Phil Warren, manager of the Frontier League’s Gateway Grizzlies, had not been this excited about a season since 2007.
That year, in Warren’s first season as manager, the Grizzlies won 12 of their first 13 games and then captured 12 in a row to finish the first half of the season at 35-10. They finished a franchise-best 64-29 and captured the West Division crown. In the playoffs, however, they were swept by East Division winner Washington.
That Gateway squad hit 164 homers, bettering the franchise record by 51 and the league mark by 40. They led the Frontier League by hitting .286 and set franchise records in 10 offensive categories.
Warren thought this year’s club had a chance to be even better. But we’ll never know; in late June, the Frontier League suspended baseball operations due to the ongoing gathering and travel restrictions in many league locations.
“We fully understand and respect the seriousness of the COVID-19 epidemic,” Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee said at the time. “Our league-wide focus now shifts to carrying this momentum into 2021.”
“Too many variables,” Warren said when asked about the league decision. “There were too many mandates in place from county to county and state to state to try and keep everybody healthy and safe. Separating the business angle and the civic responsibility angle, shutting things down made sense, especially with half our season already wiped out.
“Let’s say you try to play 30 or even 45 games, but you can only have limited fans in the stands. How do you generate enough revenue to make it work? How do you max out attendance? And what happens if somebody tests positive and you have to quarantine one team or two teams or even three teams because of a schedule overlap?”
Warren added: “Way too many questions and not enough answers.”
Even for someone who loves the game and his job as a manager, Warren agreed with the decision to shut down the Frontier League despite the fact the Grizzlies appeared to be on the verge of a big season.
In the offseason, the squad added ex-River City Rascals manager Steve Brook as pitching coach and signed three pitchers, a catcher, two outfielders and an infielder from the defending Frontier League champion River City roster. The Rascals shut down operations after winning the title last year.
In addition, Warren added Bobby Brown as director of player development.
“I’ve known Bobby for years — he’s a former manager in the American Association — and he’s by far the best recruiter there is nationally in independent baseball,” Warren said. “With the guys we brought in, I was really pumped about what we had on paper.”
And now that on-field excitement turns to planning for next season.
“If you dwell on the missed season, create your own little pity party, all you’re doing is wasting time,” Warren continued. “We need to find out who wants to be back next year and start making sure we’re ready for that. We need to get our reports and outlooks for the future; we need to find our holes and make sure we have guys ready to fill those holes. We need to make sure we’re a team that’s ready for that next opportunity — whatever that may be.
“It’ll force us to be even more flexible and adaptable.”
Off the field, Grizzlies have adapted
Despite the shutdown of the Frontier League season, the Grizzlies are busy trying to keep their summer season off the field going.
“We’ve been forced to make a lot of adjustments,” said longtime employee Steve Gomric, who is in his 12th season as Gateway’s general manager. “Instead of putting on 48 events — Grizzlies’ games — we’re putting on a lot of smaller events to try to keep our financial situation intact so that we can have a 2021 season.”
The team, which has not cut any of its front-office staff, hosted its traditional fireworks show on July 3 and July 4.
“Instead of having 5,000 people in the stands, we had cars in every other space and ended up with a crowd of 1,500 in our parking lot and shot off more fireworks than we have in the history of GCS Credit Union Ballpark,” Gomric said proudly.
“Quite frankly, I couldn’t be more proud of my staff,” Gomric continued. “Last week, we started something we’re calling our sandlot series, pitting some of the local high school baseball programs against each other, giving a last chance to the seniors to play with their buddies in front of their fans. As the father of two, I can’t imagine not seeing my son be able to play his last baseball game. Last week was everything I expected it to be and then some.
“After games, there were three or four guys getting a picture together after that last high school game. And Dads got to watch their sons play one more time. These kids had such a messed up senior year, this was just a little bit of closure for them. And we’re glad we were able to help give it to them.”