Kudos to Katz for keeping Fish afloat Owning independent ball club during pandemic is risky business

It would have been so much easier not to play. To close up shop, turn off the lights and cut the substantial losses that are sure to come.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/05/2021 (642 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It would have been so much easier not to play. To close up shop, turn off the lights and cut the substantial losses that are sure to come.

Instead, the Winnipeg Goldeyes will take the field Thursday in Franklin, Wis., — nearly 1,300 kilometres away from the cozy confines of Shaw Park — to start a second straight season without knowing when, or if, they’ll be able to come home.

Being the lone Canadian member of a 12-team independent loop is difficult enough in the best of times, with travel and scheduling issues that can be a nightmare to navigate. But it’s close to impossible in the middle of a global pandemic, with the border still closed, selling tickets for the downtown stadium still a pipe dream at this point and no lucrative broadcasting agreements to help bail you out.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files Goldeyes owner Sam Katz with former manager Hal Lanier at a ceremony honouring Lanier in 2018.

A tip of the ball cap to owner Sam Katz, who continues to put his money where his mouth is and find a way to keep the Fish afloat despite all the curveballs that keep being thrown his way. Financing yet another campaign with no promise of any revenues is a risky, if not downright reckless, venture. But he believes the alternative of going dark would be even worse.

Last summer, it meant taking the show on the road to Fargo to act as a home base for a truncated 60-game docket played entirely in enemy territory. Katz told me after the fact there’s no way he could afford to do that again, with overall losses north of $1 million. And yet here we are, with spring training moved even further away and the possibility of all 100 games between now and early September happening down south.

This was a decision made with the heart, not the head. Good for baseball. Bad for business. The equivalent of taking a high, hard one to the chest or fouling one off your unprotected foot. Either way, you’re in for some pain.

I suspect many are guilty of taking the Goldeyes for granted. We shouldn’t. Winnipeg is lucky to have them — even though we technically haven’t since 2019, which seems like a lifetime ago.

They have been an important part of the community since 1994, and even moreso since our little Field of Dreams at the foot of The Forks opened back in May 1999. Whether it’s families spending quality time together, friends hanging out or myriad special events including birthday parties, after-work meet-ups, first dates and anniversaries, the Goldeyes provide an affordable backdrop for a couple hundred thousand spectators every summer.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Andrew Collier, Goldeyes general manager.

Hundreds of local teens, including both my kids, landed their first jobs at the park as well, selling magazines and concessions. And they’ve also served as a launching point for young ball players still chasing their big league dreams, with 37 contracts and counting sold to MLB organizations.

Katz, General manager Andrew Collier, skipper Rick Forney and many others run a first-class operation that is being tested like never before. Imagine having to sell free agents on the merits of signing with the Goldeyes this year, under American Association rules which include a $125,000 combined salary cap for rosters that can’t exceed 23 players.

Do you love non-stop bus trips? Spending the next four months bouncing between hotels in 11 different cities? All for extremely low pay? Then do we have the deal for you!

And yet, camp opens in The Badger State with 26 signed hopefuls in the fold, including nine who were part of last year’s outfit that finished 29-31 and clearly don’t mind coming back for a second serving of being road warriors. That was good for fourth-place in the six-team league, with the other half-dozen members opting to sit things out.

Now it’s back to a full complement of teams, and fans will be allowed in all 11 venues south of the border. For now, the vagabond Goldeyes will play divisional games in Milwaukee, Fargo, Gary, Chicago and Kane County, and also make stops in six South Division cities of Cleburne, Houston, Kansas City, Lincoln, Sioux City and Sioux Falls.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Winnipeg Goldeyes skipper Rick Forney.

There will be no such thing as home, sweet home, at least for the time being. And that’s bound to take a toll.

Knowing the fiercely-competitive Forney, Winnipeg will field a quality roster. They always do, even if the odds are stacked against them. They have three championships under his watch, in 2012, 2016 and 2017, and the thirst for another is what has the Maryland native back for a 15th season as manager, and 24th-overall with the organization.

But there’s no question the Goldeyes are once again at a severe disadvantage on several fronts, through no fault of their own.

This continued instability is happening just months after the organization looked to have locked up a long-term future in Winnipeg by securing a new Shaw Park lease agreement with the city following years of tense negotiations.

In a 12-4 vote, the Goldeyes will pay $25,000 per year for the first five years, $50,000 for the next five, and $75,000 for the remaining five years. The current lease, which expires in 2023, charges just $1 per year. The club will also continue to keep revenue from adjacent parking lots owned by the city, get rebates for municipal and entertainment taxes (approximately $12 million over the 15-year period) and be responsible for all upkeep and maintenance of the stadium.

Which is great in principle, but doesn’t amount to much when the facility might sit empty for a second consecutive summer. At some point, it really may be time to fish or cut bait when it comes to their future.

Out of sight. Mostly out of mind. And, if things don’t improve, eventually out of business?

It’s been said absence makes the heart grow fonder. When the time does come to welcome the Goldeyes back to town — later this summer is the new best-case scenario — I certainly hope that’s true. It would be a shame to see a temporary fix become a permanent solution.


Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files The Winnipeg Goldeyes recently signed a long-term lease for the use of Shaw Park.
Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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