Funko Field at Memorial Stadium in Everett is ready for baseball, but will there be any this season? (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

Funko Field at Memorial Stadium in Everett is ready for baseball, but will there be any this season? (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

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Major issues confront Minor League Baseball and the AquaSox

“When the time is right for baseball to return, we will be here,” pledges general manager Danny Tetzlaff.

EVERETT — Everett AquaSox general manager Danny Tetzlaff has a pledge. After the coronavirus pandemic runs its course, the AquaSox will still be here, regardless of the myriad challenges facing both the team and Minor League Baseball as a whole.

The calendar flips to June on Monday, which usually signals professional baseball in Everett is just around the corner. The Sox have been members of the short-season-A Northwest League, which has begun play in mid-June each year since the team debuted as the Everett Giants in 1984. Future major-league All-Stars like Felix Hernandez, Asdrubal Cabrera and Ketel Marte began their marches to the majors in Everett, while Seattle Mariners stars like Randy Johnson, Jay Buhner and Robinson Cano thrilled Funko Field during rehabilitation stints with the Sox.

But the coronavirus pandemic has put the Sox’s 2020 season at Funko Field in doubt. Not only has the scheduled June 17 opener been postponed, there’s concern the season won’t be played at all. This comes at a moment when the entire Minor League Baseball (MiLB) landscape could be in flux, with Major League Baseball pushing to reduce the number of affiliated minor-league teams. It begs the question of the Sox’s viability in Everett.

But Tetzlaff has a message for local baseball fans:

“Everyone should know the AquaSox will be here,” Tetzlaff said. “Once this is behind us, when the time is right, we’ll be here to welcome everyone back to the ballpark.”

Pro sports leagues around the world are slowly trickling back into action after leagues underwent prolonged delays while measures were taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus. MLB is hoping to start its season around the Fourth of July, with strict physical-distancing enacted and games taking place in empty stadiums.

But it’s a different story for the minors. There’s still no word on whether there will be a minor-league season, and the more time that passes, the greater the likelihood the season will be cancelled outright.

In theory, a season of some sort is still possible. Pro sporting events are allowed without an audience in Phase 3 of Washington’s four-phase reopening plan, while fans are allowed in some capacity in Phase 4. Snohomish County is seeking to enter Phase 2. Phase 3 could begin three weeks following the start of Phase 2, with Phase 4 potentially beginning three weeks after the start of Phase 3 — provided the county achieves the required benchmarks, which include lowered infection rates.

The problem for MiLB is that playing games without fans or in front of a limited crowd is a money-loser. MLB can play games in empty stadiums because of broadcast revenue. That revenue stream doesn’t exist in the minors.

“Having no crowds would probably not make any sense,” Tetzlaff said. “The crowd is what generates all our revenue, between ticket sales and concessions. So playing in front of an empty ballpark would not be viable. If we are asked to play and they wanted us to play in front of small crowds, we’d make that work. But it wouldn’t be the best option, either.”

The financial impact of not having a season could be devastating, with speculation that some teams may be forced to fold because of the financial hit. Tetzlaff said that while the postponement of the season has forced the Sox to reduce worker hours, the team had not undergone any layoffs.

The doubts about the MiLB season also seem to have accelerated MLB’s plan for minor-league contraction. Currently, there are 160 affiliated teams in MiLB, and reports surfaced last October that MLB wants to shrink that number to 120 beginning in 2021, citing the desire to improve facility standards and reduce travel.

Everett was reportedly not on the original list of teams to be contracted, and the Sox are helped by their strong tie with the Mariners, who have been Everett’s parent organization for 26 years and who are located just 30 miles away.

However, two Northwest League teams were on the contraction list: the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes and the Tri-City Dust Devils. What would that mean for the league? Would it become a six-team league, or would the teams have to merge with another league?

And what would that mean about the structure of the season? MLB is weighing the possibility of eliminating short-season leagues, meaning the Sox may have to begin their season in April rather than June. That creates complications, because Funko Field is owned by the Everett School District, meaning the field is also used by high school teams and Everett Community College. The school seasons conclude in May, so there are currently no scheduling conflicts with the Sox. However, if the Northwest League began play in April, it would force the Sox to get creative with scheduling, whether that means playing road games early in the season or having unusual start times.

Tetzlaff said he couldn’t comment on the contraction situation.

But despite all the unknowns swirling in the wind, Tetzlaff vowed the Sox would survive.

“We’re just trying to stay positive, and we’re excited about what the future will hold,” Tetzlaff said. “It’s going to be a challenge to get through everything. But when the time is right for baseball to return, we will be here.”

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