month after that, however long it takes to be getting in shape.”

Allen expects the Smokies’ season to be delayed “until May at some point, maybe middle May, or something like that,” he suggests. “I do expect we will get a full season in because I expect they will extend the season. But I do think we’ll have to wait another month-and-a-half, at least another month, from when our season typically is starting in mid-April.”

Allen says that while the Smokies were never in danger of contraction, the three rookie Appalachian League teams owned by Boyd Sports got caught up in the restructuring. Boyd sports, owned by University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd, owns the Smokies, and in 2020 it joined the Memphis Redbirds ownership group.

So, whenever baseball returns to Johnson City, Greeneville and Elizabethton, fans will see those rookie league teams replaced by a fledgling summer collegiate league under the guidance of MLB and USA Baseball.

“For the Smokies, we’re pretty safe here, and we’ve been safe and set to move forward,’ Allen says. “But our Appalachian League teams, now they’re playing summer collegiate baseball, so we’ll see how that goes.”

Boyd Sports will continue as local operator of those Appalachian League collegiate teams in the Prospect Development Pipeline. Approximately 320 top players are expected to be invited to play on the teams.

Both Allen and Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin will serve on the MLB/USA Baseball steering committee that spearheads the revamped Appalachian League.

“The Appalachian League was a short-season rookie league prior to the pandemic and prior to contraction,” Allen explains. “After contraction hit, basically it turned the Appalachian League into a summer collegiate league. Major League Baseball has partnered with USA Baseball, and that’s basically what we have now.”

Here’s a deeper look at how the pandemic affected the Lookouts and Smokies last year as they hope to once again play ball in 2021.

Lost season for Lookouts

More than a year after MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred proposed a contraction of the minor league system, the Lookouts announced last Dec. 9 they had been invited to remain the Class AA affiliate of the Reds.

With that announcement, Mozingo was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief.

“We’re really looking forward to it. It’s going to be exciting, so we’re excited to be back involved with the Cincinnati Reds,” Mozingo says. “They’ve been a great parent team for us for a couple of years now and we’re super-excited to have them back in Chattanooga. And we’re looking to see where things are going to shake out and when we can get this season underway. But we’re looking forward to getting back on the field.”

The Lookouts played their last baseball game Aug. 25, 2019, a double-header sweep of the Montgomery Biscuits. Chattanooga won the regularly scheduled game 10-5, then took the completion of a suspended game 8-7.

That 2019 team managed a 61-75 record, finishing fourth in the Northern division standings and drawing 228,662 fans, according to Statscrew.com. Chattanooga ranked fifth in Southern League attendance for 2019.

And when the 2020 season was shuttered, Mozingo says it dealt a staggering financial blow to not only the team, but for both seasonal workers and the community.

“For the 2020 fiscal year, we were down about 98% in revenues,” Mozingo says. “Our job is baseball and what we do is host baseball games. And we didn’t host baseball games, so basically 98% of revenues were out the door.

“As far as front office goes and part-time people go, there’s about 300 people on the payroll every year. And 300 people didn’t get paid … so there was a lot of hardship throughout the building due to us not playing baseball.”

Mozingo says the few events the team sponsored had minimal impact on making up for lost revenue.

“We did a couple of concerts that were relatively successful and we had a disc golf event that was very successful, we had a couple more events that were helpful,” Mozingo notes.

“But those events just pale in comparison to a standard baseball game. We could have had 70 baseball games and we’re talking about probably – at maximum – maybe a dozen other events over the course of a year. And each one of them pales in comparison to the revenues generated during a baseball game.”

Mozingo says the contraction cloud hanging over the Lookouts only got darker once the pandemic hit and scrubbed the 2020 season. He is looking forward to a 2021 season even if the start of spring training is delayed and the team does not resume playing until mid-May.

“I’ve heard the same rumors (about a delayed spring training start) that you have heard, but I have had nothing specific said to us. So, we are not sure how that’s going to shake out,” Mozingo says.

“A lot of this is going to have to do with the vaccine how the vaccine’s rolling out and how the major league teams are able to vaccinate not only their players but their staff. So, a lot will be dependent upon the distribution of the vaccine.”

Mozingo adds that he never understood why a thriving city like Chattanooga – which has had a minor league team since 1885 – was on the MLB contraction list. But he suspects it has to do with an upgrade in facilities.

The national issue of contraction led to a more local question of whether or not the Lookouts need a new state-of-the-art stadium to replace AT&T Field, which opened in 2000 after nearly seven decades at Engel Stadium.

“We haven’t heard anything from Major League Baseball about why we were on that (contraction) list – or why we’re back off the list,” Mozingo says. “We’re of course thrilled to be back off the list.

“But we are assuming that there’s going to be some calls for raised standards throughout the AA level. And when the standards are raised and it’s written down in pen and paper, we will address those at that time.

“But as of right this second, there is nothing that we know of … so we’re waiting for a little assistance from Major League Baseball as to exactly what we need to do. And, of course, we’ll do what is needed to get going in the right direction again.”

So, for right now, Mozingo is optimistic on a successful 2021 season, one that is safe, fun and comes with fans packing the stadium again.

“We’ll approach the 2021 season with extreme care and consideration,” Mozingo adds. “Every event at AT&T Field will put the health and safety of our fans, guests, staff and players first.

“We’re hopeful that between now and Opening Day we’ll see tremendous strides taken towards returning to some level of normalcy. Whatever the situation when it’s time to ‘play ball,’ we’ll be ready as a staff and as a facility.”

Smokies filled summer nights

The Smokies hosted their last home game Aug. 27, 2019, an 11-3 loss to the Birmingham Barons. Tennessee finished last in the Southern League North division standings. But the Class AA affiliate of the Chicago Cubs enjoyed robust crowds totaling 280,708 fans – the fourth-highest 2019 attendance figures in the 10-team league.

When the pandemic wiped out the 2020 campaign, team officials put their heads together and came up with a plan to avoid the financial issues that hit the Lookouts so hard.

They found an answer in sponsoring a high school baseball summer league at Smokies Stadium in Kodak.

“Our baseball field had over 300 games on it (in 2020),” Allen says with pride, calling the effort a win-win-win for the team, the athletes and the community.

“It’s not so much in losing money as just lost revenue,” he explains. “Our generated revenue was down probably – I don’t even know if I can put a percentage on it – but I would say not quite as bad as 98% (like the Lookouts). But I would say we were way down compared to maybe a 60% to 70% revenue generator was down. That doesn’t mean we lost that much money; we just didn’t have that money coming in

“So, it was bad, don’t get me wrong. Hey, it was awful. And come tax time, we’ll see how bad that loss is. But it could’ve been a lot worse.”

The team managed to keep the lights on and make the fans happy.

“We kept our expenses low. The revenue we did have come in, we covered our bills and things of that nature. And we also had a lot of sponsors that had already paid and most of them rolled over to next year, so we didn’t really have to refund a lot of money,” Allen says.

“When the (2020) season got canceled, a lot of people just think about big leagues and minor leagues, but a lot of people don’t realize there were a lot of high school seniors who lost their last year of high school baseball.

“So, we started talking to schools in the community and we actually hosted a league here and at our other ballparks in the Appalachian League and had just a great summer with it.”

Allen says the Smokies’ efforts were appreciated by the community.

“The kids loved it. The parents, the kids and the coaches were so appreciative of it. It went well, it really did.

“Each team played 12 home games, then we had an all-star game. We had a championship series between the two division winners and really rolled out the red carpet for them. I know the kids really appreciated it.”

Allen says the effort was worth it from a number of aspects beyond financial considerations.

“We had fans (at every game) and we had probably close to 1,000 people for the all-star game. But no, certainly, it’s not going to subsidize the lost income from a regular season. But you know, it was a little something there to help out a little bit, anyway,” he says.

“It’s not going to subsidize a AA baseball season but, honestly, the goodwill it did for the community? I believe went farther than any advertising dollars we could have spent in the last 20 years.

“My staff probably worked more hours this past summer than we have during a baseball season because we played every night – Monday through Thursday, three games a night, in the high school league. And then on the weekends, we’d have travel baseball, sometimes with 12-15 games a weekend,” he adds.

“We were working a lot harder to make a buck but everyone realized, ‘listen, this is what you’ve got to do.’ That’s our job, we’re doing fine. We’re all just thankful we have a job at the end of the day because we could just very easily have shut up shop, you know.”

Allen is also optimistic that the new Appalachian League will be accepted by fans who will switch allegiances from pro affiliations to top-tier collegians and future pros. Johnson City had been part of the St. Louis Cardinals organization while Greeneville was with the Reds and Elizabethton was affiliated with the Minnesota Twins.

“It’s been a very challenging year and a-half,” Allen continues. “It’s just one of those things. You just have to deal with it, right? There’s nothing you can do about it at this point,” Allen says. “No one expected a pandemic to hit and certainly the contraction that has taken place throughout our industry has been a double-whammy for our (Appalachian League) livelihood, if you will, as far as the uncertainty.

“So, it’s been a number of changes that we’re going through. But we’re happy to say baseball is in those communities, so we’re going to put our best foot forward and give a great product to those communities.”

Allen voices concerns for the 2021 Appalachian League season, but not the long-term plan.

“Now with the pandemic and the college baseball season due to start up here in the next month or so, I kind of wonder if they’re even going to have a season or if it’s going to be a kind of a ‘this league plays, this league doesn’t play’ type of deal,” Allen says. “So, we’ll see what happens with all that over the next few months.”

Finally, Allen was asked about a potential team relocation to Knoxville, plans that were recently confirmed by Smokies owner Boyd. He is seeking a $142 million stadium/mixed-use development project in Old City. Boyd has been meeting with city, county and business leaders for months. The team’s lease at Smokies Stadium runs through 2024.

“That’s something our owner has been working on, and he’s been working on it for quite a while,” Allen says. “It does look like there’s a chance it is going to happen. … The plan makes sense that (Boyd) has proposed, and I think the city and the county there in Knoxville are considering this. There’s nothing guaranteed right now but we’ll see what happens.

“We’re preparing for our baseball season here (at Smokies Stadium). We know we’re going to be here for a number of years. We’ll probably complete our lease here, which ends at the end of the 2024 season. So, this is not a sprint, it’s more of a marathon to get this stadium built.”