Greg Coleman has worked in minor league baseball for 20 years, including serving in his current role as president of the Erie SeaWolves since 2011. He understands that cold and wet weather can make the first month of the baseball season a challenging, and sometimes miserable, experience. Yet he, like many minor league operators across the Northeast and Midwest, were left shaking their heads about what Mother Nature threw at them in April.
“The weekend we opened at home was remarkable,” Coleman said of the season-opening, seven-game homestand that included two postponements and four games with first-pitch temperatures in the 30s. “We’re two hours from Akron, yet the temperatures were 30 to 40 degrees lower in Erie. We know how to handle cold and snow in Erie, but April really tested our resolve.”
And for good reason. Erie (Eastern League) had the coldest ballpark in the minor leagues in April. During nine games and two postponements at UPMC Park, the SeaWolves averaged temperatures of just 44.3 degrees while drawing 1,687 fans per game. Erie’s chilly beginning to the season edged the Lansing Lugnuts (45.6 degrees), Buffalo Bisons (45.8), Syracuse Chiefs (46.3) and West Michigan Whitecaps (46.6) for the coldest start to the season.
“We played nine of our eleven April home dates, but the cold was unrelenting,” Coleman said. “One day, we had to clear 4 inches of snow and then play a doubleheader with temperatures in the 30s.”
To determine just how cold the start of the season was in April, and the impact it had on attendance, we pulled gametime temperatures and attendance figures from box scores for every team in the Midwest and Eastern leagues, as well as the northern teams in the International and Pacific Coast leagues. To account for postponements, which in the minor leagues equates to a lost opening because games are made up as single-bill doubleheaders, we used the local high temperature for the day as posted on accuweather.com and marked attendance as zero. Complete results of the analysis can be found here.
Erie was not alone. Eighteen teams recorded average temperatures of less than 50 degrees; 40 teams averaged below 60. Attendance across the minors was down 301,834 (6.1 percent) compared to April 2017, according to Jeff Lantz, senior director of communications for Minor League Baseball. The cause of the decline is clear: minor league teams cannot deliver fans to the ballpark through rain, sleet or snow. The miserable weather led to 136 postponements, 40 more than in April of last year and second-most for the month since 2005.
“I have the benefit of 30 years in the game. This [month] is bad. It ranks right up there,” Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner said. “But you have these once in a while. It’s not that we’re starting too early. It’s not that we’re playing too many games. It’s just that Mother Nature decided this is going to be an extended winter.”
Misery Loves Company
Numbers don’t lie, but if you need further proof of the miserable weather just ask Buffalo Bisons General Manager Mike Buczkowski, whose team lost five straight home dates to bad weather in their season-opening homestand. Of the six games the Bisons did host last month, just two began with temperatures above 60.
“Weather has been as bad this year as it has ever been in Buffalo in April,” said Buczkowski, who has been with the International League franchise since 1987. “It was one of the coldest and wettest Aprils on record. Our attendance is down, largely because of the five postponements and we also played a few games under very trying conditions for both players and fans. While we do anticipate some bad weather here in April, we don’t plan for five straight postponements.”
The Great Lakes Loons (Midwest League) experienced similar challenges. Their preparations for Opening Day centered around clearing the ballpark of snow for the 1,764 fans who braved the 36 degree first-pitch temperatures. It only got worse from there for the Loons, with their next four games being snowed out as temperatures never crept out of the 30s.
“April was a very tough month for us with the worst weather we have had in our 12 years of existence,” Great Lakes Senior Vice President/General Manager Scott Litle said. “We were shoveling snow until about 3 p.m. on Opening Day to get the game in and then lost the next four. With the snow and ice that we had on the field, it wasn’t a hard decision to cancel the games. We are used to having cold games with our northern location, but the snow and ice were new for us. Like most teams in the Midwest League, our attendance in April was unusually low because of it.”
The Lansing Lugnuts (Midwest League) kicked off their season on April 7 with a gametime temperature of 31 degrees and a 15 mph wind blowing from left to right field. The attendance was a little more than half of their Opening Day draw from last year, when temperatures were in the 50s. The Beloit Snappers (Midwest League) had four straight games postponed after Opening Day on April 5 and ultimately didn’t play their second home game until April 23. Meanwhile, the Cedar Rapids Kernels (Midwest League) managed to play just one game between April 13 and April 20 after having two straight home games snowed out, then went to Beloit to have three consecutive games called off.
The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Midwest League) may have had the toughest luck off all. They opened their season playing in balmy 31- and 34-degree weather, then had to relocate their next home series to Peoria after receiving 2 feet of snow. The team went 15 days between home games and finished the month with an average temperature of 47.3 degrees.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Timber Rattlers President Rob Zerjav, a Green Bay native now in his 21st season with the team. “There is no blueprint for how to deal with this.”
Ironically, the Portland Sea Dogs (Eastern League) had the most postponements in April with six, but just three of those were due to weather. The team laser leveled and graded the Hadlock Field infield after their homestand in April, just as they have done the previous eight seasons. They ran into problems when the field failed to drain following a rainstorm, leading to four straight postponements. Sea Dogs Vice President/General Manager Geoff Iacuessa said future field work will be done in the fall.
“Early season [field] work in New England, especially where we are, can be a challenge,” Iacuessa said. “This is the first time it’s been a problem in the eight straight years that we’ve done it. We’re trying to figure out why.”
The saving grace to the rough start for teams, O’Conner said, is that it happened in April and not in the middle of the summer. Attendance is typically lower early in the season compared to peak summer months when kids are out of school and families go on vacations, so teams can afford to take a bit of a hit. It would be a different story if the same number of postponements came in June or July.
“One of the things about April baseball is that you need to play them, they count, fans will come out if the weather is OK but it is different than losing a record number of rainouts in June or July,” O’Conner said. “School is still in session, the weather is a little questionable, there is a lot going on. It is not the summer months when we can really make our hay, so to speak. You don’t lose June or July kind of money. You don’t lose June or July kind of attendance.”