Opinion | What Life Without Baseball Looks Like

Mike Vavalle, 37, likes to joke that being the clubhouse manager for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, a Class AA affiliate of the Mets in Binghamton, N.Y., is really just “glorified babysitting.” In the spring and summer, he keeps the NYSEG Stadium clubhouse clean and outfitted with meals and snacks. He washes players’ uniforms. He even runs errands for Rumble Ponies players, who are often at the stadium from midmorning until late at night and don’t have time to, say, drop off a rent check.

The days are long, but there are perks: Sometimes Mr. Vavalle gets to “babysit” future celebrities, or current ones. His most famous charge? Tim Tebow, the former N.F.L. quarterback who has been playing minor-league ball with the Mets organization since 2016.

This spring, however, Mr. Vavalle’s feeding, clothing and general caretaking duties look different. Ever since the coronavirus halted the 2020 baseball season in mid-March, Mr. Vavalle has been home with his two daughters, ages 3 and 8, home schooling the elder one and collecting unemployment benefits while his wife works.

“Right now, we’re fine,” he said. But if there’s no baseball for the rest of the year, “It could make the fall and winter a little tougher. I’m nervous, a little bit.”

Much has been said about how the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures taken to prevent the spread of disease could hobble the national and global economy. Already, the numbers are staggering: The U.S. unemployment rate in May was 13.3 percent, higher than in any recession since World War II. But we also need to understand how the coronavirus has affected smaller economies — local ones, in which an interruption to one business could leave everyone who depends on it for money suddenly empty-handed.

Every spring and summer, the business of baseball employs multitudes. Tens of thousands of people collect paychecks working for minor-league baseball teams and stadiums. This year, many of those workers are without some or all of their usual income. In towns like Binghamton — where, in a normal season, hundreds of locals would be on the Rumble Ponies’ payroll — the downstream economic effects of the season derailed by Covid-19 are rapidly becoming apparent.

Perhaps the most obviously disadvantaged parties when a baseball season vanishes are the players. And indeed, the life of a minor-league ballplayer wasn’t all that glamorous to begin with. Because the season was suspended before spring training ended, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies never had an official 2020 roster. But Stefan Sabol, 28, played five seasons with the Mets minor league organization, the last of which was in Binghamton in 2016. Money was tight that summer. His paychecks, he recalled, were somewhere between $1,500 and $1,700 a month — before New York’s famously high tax rates kicked in.

“We had to put five or six guys into an apartment so that we could all afford it,” Mr. Sabol, who now lives in Binghamton full-time, remembered. Mr. Sabol’s son was born in 2017, and soon afterward, he left baseball and got a bachelor’s degree in business. (Players who are picked in the earlier rounds of the draft and earn more lucrative signing bonuses tend to have an easier time financially, Mr. Sabol noted — and come 2021, Major League Baseball has pledged to increase the minimum salaries of minor-league players.)

The Mets, like several other Major League Baseball organizations, has laid off some minor-leaguers; the remaining players will reportedly be paid a minimum of $400 a week through June. As Mr. Sabol pointed out, those players likely still have to pay rent and bills, wherever they’re living — and in the absence of clubhouse meals, they have to spend more on food than they would during a normal season.

But while Major League Baseball pays the players and coaches, the rest of a minor-league franchise is largely local and self-sustaining; it’s kept afloat primarily by retail, sponsorships and ticket sales. In Binghamton, the first has taken a big hit. The other two have essentially evaporated. Jessica Swartz, the Rumble Ponies’ director of merchandise and retail sales, said her department has managed to bring in “at least 60 percent” of what they would be making in a normal year by running promotions online. But Kelly Hust, the director of business operations, said that’s basically the only money coming in.

“We can’t operate,” Ms. Hust said. “We have no games.”

In a normal baseball season, some 300 employees are on the Rumble Ponies’ payroll, and by this point in the year, the season would be in full swing. Instead, the payroll has dwindled to just nine or 10 full-timers, by Ms. Hust’s estimate. The seasonal workers, she said, are “probably all trying to get unemployment.”

Stephen Spero, 69, has spent the last six summers working at NYSEG Stadium as an usher — a job he loves because it allows him to watch baseball while meeting people and getting a little exercise. This spring has been “not as interesting,” as he’s mostly been at his home with his wife “watching too many British crime dramas.”

Mr. Spero is retired, and the income he makes from gigs like ushering isn’t the incentive so much as the work itself is, he said. Still, it’s nice to have a little extra cash on hand.

For Colin Perney, however — who has about one more week of teleconferencing into classes before his sophomore year of high school officially ends — the loss of a baseball season could effectively mean the loss of any income all year. Mr. Perney, 16, spent the last two summers working as a batboy. In 2019, he made close to $1,700.There are few opportunities for him to make money now. Most of the places he’d like to work besides the stadium, he said, told him he had to be 18.

Still other entities in Binghamton are hurting because of the lost season. Local hotels cannot count on the revenue they would otherwise make from the steady stream of visiting teams. Charities for which the team holds fund-raisers during the season now cannot count on their help.

The Colonial — a bar near the stadium, where the wait for a table can be upward of 45 minutes on a game night — has also felt the effects of baseball’s absence. Jordan Rindgen, 31, a co-owner of the bar, was hoping to do big business in mid-July, when Binghamton was supposed to host the Eastern League All-Star Game.

“Such a huge influx of people coming in from out of town, that always helps,” Mr. Rindgen said.

Instead, he spent his early spring laying off the entire front-of-house staff. (Mr. Rindgen was eventually able to bring many staffers back: Takeout and delivery have been bringing in some revenue, and he and his co-owners started a fried-chicken pop-up restaurant using the bar’s Paycheck Protection Program money, rehiring several staffers to work in it.)

Tim Szczesny, 28, has been a Rumble Ponies season-ticket holder for five years now. Every summer, he attends 30 or 40 home games in Binghamton, in addition to minor- and major-league games elsewhere. Ordinarily, NYSEG Stadium is where Mr. Szczesny goes to unwind after long days working as a funeral director. Some people have yoga, but he has the Rumble Ponies: “Baseball is where I meditate,” he said.

This year has been a particularly stressful one at the funeral home, as new restrictions on gatherings and on-the-job hygiene have been put in place because of the coronavirus. Mr. Szczesny has been reading books about the history of the game and watching Korea Baseball Organization games, but those are meager replacements for live baseball.

“I’m missing it like crazy,” he said.

Mr. Szczesny has his doubts as to whether NYSEG Stadium, or any North American stadium, will hold baseball games this year. There are rumors that even if the major-league games come back, there won’t be a minor-league season. But much of the Binghamton baseball community remains optimistic that a 2020 season will happen, somehow. Mr. Spero checks online for updates on the negotiations to restart the season at least twice a week; he’ll be at the ready the day the park opens back up, he said. Mr. Vavalle, meanwhile, checks for updates every day.

Note: These images were made by combining photographs of the subjects and the scenes.

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