Baseball is a game of constants. Three strikes make an out. Three outs end a half-inning. Nine innings in a game. Sixty feet and six inches from the rubber to home plate.
For about 150 years, baseball itself has remained a near-constant presence in American life.
Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby once said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
And come spring does every year, bringing with it baseball — except when it doesn’t. Every so often, reality brings this pastime to heel.
We now find ourselves in such a reality. Thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic, the sports world has come to a screeching halt. As Americans seclude themselves in their homes, the sesquicentennial game cannot provide the refuge it normally does this time of year.
But of course, it is not just the fans who are impacted by this stoppage.
The game is played by real people, with real bills to pay and organized by real businesses with real expenses and real employees. And while Major League Baseball (MLB) is what drives most of the discussion surrounding the sport, professional baseball is played across the country in towns of all sizes. Those clubs do not rake in the kind of money the top teams do.
And, like small businesses of all kinds, minor league clubs are facing difficult and unprecedented times.
The Houston Astros’ Triple-A affiliate, the Round Rock Express, is no different. Minor league teams are not part of their MLB affiliate’s business. They are separate entities who are contract partners with MLB teams, providing a place for players — whose playing rights are owned by their respective MLB organizations — to develop.
None of the players who take the field for the Express are paid by the Triple-A club. The player’s contracts are with their respective MLB teams. But the Express still employs near on 50 people in positions ranging anywhere from the general manager to the grounds crew or janitorial staff. None of these employees are making big-league money.
In fact, neither is the club which runs on tight margins even in the absence of pandemics. And while baseball is the purpose for the business, the business is not baseball itself but rather the events surrounding the games.
“We’re an events-based business,” Tim Jackson, the Round Rock Express’ general manager and former Baylor Bear corner infielder, told The Texan, “and if we’re not hosting events, we’re not making money.”
Jackson has been with the team for 11 seasons beginning as a community relations manager in 2010. During his time with the Express he’s worn many hats — even donning the team’s mascot costume here and there — but now oversees the entirety of the business in his current role.
“Our ballpark is a place of solace, a place for families to come and make memories,” Jackson said.
Throughout this turbulent period, the Express has neither laid-off employees nor shuttered its community engagement — both of which numerous other minor league organizations have done.
Compared with other similar organizations, the Express has been able to cope with the delay of the season fairly well. In fact, they’ve been able to repurpose resources that had already been purchased.
With the season originally scheduled to have started last week, much of the food supplies for the beginning of the season have already been purchased. The club had plenty of food with nobody to sell it to and so Jackson and the Express began making meal kits for their employees and families in the community.
Looking for opportunities for cash flow, Jackson and his team saw this as a chance to both provide a much-needed service for the community and bring in some revenue.
The kits are made to feed a family of four for five days and include not only ballpark classics like hamburgers and hot dogs but also traditional family meals like meatloaf and basic grocery provisions like milk, bread, and toilet paper.
The club sold out of its 150-kit inventory in a matter of hours, and the Express found a way to fill a need in the community, something it has done throughout its existence.
The community has appreciated it, illustrated by Round Rock continuing to back its team during this unprecedented time.
“We couldn’t weather this storm without our season ticket holders and corporate partners that remain committed to us even during this time where we aren’t able to host events,” Jackson said.
While in the meantime, the Express is looking to maintain its relationship with the community and make do financially, Jackson stressed that, looking forward, “We believe when we get to the other side of [the coronavirus crisis] our ballpark will go back to being that place of solace for our community, and more.”
Rather than totally shutting down, maintaining some level of operations also enables the staff to be ready once the season eventually begins.
For over 20 years, the Express has provided the Round Rock community with that refuge baseball so often provides. The club was established in 2000 by Baseball Hall of Famer and Texas legend, Nolan Ryan, and his partner Texas magnate Don Sanders.
The pair’s ownership group not only controls the Express, but also includes other subsidiaries such as its concessions company, food supplier, and even a bank.
The Express began as the Houston Astros’ Double-A affiliate and in 2005 made the jump to Triple-A as the Corpus Christi Hooks took their place. In 2011, the Express ended its relationship with the Astros and signed a contract with the Texas Rangers.
In the first year of the new affiliation, the Rangers went to the World Series in what Jackson called a “surreal” experience.
In 2000, its stadium, Dell Diamond, cost $25 million to build — $7.5 million of which was paid for by the city of Round Rock.
The city owns the stadium and the club has a $1 annual lease set to continue through 2036.
As Round Rock grew, so did the Express. In 2016, it was named by Forbes as the sixth-most valuable minor league baseball team.
From its first season to its most recent, the club has averaged about 9,000 fans per game. The minor league average is about 3,700.
Jackson credited Ryan, Sanders, and their families with the Express’ financial success and stability — the latter of which is something many teams in Minor League Baseball dream of.
In 2018, the Express reinstated its affiliation with the Astros. For several years prior, the Astros had one of the best farm systems in the country. Round Rock has since been able to see a wide array of talent take its field.
This season, the MLB made it about halfway through its Spring Training games before suspending the season entirely. Players across the country were, at first quarantined in those facilities, but eventually sent home.
Minor leaguers do not have the luxury of massive contracts. Players often scrape by — often, especially at lower levels, having to work other jobs. But with the suspended season, it has made things even more difficult.
Players are not paid during Spring Training and only get paid once the regular season begins. However, as a stop-gap measure, the MLB implemented a pay-raise for its minor leaguers through the end of May to help them through the downtime.
The Express’ players do not typically arrive from the Astros’ West Palm Beach, FL facility until about a week before the Triple-A season starts. Not only that, but the Express doesn’t know who will make up their roster until a few days prior.
Because of the situation’s fluidity, the players learn to adjust. But nothing prepared players for this massive curveball thrown at them.
“It’s pretty frickin’ weird,” Kent Emanuel, a left-handed pitcher from Woodstock, Georgia told The Texan. Emanuel was called up for the Astros’ 40-man roster last year but was hoping this year would be the one in which he’d debut in the show. Emanuel joined the Express in 2019.
In 2019, he had a 3.90 earned-run average (ERA) and finished the season with an eight-and-two record.
Emanuel is now back in Georgia, passing the time maintaining a balance of resting and staying in shape. As a pitcher, this is especially pivotal. Overwork and risk an arm injury. Rest too much and if one begins to get into season shape too late, injury is also risked.
Four years removed from an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, colloquially known as “Tommy John surgery,” Emanuel is taking this downtime to rest his arm.
“That’s a never-ending battle to keep it feeling good,” he said.
Emanuel was in Florida for Spring Training as the coronavirus pandemic began its spread. First, games were being played like normal; then turned into just training without games. Then the team limited the number of players allowed in the complex at once; and finally, a countywide lockdown was issued.
“It’s disappointing,” he expressed, “Going in, I was really excited for the year to start — having put in months of work in the offseason to this point — but at this point, it seems that mother nature has other plans.”
According to Emanuel, the players will be given enough notice before the season starts to get themselves back in shape. For him, it could take a few weeks to get ready but so long as they don’t completely shut themselves down, preparation shouldn’t take anyone more than a month.
Nick Tanielu, an infielder for the Express, is back home in Huntsville, Alabama. Luckily, he’s got a key to the gym he uses so adequate workouts can be completed while still adhering to the various “social distancing” protocols.
“Thinking outside the box is important during this downtime,” Tanielu stated, describing his makeshift fielding workout which consists of throwing a racquetball against the garage door and fielding its rebound barehanded.
Somewhat of a journeyman, Tanielu has played all over the world. He played college ball at Washington State University. While in the minors, he’s played in cities such as Lancaster and Fresno, California; Troy, New York; and Corpus Christi, Texas. And in the 2018-2019 offseason, he even played in Australia for a New Zealand-based team.
But this season, the 27-year-old is scheduled to be back in Round Rock.
Tanielu hit nearly .300 from the right side of the plate in 2019. He made the jump to Triple-A in 2018 and was with the Express during its first year of this stint with the Astros organization.
Tanielu said he didn’t think much of the potential effects of the pandemic initially, “but now I’m starting to wonder if we’ll even play this year.”
Regardless, he is trying to avoid complacency. “I’ve got to stay ready so I don’t have to get ready.”
In the meantime, Tanielu expressed his appreciation for the MLB’s efforts to compensate their minor leaguers. “Obviously it’s not ideal, but at this point, you take what you can,” he added.
The players’ pay lasts through May so Tanielu is curious to see what is done at that point.
About the Express, Tanielu called their front office “phenomenal from top to bottom” and added that the Express has been his favorite front office to play for.
Citing the frequent interactions between players and the administration, Tanielu emphasized, “They all love the game and the organization is like a family.”
Emanuel has been with the Astros’ Triple-A club for the past three years, the last of which was with the Express. He and most of the players enjoy the new team, especially because of its proximity to the big-league club.
A third-round draftee in 2013 from the University of North Carolina (UNC), Emanuel has experienced a lot of baseball success. He competed in the College World Series two of his three years at UNC.
The recent successes of the Astros organization have only continued this for Emanuel, even though he’s mostly been in the farm system.
Looking ahead to this season, Tanielu and Emanuel aim for the big-leagues — something many dream of but few accomplish.
And for their GM, watching and aiding that journey makes the job worthwhile.
One thing Jackson enjoys about his role as GM is that he is able to really get to know the people he works with —players, coaches, etc. It’s because of those connections that his baseball fanhood has shifted.
Jackson grew up in the DFW metroplex as a Texas Rangers fan. But since working in the industry, he’s transitioned into more of a player-focused fan. He now finds himself rooting for players that have come up through the Express rather than cheering for a specific MLB team.
Despite the change, Jackson said, he still roots for Texas’ MLB teams — both due to his professional affiliation with the pair and the Rangers, specifically, as his boyhood team.
But it’s the players themselves that really leave their mark on him.
When asked who the best player he’s ever seen come through Round Rock during his time, Jackson pointed to Chris Davis — the now Baltimore Orioles first baseman who in 2013 led the MLB in home runs with 53.
“Right off the bat, you could tell that guy was a monster the way he’d smash home runs,” Jackson said of Davis. Another player mentioned was Chicago White Sox outfielder, Nomar Mazara.
Jackson’s trips to the ballpark, too, have changed. “When I go to Minute Maid [Park], I’m watching the gameday staff, the sponsors, the in-game entertainment, the prices, and even at the details of the program,” he stated.
In other words, baseball at its highest levels is more than just a game. It’s an event — or, more precisely, a series of events all culminating in one phenomenon we call the sports fan experience. It’s entertainment, and there’s more to the entertainment than what occurs between the two foul lines.
This is what Jackson prides himself on perfecting, ensuring the fans who visit Dell Park leave satisfied and looking forward to their next trip to the ballpark.
And this season, whenever it starts, will be no different.
The MLB is considering various options for its eventual startup — one includes sequestering the players at Arizona’s Spring Training facilities and playing games in empty parks.
If this is done, Jackson said it is possible that Triple-A gets the green light sooner than the other minor leagues since a compressed big-league season necessitates expanded rosters to keep up with the demands of play. To ensure those player needs can be met, preparing the players who might be called up is a must.
But nothing is certain at this point.
Whenever the season does begin, Jackson noted that there will undoubtedly be significant adjustments to their operations.
One possible change mentioned was playing more doubleheaders, to squeeze in as many games as possible in a much shorter time period — something that used to be a regularity within the game but has since dwindled in frequency. Playing on off days has also been considered.
A logistical change could be less frequent use of air travel. Instead, bus trips may be utilized more often when possible. This would be made much more feasible if Triple-A inter-conference play within the Pacific Coast League is done away with — eliminating the need for West Coast trips that cannot efficiently be made via ground travel.
But for now, Jackson and the Express are in a holding pattern, doing what they can to stay sharp and afloat until baseball returns. But because the players are owned by the Astros, Round Rock’s team is largely beholden to whatever is decided at the next level.
The same goes for players like Emanuel and Tanielu who must pass the time in their hometowns wondering when America’s pastime will return.
As time has stopped for the timeless game and the country anxiously awaits its return, James Earl Jones’ quote in Field of Dreams rings ever more true: “The one constant through all the years…has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”
And, as all constants do, it will return again.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.