KEIZER, Or. — The emptiness of the off-season is about to feel all too regular in baseball stadiums across the country.
“We were assured that this wasn't going to happen,” said CEO of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, Mickey Walker.
Walker’s fear became reality when major league baseball cut ties with dozens of minor league teams. Now, family-owned clubs like the Volcanoes are left out in the cold.
“My father has spent his entire life to build this. It's a very tough thing to swallow,” said Walker of his family’s 30-year investment in building this minor league team.
Every season for more than two decades, the Walker family and the Volcanoes worked with the San Francisco Giants, memories Walker holds dear.
“I've done every job there is to do in this ballpark,” said Walker. "I started when I was 7 years old, shagging fly balls, shagging home run balls behind the fence and bringing them back for 25 cents a pop. After that, I went from bat boy to clean-up crew, and taking out the trash, and picking up the stands after the games, to working the concessions, to eventually making it into the front office, and then eventually taking over a bigger role after I graduated college and stepping into a management position. It runs in my blood, and it runs in my family.”
Walker and his family’s job was to prepare players for the majors but, when Major League Baseball announced a new streamlined system with fewer players getting drafted and fewer minor league partners. Walker found out his team was cut through a tweet.
“I can't say that there weren't tears shed on my family's part,” said Walker.
The 25 years they spent building a legacy was seemingly swept away overnight.
“We didn't really have much of an opportunity to fight for ourselves or to fight for the community. We kind of had to sit back and be spectators as our fate was dictated to us by other people, other organizations,” said Walker.
These cuts forced minor league teams across the country to lay off their staff and shut down. COVID-19 was strike three.
“It just made it easier for major league baseball to kind of push this plan through, knowing that the organization of minor league baseball was crippled because of, because of the pandemic, and minor league baseball was unable to put up a reasonable fight,” said Walker.
This loss goes beyond jobs. It’s a loss of community.
“I think that that's really one of the most devastating parts of this plan is I think they're going to lose a lot of people who you know might not have been fans of baseball if it wasn't for their local minor league team,” said Walker.
At the Volcanoes stadium, there are no games for fans to attend. The only play this stadium sees is practice for a nearby college team. It’s players like these that Walker is most worried about.
Now, there are even fewer paths for them to reach the major leagues.
Without teams like the Volcanoes, players like Tony Torcato would never have lived his dream.
“I was drafted out of Woodland High School in the first round by the San Francisco Giants,” said Torcato. “My first year of professional ball, I came right here to the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes."
Torcato played in the majors for several seasons.
“It was the highlight of my life,” said Torcato.
A few short years later, he dropped back to minor league ball, fighting to earn a spot at the top once again.
“You have to play your whole life and you know it's, it's a grind,” said Torcato. “It’s going to be a lot tougher for guys.”
Not only tougher for the players, but tougher for this team to survive, but the Walkers knew this setback wasn’t their final out.
“I was born and raised here in Keizer,” said Walker. “I love this community and we're willing to do everything within our power to keep playing high level baseball here for decades to come.”
So, the volcanoes are starting up an independent four-team league. Tony will manage one of those teams with Mickey by his side. This new league will not have Major League Baseball affiliations, but it will bring big opportunities for all who partake.
“I wish the tryouts were tomorrow,” said Torcato. I'm so excited to get back out!”
“I want this to be a sport for players who are looked over, players who for whatever reason weren't giving their due opportunity,” said Walker. “Players who were just looking for a second chance to continue to live out their dreams.”
A second chance for America’s game to reach families even in the smallest communities, a chance for this stadium to see its legacy through.
“It was a field of dreams,” said Walker. “It was where dreams were going to become true. Where dreams were made, and we don't plan on that stopping. There's a lot more baseball left to be played here.”