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GREAT SALT TAKES: Pro baseball’s future in Utah

As everyone knows, the 2020 pandemic had a major effect on the world of sports. Baseball, in particular was especially affected. While Major League Baseball managed to squeeze in a shortened, 60-game schedule, minor league baseball wasn’t played at any level at all. For Utah, that meant no baseball games for the Salt Lake Bees, (Triple-A, Angels), Ogden Raptors (Rookie-A, Dodgers), or Orem Owlz (Rookie-A, Angels).

The Owlz since pulled up their stakes and relocated to Northern Colorado, leaving the Bees and Raptors as the only places in town where folks can enjoy the sights and sounds of professional baseball.

The question, however, is: When will pro ball be back in Utah and what will it look like?

We asked three of our friends who understand the Utah baseball scene better than most for their thoughts:

Glenn Seninger

Glenn Seninger, former Public Relations Director, Salt Lake Trappers

One way to answer this question and to better understand where baseball is going in a post-COVID era, is to understand where baseball in Utah has been. 

The first recorded baseball game was played in the Utah Territory in 1869 in front of a small group of baseball curiosity seekers who gathered to watch this first game. The game featured a team called the Eurekas and a group of soldiers at Camp Douglas. In the 1870’s, the Deserets emerged as the team in Salt Lake City, playing their games at Washington Square, the current site of the historic City and County Building. Excitement and support for baseball grew rapidly during these formative years. Crowds as large as 5,000 fans gathered in the center of town to watch with interest the local team playing games against teams from Wyoming and Colorado. 

In 1915, a franchise from Sacramento moved to Salt Lake City bringing the Pacific Coast League to Utah. The Salt Lake Bees were now the new team to follow in Utah and fans flocked to the old Bonneville Park, located on the corner of Main Street and 900 South. Having a team in an established professional league created even more excitement and support in the city. 

Then in 1946 the Bees won a second title and set a league attendance record of 205,961 fans. Riding that success, the Bees moved to a new stadium called Derks Field, in honor of the late John C. Derks, Salt Lake Tribune sports editor. Crowds packed the new venue that offered an even larger stadium from which to watch baseball. But disaster struck after a suspected arson fire destroyed the wooden bleachers. Resilient and dedicated fans, supporters, along with local business leaders vowed to rebuild. Which they did, constructing a magnificent concrete and cinder block Derks Field The large crowds returned and once again baseball overcame yet another challenge as fans would not be deterred. 

Salt Lake was not the only city with a rich baseball tradition over the years. Ogden has a long and rich history of great teams with strong fan support from the community. Provo also brought Utah County a quality baseball experience that fans enjoyed. Eager fans now had baseball options closer to home. Derks Field saw many teams come and go on the field over the years from the Angels in 1972 to the Gulls in 1980. 

Utah residents continued to show up to games across the state, from dedicated, hardcore baseball fans to families who were looking for a new experience. These fans were hungry for a friendly, affordable venue and they found just that in a relaxing night at the ballpark with family and friends. 

In 1987,  the Pioneer League’s Salt Lake Trappers captured international attention with a historic 29-game winning streak. “The Streak” as it was called, put Utah baseball on the national map. The Trappers management opened the eyes of minor league baseball executives by setting a record in attendance that was the envy of many Double-A and Triple-A teams. By season’s end, the Trappers boasted a Pioneer League-leading 170,714 in attendance — an average of 5,004 per game — in 1987. The Trappers eclipsed 200,000 fans in a season just one year later.

Baseball in Utah was on the move again when a new Triple-A team from Portland moved to SLC in 1994. 

With the help of business and city leaders a new stadium, Franklin Quest Field, was built and the new look team, the Buzz, saw a record breaking attendance of 713,224 fans show up for the first season. This broke a 48-year Pacific Coast League record. The PCL was back in Utah with the Buzz, then Stingers, and now the Bees. 

In the last full year of baseball in Utah in 2019, the Bees saw a total of 433,596 baseball enthusiasts coming to the ballpark. 

By remembering the history of baseball in Utah, there is little doubt that when the time comes for professional baseball to be played again in the state, the fans will return. How many of those fans will actually return remains to be seen. 

The deciding factor depends on a successful and widely accepted use of the COVID-19 vaccine. Baseball executives will undoubtedly need provide a safe, distanced, outdoor experience and the team being competitive helps.

But taking a lesson from the past from the Salt Lake Trappers management, current baseball executives would be well served to focus on bringing back families to the ballpark by offering creative promotional incentives to encourage skeptical fans and supporters to welcome them back. Baseball in Utah has endured many challenges over the years and always bounced back. Given that the sport was intended to be played outdoors and with the sights and sounds that comes with the game, baseball has its own unique experience.  Finally, as anyone who has spent time at the iconic Smith’s ballpark and witnessed the views, will tell you, baseball will be back.

Jim Burton

Jim Burton, former sports columnist and Ogden Raptors beat writer, Standard-Examiner

Without a doubt, the year 2020 threw a filthy curveball to minor league baseball. It broke hard and dropped like a rickety elevator. 

And it took some minor league franchises with it. 

But two teams in particular, the Salt Lake Bees and the Ogden Raptors, held their ground and lived to see another day. 

With COVID-19 wrecking havoc around the world in 2020, something as trivial as baseball hardly seems worth fretting over. And yet if a year full of daily twists and turns has taught us anything, it’s that life’s goodness often lives in seemingly trivial matters. 

With so much to worry about, we need respites from our cares. And that, quite simply, is why sporting entities like the Bees and the Raptors, among others, will find ways to thrive going forward. 

In Ogden, the Raptors not only lost their 2020 Pioneer League baseball season, they lost their affiliation with the World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Diehard O-Town baseball fans fretted over the future. But MLB recently announced that the Pioneer League would return as a “partner league” in 2021, with an expected 92-game schedule beginning around Memorial Day. 

More details will be forthcoming, but the big takeaway is simply this: Baseball is back. 

And that’s a good thing. 

Loren Jorgensen

Loren Jorgensen, former Salt Lake Buzz (now Bees) beat writer, Deseret News

While there is disappointment that the Orem Owlz franchise has been relocated to Colorado this offseason, the other two minor league teams on the Wasatch Front are in a position to thrive once again. That is, of course, if all goes as planned with the rollout of the vaccine and the majority of us have received shots by late spring/early summer.

In fact, fans who spent far too many hours cooped up in their homes during 2020 are going to look for as many excuses as possible to get out and about. What’s a better night out on a summer evening than spending time with friends or family, pounding a hotdog and a beverage of choice at Smith’s Ballpark or Lindquist Field? The homes of the Salt Lake Bees and Ogden Raptors, respectively, are two of the best places to watch a minor league game in the country.

And it won’t matter one bit if the Bees and Raptors are even good. Win or lose, fans will still feel empowered doing things once again that we had taken for granted for so long before the pandemic made us hermits.

Yep, minor league baseball in the state — and I suspect everywhere —will bounce back, probably even a little higher than it was before COVID-19 hit.

 

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