The American Association season is just over three months away from Opening Day and the Winnipeg Goldeyes fully intend on playing their home games at Shaw Park.
In 2020, border restrictions owing to COVID-19 concerns kept the Goldeyes away from their downtown Winnipeg ballpark and forced the only Canadian-based baseball team in the league to relocate to Fargo, N.D. The Fish were one of only six AA teams to participate in last season's condensed 60-game schedule that took place from July to September.
The league is hopeful they won't have to take that approach this year and is planning on returning to a traditional 100-game schedule featuring a full slate of teams — although that number has yet to be finalized — starting on May 18. Due to Winnipeg's unpredictable weather in May, the Goldeyes typically spend the first week or two on the road before playing their home opener in late May.
The schedule is expected to be released in a week or two, but whether or not it's going to stick, especially for the Goldeyes, will come down to the rules surrounding the Canada-U.S. border.
"When people come into the country, if they even can get in, and there's a 14-day quarantine, (playing in Winnipeg) obviously doesn't happen," Goldeyes owner Sam Katz told the Free Press.
"With some other professional sports teams, they've made, shall we say, special considerations and they shortened the quarantine in certain situations, but we're just gonna have to wait and see what it is and we're still not at that point where anybody can tell us because we're still months away."
It's out of their control, but Katz said his staff is preparing as if games will be played at Shaw Park this year with a limited fan capacity while also following a long list of safety protocols. If that isn't allowed, the Goldeyes will have to take their show on the road again. Katz was adamant they don't want to go that route, but if they have to be a travelling team, they won't be based out of Fargo this time. Katz wouldn't specify why Fargo is off the table.
"Definitely, 100 per cent, do not want to be a travel team, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to maintain an open mind once I see exactly what the lay of the land is and what is possible and not possible," Katz said.
"Our goal is to play at Shaw Park. Our goal is to start the season where it's normally starting, finish when the season normally ends, and hopefully make the playoffs and have fans be a part of our 2021 season. That's definitely our goal and that's what we're working towards."
If the border allows for teams to travel to Winnipeg, AA commissioner Joshua Schaub is confident the league has the resources to make it safe. It could involve players and staff being tested a couple days before travelling to Winnipeg and being tested again upon arrival, but the details have yet to be ironed out. Regardless of the border decision, Schaub said they're determined to find a way for the Goldeyes to play in 2021.
"We had testing protocols last year. It wouldn't be any different than that. We're going to have testing protocols this year. Obviously, it's a lot of speculation on what may be the requirements, so for me to answer that right now would be very difficult. But we are anticipating Winnipeg being a part of the 2021 American Association and as those guidelines come from the governments, or restrictions, we'll adapt as necessary to allow that to happen," Schaub said in a phone interview.
Even with all the uncertainty surrounding the immediate future of the Goldeyes, it hasn't stopped players from signing with the club. In the past few weeks, the Fish have inked nine players to contracts for 2021 with outfielder Tyler Hill being one of the most accomplished names on the list. The Wilmington, Del., native hit .375 over 40 games for the Goldeyes in 2019 before having his contract purchased by the Kansas City Royals. But Hill, 24, hasn't played since 2019. Major League Baseball cancelled last year's minor league season and independent league jobs were hard to come by.
"I'd definitely love to be playing in Winnipeg, but at this point, I need to be on any kind of baseball field," said Hill, who wasn't re-signed by the Royals despite hitting .403 in 21 games for his hometown Wilmington Blue Rocks and helping them win the High-A Carolina League in 2019.
"Whether it's Fargo, the moon, or Mars, I don't really care as long as I'm playing right now."
While players like Hill aren't overly concerned about where they'll be calling home this summer, the same can't be said for Katz. A second straight year away from Shaw Park would be a tough pill to swallow.
"It would be extremely challenging. Keep in mind, you're sitting around for 24 months with no revenue but you still have your expenses," Katz said.
"But like I say, we'll address that when the time comes if we get to that point."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.