Under normal circumstances, Sol Werdiger, founder and CEO of Outerstuff — the popular youth sports apparel manufacturer — is a gregarious presence on Super Bowl weekends. He has attended every championship game of the National Football League for more than two decades — and he has always used the occasion to connect with local Jewish community members who can look forward to a festive Shabbat meal as much as the rowdy big game on Sunday.
“We try to take advantage of it and turn it into a full Shabbat experience,” Werdiger, the chairman of Agudath Israel’s board of trustees, said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Thursday. “We’re a frum family and we’re in the sports business — and we’ve been going to the Super Bowl now for almost 25 years.”
But as Werdiger heads down to Tampa on Friday for what will be the 55th Super Bowl — a highly anticipated matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — he has no plans for any such revelry due to the pandemic. “This year we’re not going to make our own minyan,” he said. “I’m going to walk to the local Chabad.”
“Instead of having a full kosher catered event at the arena itself, I’m sure we’ll be eating in our hotel rooms before we go and when we get back,” Werdiger added, noting that his sons and some grandchildren will be flying in only for the game. His wife, who normally tags along to help, is staying home. “Most of the people that I normally go with are not going,” Werdiger said. “It’s going to be a little bit different this year.”
Werdiger, who lives in New York, sounded somewhat discouraged by the prospect of spending Shabbat alone, but he seemed more disappointed that he wouldn’t have the chance to support some of the local vendors and caterers he makes sure to seek out for Shabbat festivities. Instead, he told JI that he would likely make a donation to a Tampa day school or Chabad House. “We usually try to find a local yeshiva or institution that we donate some tickets to,” he said. “They can raffle them off to make some money.” But that wasn’t possible this year either, “because the allocation of tickets, I don’t have to tell you, was almost non-existent.”
Attendance at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa is capped at 25,000 people, approximately 7,500 of whom are expected to include vaccinated healthcare workers invited by the NFL. Werdiger has also already been vaccinated against COVID-19. “Had I not had the vaccines I think that I probably would have been a little bit nervous,” he said. Still, the NFL’s health and safety precautions, he said, were reassuring. “I sit in a suite with the NFL people and they sent me a kit to get tested,” Werdiger told JI. “I have to send it back to them. I have to follow all kinds of very strict NFL protocols. It’s going to be an experience.”
He has many to draw from. The sports apparel entrepreneur is a gifted raconteur known for his colorful Super Bowl stories. Asked to recount one, he drew an experience from a decade or so ago, when he was leaving his Miami hotel on a Saturday morning, en route to a local synagogue. “I had my yarmulke and I was carrying my tallis bag under my arm,” he said. As he left his room, Werdiger ran into “a very famous” quarterback whom he declined to name. The quarterback was between jobs, so he asked Werdiger to bless him. “I was taken aback,” he recalled. “I’m not the rabbi to give a blessing, but I did a little heebie-jeebies and I gave him a blessing and that was the end of that.”
Four months later, however, Werdiger got a call from the same quarterback. “He says, ‘Sol, I got your number from the NFL offices. I called to thank you. It’s unbelievable, your blessing. I got the biggest job of my life,’” Werdiger remembered. “He became the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles.” Werdiger assumed that was the end of that, but he soon found that word of his reputation had spread. “When I came down to go to synagogue next year at the Super Bowl,” he said, a line of players stood waiting for him. “They said, ‘We were told that Saturday morning at nine o’clock you come down and give blessings.”
“You don’t know how many people you touch,” Werdiger mused. “We’ve had plenty of people over the years come through our suites, come through our Shabbos meals. At some of the events that we have, we have families and kids that come, and kids literally spend months preparing to say something at the Shabbos table.”
“They probably aren’t Sabbath observant, but they look forward to spending Shabbos with us and my family and my kids,” he said. Though Werdiger is, by his admission, “not a huge sports fan,” he added, “I always said there’s a reason that God put us into this business that we could try to do some good and spread the word and make a Kiddush Hashem.”
No such encounters will occur this weekend, but Werdiger is hopeful that next year things will return to normal — from an interpersonal as well as a business standpoint. “There’s no tailgates this year,” he said, estimating that jersey sales would most likely be reduced by half because of the reduced turnout. “There’s usually hundreds of thousands of people coming through the event and a lot of sales being done that way.”
“I’m sure we’ll sell a lot of Brady jerseys,” he said, referring to the Buccaneers’ 43-year-old veteran quarterback, Tom Brady, who is guiding his team to the championship game after 20 seasons with the New England Patriots. “But the Kansas [City] Chiefs is still a stronger market,” Werdiger said, because the Tampa Bay area has less retail. Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ 25-year-old star quarterback, led his teammates to victory in last year’s Super Bowl over the San Francisco 49ers.
Was there one team in particular Werdiger will be rooting for on Sunday? He paused for a moment and then gave his answer. “When you’re in this business,” he said, “the team that sells the most is your favorite.”
Josh Kraft takes charge of his family’s philanthropic efforts
After decades of consistent success on and off the field, the Kraft family, owners of the New England Patriots, are preparing for a big transition: Josh Kraft, the third of four sons of Robert Kraft, is set to take over his family’s philanthropic efforts, including a new foundation created last year to combat antisemitism.
You would be forgiven for confusing this with a different piece of recent Patriots news. The announcement, which the family has made public in recent weeks, may lack the panache and emotional potency of star quarterback Tom Brady’s departure from New England, but it similarly marks a new era in the Kraft family legacy.
Though this transition occurs away from the limelight of the football field, it signals an important shift for the myriad philanthropic programs run from the offices of One Patriot Place.
Kraft, 53, has spent the last 30 years — virtually his entire career since graduating from Williams College — working for the Boys and Girls Club of Boston. Originally managing the group’s youth outreach program in south Boston, Kraft founded the group’s Chelsea branch in 1993, and was named the Nicholas CEO and president in 2008.
“I’ve learned so much,” Kraft told Jewish Insider in an interview on Friday. “But I just feel it was time for a needed professional change.”
Looking at different options in the nonprofit space, Kraft found the transition to his family’s foundation to be a natural fit. “I couldn’t picture myself working for another nonprofit,” he said.
As president of Kraft Family Philanthropies, he will oversee a high-profile operation that includes the Kraft Family Foundation, the Patriots Foundation, the Revolution Foundation, the Kraft Center for Community Health and the newly formed Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism.
While his new role appears to have a larger portfolio than the Boys and Girls Club, Kraft emphasized that the mission, which he describes as “supporting marginalized groups and building community,” remains the same.
“For the last 150 years, the Boys and Girls Clubs nationally have been true social justice,” Kraft explained. “What we’ve really done at any Boys and Girls Club is leveled the playing field so any kid that walks in the door, no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, physical or mental abilities [or] socioeconomic status, is afforded the same opportunities.”
The latest Kraft Philanthropies initiative is the Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism. Robert Kraft announced the creation of the foundation, along with a $20 million funding commitment, in June 2019 while accepting that year’s Genesis Prize in Jerusalem. That announcement was followed by a high-profile $5 million donation to the foundation by Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich and the hiring of Rachel Fish as the new group’s executive director in October.
Kraft promised that the new organization, which remains in development, will open a new front in bringing awareness to the continued propagation of antisemitism. The effort, he hopes, will put “antisemitism in the discussion with other forms of hate,” he explained. “It’s not just a Jewish problem, it’s everybody’s problem.”
The foundation has supported countless Jewish causes over the years, including recent donations to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Agency. The contributions come amid rising concerns over domestic antisemitism.
Football fans were alarmed earlier this month when Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson posted an antisemitic quote misattributed to Adolf Hitler. In response, Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman issued a video statement inviting Jackson to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Kraft acknowledged that the organization had been in contact with Edelman about his statement, but declined to address the incident.
While antisemitism remains a growing concern for the organization, much of the recent focus has been on combating the effects of COVID-19. Even during his transition, Kraft finds himself busier than ever as the pandemic continues to rage.
Since coming onboard his family’s foundation, he has launched a joint effort with the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation that has provided more than three million meals to veterans and their families. With many children unable or discouraged from receiving vital healthcare at hospitals and clinics, the Kraft Foundation repurposed some of its mobile opiate units to provide services, such as vaccinations, throughout the region.
The Kraft Foundation also provides grants to support grassroots nonprofits across New England. Kraft highlighted recent efforts to support health care — including efforts to increase access to cancer screenings as well as issuing grants of up to $750,000 through the Myra Kraft Emergency Fund — and social justice work like Operation Exit, a program to match young adults released from prison with stable jobs and support for victims of domestic abuse.
“We’re always leveraging our partners to make an impact,” Kraft said. “It’s just staying flexible and meeting the needs of the community, even in a pandemic.”
NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson posts picture with Farrakhan
Basketball Hall of Famer and former Philadelphia 76ers point guard Allen Iverson became the latest celebrity to enter controversy after posting a picture with Minister Louis Farrakhan on Instagram on Tuesday.
Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, has long been decried for decades of public antisemitic remarks.
Iverson, who has more than 8 million Instagram followers, posted the photo showing him meeting with Farrakhan on an unknown date, accompanied by the comment “I didn’t choose to be black. I just got lucky!!! #BucketListMoment #LoveConquersHate #GoodDefeatsEvil”
In a post on Wednesday, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called Farrakhan the “most popular antisemite in America,” citing a speech on July 4 in which he urged his followers to “fight Satan the arch deceiver [and] the imposter Jews who are worthy of the chastisement of God.” The video of his remarks has more than 1.2 million views on YouTube.
Iverson joins a sizable list of celebrities to recently show support for Farrakhan, including rapper Ice Cube, comedian Chelsea Handler — who later recanted — Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and actor Nick Cannon.
Iverson played for four teams in his 14-year NBA career, including the 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, and Memphis Grizzlies. An 11-time all-star and recipient of the 2001 Most Valuable Player award, Iverson is considered one of the greatest players of his era, and was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2016.
An hour after posting, embattled fellow former NBA player Stephen Jackson, under his Instagram handle “@_stak5_,” commented on the post “Love u bro.” DeSean Jackson also initially liked the photo under his handle “@0ne0fone,” according to a screenshot, but later removed his like without explanation.
In the blog post, the ADL wrote that despite “messages that espouse hate and division,” Farrakhan “has been given a pass in mainstream society.”
Chaim Bloom is ready for whatever curve balls are thrown his way
If jars of gefilte fish have expiration dates, Chaim Bloom does not want to know.
Bloom, a career-long baseball operations staffer and executive, gained attention in the Jewish press when it was revealed that he kept a 10-year-old jar of gefilte fish in his office. The product of Passover-time agreement, Bloom and his colleagues at the Tampa Bay Rays promised to share the divisive delicacy should they win the World Series.
Like the Hebrews wandering in the desert, it has taken longer than expected.
After 15 years with the Rays — during which he rose from intern to senior vice president for baseball operations — Bloom, 37, was hired by the division rival Boston Red Sox in October to be their next chief baseball officer.
Naturally, the ever-ripening gefilte fish traveled with him to Fenway.
Bloom took charge of a team with impressive success in the 21st century. World Series wins in 2004, 2007, 2013 and 2018 made the Red Sox one of the most successful teams over the last 20 years. The always-ravenous New England-wide fanbase was further rewarded with six Super Bowl titles for the Patriots, one Stanley Cup for the Bruins and a Championship title for the Celtics.
For a sports region with such a high pedigree of success in recent years, anything less than a title is considered an off-year. With a market of critical sports columnists and talk-radio hosts that can make Capitol Hill reporters seem like Boy Scouts, job security comes at a premium.
While the Red Sox’s achievements abound, the last two World Series wins came amid seasons of underachieving to downright mediocre performances for the team. Dave Dombrowski, Bloom’s predecessor in Boston, was fired in October, just one year after constructing a roster that won a franchise-record 108 games.
Bloom, who speaks in a humble manner, wisely acknowledges the difficulty and scrutiny inherent to his job.
“I think it’s a testament to how much people in this region care about you. And so I view it as a positive that there is that level of interest and that level of passion,” Bloom told Jewish Insider. “You know, it’s certainly a much louder environment, a much more populous environment than I’m used to with the Rays.”
Bloom’s first major act was to trade homegrown superstar and fan-favorite Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Betts, a five-tool outfielder, played with a level of consistency and athleticism that made him a statistical gem — all topped by the perfect baseball name. By all measures, Betts is one of the best players today and was on track to become one of the greatest in franchise history. In the all-important Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric, he trails only Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout since entering the league in 2014. According to Baseball Reference,his 2018 MVP performance ranks second behind Carl Yastrzemski’s 1967 triple-crown performance as the best single season in Red Sox history.
Still, the decision to trade such a rare player was hardly surprising. Betts, whose contract ended after the 2020 season, was set to command an enormous deal. Toward the end of the season, it was widely rumored that the team was seeking to trade Betts rather than risk his leaving after 2020 without gaining anything in return.
When asked, Bloom rejected the presumption that trading Betts came with the job, emphasizing instead that it was a decision made after his arrival.
“It was an extremely difficult thing to do, to move on from him, especially after getting an appreciation of his talents for so many years,” said Bloom. “At the same time, it is something that we felt pretty strongly was the right thing for the organization given the importance of maintaining a sustainable core of talent.”
Still, Bloom recognizes the symbolic importance of exchanging Betts — who was traded along with veteran and former Cy Young award winning pitcher David Price — for three young prospects.
Bloom says he was impressed by the response he received in the clubhouse. “I know it wasn’t easy, but I was really blown away by the professionalism,” he said, “especially doing it so close to spring training and then seeing guys come in and just go about their work.”
A Philadelphia native, Bloom attended Jewish day school before matriculating at Yale University, where he graduated in 2004 with a degree in Latin Classics.
While reading Latin literature endows a knowledge of Roman warfare and the intricate ethics of leadership, a degree in the classics does not immediately translate into a profession obsessed with sabermetrics and advanced statistics.
“I’m not going to lay claim to being any kind of advanced mathematician. I would say it started with a passion for baseball and took a lot of persistence and a whole lot of good fortune,” Bloom explained.
“To the extent that any type of education is supposed to teach you how to learn, I think it’s helped with that,” he added of his studies. “There’s a lot of situations we face in this business and you know, really life, where it’s hard to study them specifically. And what you really need to tackle those situations is the ability to parse the situation, to work through problems creatively, to adapt. And I think the education I got prepared me well to do that.”
He joined the Rays, then known as the Devil Rays, after graduating college during a successful run that saw the team reach its first World Series in 2008. All the while, Bloom rose through the ranks, garnering the respect of his colleagues and the baseball world.
“Chaim is exactly what you’d want in a friend and colleague.” Rays chief baseball officer Matt Silverman told JI. “He’s thoughtful, dependable and full of integrity. And, of course, his intellect and wit are off the charts.”
Though Bloom declined to name his favorite Jewish baseball player — saying he does not “like to play favorites” — Bloom observes the importance of the American pastime when it comes to the American-Jewish experience.
“I do think when you look at the rise of baseball in this country in our society, I think it parallels the story of a lot of Jewish immigration into the country and establishing a larger foothold in the U.S.”
Despite reports, Bloom says he is not Shabbat observant. But the father of two prioritizes returning home for the start of each Shabbat before returning to the ballpark for any night games. In 2011, Bloom notably chose to skip the final game of the season, which coincided with Rosh Hashanah, even though it would decide if the Rays made the playoffs. The Rays ultimately won the game on a dramatic walk-off home run.
Unfortunately, with the delayed and shortened season unlikely to include fans, Bloom has yet to sample Fenway’s kosher offerings, which famously include glatt-kosher hot dogs from a vending machine. But baseball’s most famous Jewish food devotee can speak with certainty about the greater number of kosher choices in his new home city.
When the conversation with JI turned to the social reckoning following the police shooting of George Floyd, Bloom described a direct link between his belief in the need for change and his Jewish heritage.
“I don’t think that one should need a Jewish heritage or any kind of religion to be in favor of justice equality, but I would say, for me personally, there is a very close tie [between] both the values that my religion teaches but also some of the [people] who have been prominent in Judaism over the centuries who have very loudly advocated for the cause of justice. That’s something I carry with me,” Bloom said, adding that “Jews can and should be advocating for justice not just within the Jewish community, but within the community at large.”
As organizations across the country reckon with the imprints of systemic racism, the Red Sox has not been immune. During a series in Boston two years ago, then-Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones reported hearing racist slurs directed at him as he manned Fenway’s center field.
Earlier this month, retired outfielder Torii Hunter told ESPN Radio that he had been subjected to racist epithets “a hundred times” while playing at Fenway, revealing that this led the all-star to include the Red Sox in any no-trade clause.
The Red Sox later confirmed Hunter’s experience as “real,” promising to “identify how we can do better.”
“There’s many things we can do better. I think that’s true for the Red Sox. It’s true for all of us,” Bloom added to JI.
“I think it’s too easy for us, especially those of us who are not affected by it personally on a daily basis because we are white, to forget that it is a pervasive problem in society,” he said. “We can’t forget that, and the only way to ensure that is to devise and take some concrete steps to combat it and to make sure that we’re being as positive and inclusive as we can in the circles where we have sway.”
The Rays and the Red Sox are examples of the two stratified spheres of baseball teams. Though both play in the American League’s East Division, the teams differ significantly in style and look. According to TheAssociated Press, the Red Sox opening-day payroll in 2019 was baseball’s highest, at just over $220 million, while the Rays payroll was the lowest, at just over $60 million. The Rays consistently struggle to fill seats in Tropicana Field, the enclosed, artificial turf stadium in St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, the Red Sox routinely sell out Fenway Park, the vintage, old-timey and unequivocally beautiful ballpark nestled into the surrounding Boston neighborhood that shares its name.
In a league without a salary cap, the difference between top and bottom paying teams is huge — even if it does not reflect as much in the standings. Whereas the Rays rely almost exclusively on a minor league farm system and savvy trades to procure new talent, the Red Sox have the added advantage of using their seemingly infinite resources to sign the league’s best stars.
Asked to describe the transition, Bloom gamely and diplomatically offers: “Every organization, every market is different. Everybody has their own strengths and new challenges.”
Taking on the responsibility to run the Red Sox right now comes with a host of challenges.
During his four-year tenure, Dombrowski employed a strategy of welcoming expensive signings and prospect-draining trades. The upside was a World Series win. The downside, now playing out, is a depleted farm system, onerous contracts for aging or injury-riddled stars and an overall bloated payroll. Even after trading Betts, the roster is still stocked with young, homegrown talent quickly approaching the expiration of rookie contracts and free agency.
Now, the impending need to revive the farm system while managing future monetary demands of emerging talent like Jackie Bradley, Jr., Andrew Benintendi, and Rafael Devers places notable constraints on the team’s present and future return to World Series contention.
In the near-term, the more looming challenge remains the interruption caused by COVID-19, which prematurely shut down the start of spring training in March. “There’s no question that it is really hamstringing us and all 30 organizations,” Bloom explained. “One, we can’t be physically with our players….Two, we can’t have them experience the same type of feedback that they normally get through competition.”
The ripple effects will likely be felt for years to come. While the major league season is scheduled to begin in late July, the minor leagues will likely remain shuttered. This marks a potentially significant disruption for the all-important development of young players.
While the Red Sox tests programs for remote instruction, Bloom admits that the baseball world cannot easily predict the impact of the shutdown.
“It’s a unique challenge and an interesting one,” he told JI. “I think it has provided a lot of motivation for our staff during this layoff.”
Still, despite the challenges — including the loss of Betts — Bloom professes optimism for the upcoming season. He called last season’s 84 wins for the team “artificially low,” claiming that — despite losing Betts — the team remains “more talented than that.”
With the season shortened from 162 games to only 60, the unpredictability has everyone guessing. “I’m looking forward to watching this group compete because then I do get a chance to surprise people.”
Only time will tell if the prodigy can turn his optimism into success. Luckily, he keeps his gefilte fish jar close at hand in his office.
Bloom acknowledges that opinions differ over whether the initial fishy agreement covers only a Rays championship or whether the jurisdiction travels within the league. For now, he seems to leave those questions to the Judaic baseball scholars, adding simply “I’d love to win one here and figure that out then.”
In the meantime, the jar remains unopened in Bloom’s Fenway Park office, continuing to refine its delicate flavor.
Minor league baseball unlikely to return in 2020 even as majors make a comeback
Earlier this week, Major League Baseball said it would return for a truncated, 60-game season beginning July 23 or 24. It was good news for those to whom summer is synonymous with baseball — even amid a pandemic — but absent from the announcement was any information about the future of the minors, which remains in question.
Though rumors have circulated that the minor league season has been cancelled, “nothing has been determined” on the season at this point, according to Jeff Lantz, senior director of communications for Minor League Baseball, which is affiliated with the MLB. “I’m guessing it will be a few days at least before they turn their attention to us.”
Lantz, however, wasn’t optimistic that the minor leagues — which have had a strained relationship with the MLB over the past year — would emerge unscathed from the coronavirus crisis, speculating that some of the 160 teams now in operation might go out of business.
Few seem to believe that the minors will come back this year. “There’s very little light at the end of the tunnel,” said Dick Nussbaum, president of the Class A Midwest League, made up of 16 teams including the Dayton Dragons, the Cedar Rapids Kernels and the Peoria Chiefs. “As each day passes, it’s becoming more and more apparent that there won’t be a minor league season for 2020.”
The reasons for that outcome are primarily financial. The MLB can afford to play without fans if necessary — it has lucrative TV deals — but minor league teams can’t because their revenues are generated primarily from ticket sales and concessions.
“The economic model of the minor leagues doesn’t work if there aren’t fans in the stands,” Nussbaum, who lives in South Bend, Ind., told Jewish Insider matter-of-factly.
Some teams have been getting creative about using their ballparks in order to generate revenue without resuming play.
“I’ve heard about high school graduations that have occurred in ballparks,” Nussbaum said. “In South Bend, they’re talking about doing a naturalization ceremony in a ballpark. A lot of teams have used their concession abilities to drive up service for communities, similar to what restaurants are doing.”
The Pensacola Blue Wahoos have adapted especially well: It is now possible to book the stadium on Airbnb for $1,500 a night.
Meanwhile, minor league players who have signed contracts with the MLB and are waiting for their assignments have been feeling restless.
Alex Katz, a 25-year-old pitcher for the Kansas City Royals’ organization who last year played for the Long Island Ducks, said he was feeling pessimistic about the prospects of a minor league season in 2020, though he holds out hope that some teams may come back for an off-season fall league in Arizona.
“Right now, we don’t know whether we’ll be back playing so it’s more about staying ready and staying sharp,” he told JI in an interview before his workout session.
“I don’t think the minor leagues are coming back,” predicted catcher Ryan Lavarnway, 32, who recently signed with the Miami Marlins’ organization and imagined that he would have started out this season with the Wichita Wind Surge, the Marlin’s Triple-A team.
Lavarnway, who has a promising career ahead of him — he has done stints with the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, among other teams — is anticipating that he might fill out a so-called “taxi squad” that the MLB has said teams will have on hand as a backup to their primary 40-man rosters. He expects to find out in the next day or so if he has made the cut.
Blake Gailen, a minor leaguer who also has played with the Israeli national baseball team, told JI that he had heard there would be an MLB-sanctioned backup to the taxi squad, as well. It would consist, he speculated, of about 60 free agents who will be available to MLB teams that are in need of extra players.
When he spoke with JI Thursday afternoon, Gailen, 35, had just gotten news that on July 1, his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization was coming to an end.
The left-handed outfielder was holding out hope that he might be chosen for the taxi squad — and he has been training with that in mind — but he was also thinking about joining a league in Mexico or Taiwan, where he said the money was better.
The independent league, he said, was also an option, but it wasn’t that appealing to him.
“Do I really want to pick my life up for two months and play indie ball right now?” wondered Gailen, who last year played for the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers. “It’s a grind and the money’s not great.”
Jake Fishman, a 25-year-old pitcher in the Toronto Blue Jays organization who played for the team’s Double A affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, last season, said that the Blue Jays had recently informed minor leaguers that they would consider requests from those who wanted to join an independent league not affiliated with the MLB but that still provides a path to the majors.
At least one independent league, the United Shore Suburban Baseball League — which operates four teams in suburban Michigan — may come back as soon as early July, according to Andy Appleby, the league’s owner and CEO.
That date isn’t yet official, but Appleby was optimistic that his teams would return at some point this season, noting that the independent leagues were more nimble than the MLB-affiliated teams as they don’t have to operate in lockstep with the major-league schedule.
“Because of what Major League Baseball is going through, it appears that they don’t want to spend the money sending out minor leaguers to all the various teams,” he said. “And so, because of that, a lot of those affiliated teams are screwed. We’re screwed for a different way, because we’re just trying to get our season started. We have tons of great players. So we don’t have any problem with the content and the performers, we just need to get open somehow.”
Appleby said his league had written a 224-page COVID protocol program to reassure Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that the teams — who all play in one stadium — would be operating in a safe environment.
He added that the stadium would most likely operate at 30-50% capacity if play were resumed, with groups of people sitting six feet apart in the stands. The minor league owner is optimistic that baseball will resume in metro Detroit at some point this summer.
Along with the competition, Appleby told JI that he missed the communal aspects of minor league ball throughout a 75-game season. “We’ve had over 1,000 different charities leverage our ballpark, we have 60,000 kids in our reading program, we’ve got a kids’ club,” he said. “I mean, we’re all about community.”
Midwest League president Nussbaum echoed that sentiment, noting that it wasn’t just the fans and players who were affected by the postponed season, but also those who, under normal circumstances, would be employed by the ballparks, such as kids who have relied on summer jobs to put themselves through college. “The communities are hurting,” he said.
“It’s really sad,” Nussbaum told JI. “There’s not a whole heck of a lot to do this summer.”