Empire League hopes to play, but not in the North Country
Baseball teams for Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake would conduct season only in Florida
SARANAC LAKE — In these times of uncertainty in the sports world, there are a handful of sure bets when it comes to the Empire Professional Baseball League.
Eddie Gonzalez, the commissioner of the EPBL, is still counting on having a season, however short one may be. And he says whatever the season may look like, the independent professional baseball league plans to conduct its operations solely in the state of Florida due to New York’s restrictions regarding COVID-19.
“New York state is not allowing us to play, and we know it’s going to be in Florida without question,” Gonzalez said. “It’s going to be a condensed season and geared toward more instructional baseball.”
If the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t swept its way across the globe and America, this would have been the second season the Saranac Lake Surge would have competed in the EPBL in its hometown, and it would have been the inaugural campaign for the Tupper Lake River Pigs, who would have been playing their home games at that village’s Municipal Park field along the shore of Raquette Pond.
At least this year, those teams will not be playing baseball in the North Country, but if games eventually do take place, Gonzalez said the Surge, the River Pigs, the defending champion Plattsburgh Thunderbirds and the New Hampshire Wild are expected to be among the teams competing in Florida this year.
Gonzalez said the plan is to have the league utilize one of many former and now vacant professional baseball parks that are located around Florida for its showcase training camp and then follow with games during what appears to be a shortened season.
“Florida has allowed pro sports to happen, and we’re looking to be all in one facility to keep everything contained — where people won’t be spreading our catching the coronavirus. We’ll follow the protocols,” Gonzales said. “There are stadiums from the north to the south, from the east to the west that could be a fit, but it’s all COVID-19 based, and each community has their own restrictions. Hopefully within the next couple of weeks we’ll have things finalized in terms of where we are going to do it and when we are going to do it.
“Right now, we don’t now how many teams there will be,” he continued. “It may be six, it may be four, it may be 10 or 12. With all the minor leagues canceled, there is literally a pool of thousands of baseball players out there.”
Normally, the EPBL kicks off its season in early June with tryout camps in Puerto Rico and Delaware. They are followed by a draft and then games in teams’ host towns. The 2019 season opened on June 20 and ended on Aug. 7 when the Thunderbirds completed a two-game sweep over the Wild in the best-of-three league championship series played in Saranac Lake. The Surge were knocked out of the playoffs by the Road City Explorers in the opening round and ended their run with a 16-19 record.
Gonzelez hopes players can gather for camp within the next month with games beginning in about six weeks, with the schedule extending into early fall. He stated that games will be held with no fans and no media present, but the league’s mission remains the same.
“Our goal is to get players ready and help them get up to the higher levels,” Gonzalez said. “Our goal is to get these guys showcased regardless of if it’s during a condensed season.”
Currently, there is only one independent professional baseball league playing games in the United States — the six-team American Association located in the Midwest.
The six-team EPBL started in 2015, and if the league can make it through this difficult year, Gonzalez hopes to be bringing baseball back to the North Country towns of Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Plattsburgh and beyond, starting in 2021.
“We have great relationships with the mayors in those communities and the communities themselves, and we hope to be functioning there again next season,” Gonzalez said. “We want kids and families out watching baseball, period. Our league is just a baby, and we want to grow it. We just want to get past this madness and come back stronger.”