PORT ANGELES — Friday would have been opening night for the Port Angeles Lefties fourth season of collegiate-level summer wood bat baseball in the friendly confines of Civic Field.
It’s easy to envision orange-and-blue-clad fans making the slow walk to the Race Street ballpark, clutching blankets for the later-inning chill, ticketholders enjoying a beverage in the shade along the first-base line beer garden or in sunlight on the third-base party deck. Enticing aromas swirling off the concessions grill and co-mingling with the sweet smell of freshly-cut grass.
The game’s return to a baseball-loving town would be cause for celebration.
Instead, with public health directives unlikely to be met in time for fans to attend contests in person this summer, the prospect of seeing potential future pro prospects playing at Civic Field is likely over, Lefties co-owner Matt Acker said Wednesday.
Acker wasn’t ready to throw in the towel officially yet, but he acknowledged the financial impossibility of playing a season with no fans in the stands in a small market.
With six other West Coast League franchises already pulling the plug on the 2020 season (Bellingham, Corvallis, Ore., Bend, Ore., Kelowna, B.C., and Victoria) and another in Yakima Valley located in a coronavirus hotspot in Yakima County — league operations already were going to look drastically different. Right now, the WCL has officially delayed its official season start from June 5 to July.
Acker recognized this uncertainty and offered up his own idea to quarantine a large enough group of players to field teams to play a short season exclusively at Civic Field — beginning with internet broadcasts and no fans in the stands once Clallam County reached Phase 3 of the state’s Safe Start plan to reopen. Fans would have been allowed three weeks later if the county was approved for the fourth and final phase of the Safe Start plan.
Despite a productive meeting with Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank, Acker was discouraged to read her comments about Clallam County’s potential Safe Start timeline in a May 14 Peninsula Daily News article.
“If I were a business owner, I would plan on June 1, July 15 and Sept. 1,” Unthank said at the time, referring to Phases 2, 3 and 4.
Acker said he felt foolish reading Unthank’s words just days after a different article outlined his quarantine league plan.
“I sent an email out to sponsors after she had said it looked favorable and two days later I read that and I looked [bad],” Acker said. “I’m pretty careful about things like that. I may have some crazy ideas, but I do the research.”
And summer ball at this level is not financially sustainable without fans in attendance. There’s no big-money TV rights deal pushing a move forward like in professional sports, so Acker pulled the plug on any quarantine league happening apart from the WCL in Port Angeles.
Among the other WCL teams, only the Portland Pickles have put forward a plan to play without fans in the stands, and that club is well-positioned with a deep-pocketed ownership group and the ability to offer advertising during game broadcasts to big-city sponsors.
“Advertising, food and beverage sales and merchandise,” Acker said of how the team brings in revenue.
“Thankfully, my expenses are not that high. We have league fees, insurance and some other things. It does cost a lot of money to run the team, but it won’t be too bad on the outgoing side of things. We just have no revenue.”
Acker did say he has team hats and other gear in stock and available for purchase, but he didn’t put a huge outlay on fan gear.
“I didn’t buy a lot of merchandise. Bought hats, bought baseballs, but I kept costs down by not buying a whole bunch of stuff too early,” Acker said. “A lot of my other costs would go away without a season. Travel, obviously, would be where we would save a large amount.”
And he said he’s hopeful to receive some financial assistance, in the form of loans and grants, to help the Lefties weather the storm before returning in 2021.
“Absolutely, I have filled out the PPP loan, the EIDL loan, the grant. Any business in the sports or events industry, they are all in trouble this year. Some of them aren’t set up like I am. Depending on the timing, what they have purchased, everybody has a different budget line.”
And Acker, a baseball lifer, said he is in the same boat as fans.
“I really wish we were able to play at this time,” Acker said. “It’s killing me every time I look at the social media feeds for the Lefties and things that I was doing last year, or two or three years ago pop up. I look at those pictures and videos and have those memories and oh, man it sucks.”
Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or mcarman@peninsuladaily news.com.