“It’s been a long year and a half for everyone,’’ Lancaster Barnstormers general manager Mike Reynolds said at the team’s Media Day luncheon Monday.
Dave Collins, the club’s play-by-play announcer, admitted that when he saw the Barnstormers’ 2021 schedule, an actual hard copy of the reality of baseball returning, he, “just about broke down and cried.’’
For the first time since September 2019, the Barnstormers, and the Atlantic League, are back. The Barnstormers begin the season May 27 at the AL’s new franchise in Gastonia, North Carolina.
The home opener, before what club officials hope will be a nearly packed Clipper Magazine Stadium, is Friday, June 4 against the York Revolution.
The team has been conducting daily spring training workouts in the morning at the Clip, and exhibition games in the afternoon, although Monday’s, with a traveling independent pro team called the California Dogecoin, was rained out.
The Barnstormers got through the pandemic by reducing staff and turning the ballpark into a venue for entertainment and community events. The club employed as few as 10 full-time people at the depths of the pandemic. There are now 28-30 full-time employees, including a new in-house food service department.
The league may be emerging from the pandemic strong and getting stronger. A massive downsizing and reshuffling of the affiliated minor leagues by major league baseball over the past two years cost the AL two teams — Sugar Land, Texas, and Somerset, New Jersey — which became minor league affiliates of, respectively, the Houston Astros and New York Yankees.
But the Atlantic League's partnership with MLB helped it welcome two new teams, in Lexington, Kentucky, and Charleston, West Virginia, in cities that had lost franchises due to the minor league downsizing.
It’ll be an eight-team league in 2021, including Lexington, Charleston and Gastonia. AL president Rick White, who spoke here Monday, noted that two new franchises are on board for 2022, in Staten Island, New York, and Salem, Virginia. The Staten Island ownership group includes Dwayne “The Rock’’ Johnson.
Experimentation with baseball’s rules will continue to be part of the AL-MLB partnership.
The “robo-ump” automated balls-and-strikes system will be tweaked with a strike zone slightly wider and less deep than the “rule book’’ zone used in 2019.
A double-hook designated hitter rule will be used, so that once a team’s starting pitcher is replaced, it will lose its designated hitter for the remainder of the game.
Starting in the second half of the season, the pitching rubber will be moved back one foot, to 61 feet, six inches.
“We’re seeing evidence of trends that have persisted for a number of years,’’ Joe Martinez, senior director of on-field strategy for MLB, said Monday. “Fans have to wait almost (an average of) four minutes between balls put in play. Without talking some action, we’re running a risk of a game that’s increasingly more boring.’’
Barnstormers manager Ross Peeples has more tangible concerns, though. Pitcher Bryan Brickhouse signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization Monday, the fourth likely member of the Barnstormers' starting rotation to be signed in the past two weeks.
“We need two (pitchers), one starter for sure,’’ Peeples said.
AL teams may carry 27 platers the first month of the season, then get down to 25.
“We might have to move a reliever to the starting rotation,’’ Peeples said. “I want to have 27, but we might not on opening day.’’
Remarkably, considering the downsizing of the minor leagues, 27 AL players have already been signed by big-league organizations.
“This is unprecedented even for us,’’ White said Monday.