The Portland Sea Dogs were unable to host games at Hadlock Field last summer because the coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 minor league baseball season. The team hopes the state will allow them to fill the ballpark to 25 percent capacity in 2021. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Portland Sea Dogs will likely begin playing baseball at Hadlock Field again in May, as minor league teams appear ready to return after their 2020 seasons were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The hope for baseball in 2021 surfaced Friday when Major League Baseball announced its restructuring plan after taking over operations of the minor leagues.

Part of the restructuring featured new agreements – called Professional Development Licenses – between major league teams and their affiliates, including a 10-year contract between the Boston Red Sox and the Sea Dogs, assuring that Portland will be the Red Sox’ Double-A affiliate through 2030, at least.

“We are thrilled to have this new, long-term affiliation agreement in place,” Sea Dogs Chairman Bill Burke said in a news release.

In a day full of minor league news, the Red Sox agreement “was one of the things we’re most excited about,” said Sea Dogs President and General Manager Geoff Iacuessa.

Iacuessa is also excited about the prospect of games at Hadlock after a 2020 summer of golf and dining events at the ballpark – but no baseball. MLB has not announced any minor league schedules, but The Associated Press reported that Double-A teams are scheduled to begin a 138-game season in early May.

“That’s what I’ve heard,” Iacuessa said, referencing the AP report, but adding that he has not officially received any details about the 2021 season.

Players will be welcomed, but how many fans will be able watch them? Hadlock’s capacity is 7,368, but 2021 is unlikely to witness a jam-packed ballpark. Iacuessa said he is awaiting approval from government officials for a permissible crowd size.

“We’ve laid out the ballpark with socially distanced pod seating arrangements in anticipation of reduced capacity,” Iacuessa said. “We’ve had ongoing communication with state and city officials since last summer, and through the winter, about our safety plans.

“We hope to have those approved by the state in the coming weeks and, once they are approved, we will be ready to announce our plan and timeline for the season.”

The Sea Dogs hope to allow 25 percent of capacity – 1,842 fans. Maine’s current restrictions for outdoor spectator events is a maximum of 200 people.

The team’s schedule also will be different – at least for 2021 – with teams playing six-game series, instead of the normal three or four, according to the AP report. Also, lengthy road trips will be reduced or eliminated.

“Some of those longer trips, we may not make this year,” Iacuessa said. Portland’s longest trips are typically to Richmond, Virginia, and Bowie, Maryland.

The MLB takeover of the minor leagues occurred last fall when MLB ended its agreement with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which had governed the minors since 1901.

Minor league players will notice a significant difference under MLB control – a boost in their paychecks. MLB announced an increase in minor league wages, ranging from 38 to 72 percent. Double-A players are among those with the biggest pay-hikes, from $350 a week to $600, according to the AP report.

Housing will be different for many Sea Dogs players in 2021. Iacuessa said the popular host-family program will not be utilized this season.

“We will be taking a year off from that and will have other arrangements for the players,” he said. “It would be tough to expect our host families to be comfortable hosting a player this year.”

While the restructuring of the minors has changed several of the leagues, the Sea Dogs are still in the same group as before, although the Eastern League is now known as the Northeast League, a moniker that may be temporary. The only change among the league teams is the Yankees moving their affiliate in Trenton, New Jersey, 25 miles north to Somerset County.

Boston’s other affiliates have all underdone some sort of change. The Triple-A team has moved from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to Worcester, Massachusetts. Salem, Virginia, and Greenville, South Carolina, have switched levels, with Salem now low Class A, and Greenville advanced A. The short-season team in Lowell, Massachusetts, was dropped when MLB contracted the number of minor league franchises from 160 to 120 last fall.

There is still uncertainly, but the Sea Dogs are planning for a 2021 season, with a new, long-term contract with the Red Sox keeping the franchise in Portland for at least a decade.

“It’s good,” Iacuessa said. “I’m glad to be talking about baseball.”


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