| Detroit Free Press
Casey Mize no-hitter: Final outs from his Double-A Erie masterpiece
No-hitter highlights from Casey Mize’s Double-A debut April 29, 2019. His pitching line: 9 innings, 0 hits, 0 runs, 1 walk, 1 HBP, 7 Ks, 98 pitches.
Three words salvaged minor league baseball in Erie, Pennsylvania.
“Save the SeaWolves.”
The slogan is simple, but the process was complicated. About 13 months ago, the Detroit Tigers‘ Double-A affiliate — the Erie SeaWolves — was on the brink of elimination. On Wednesday, the news became official: the SeaWolves had been saved. They will keep their relationship with the Tigers for 2021 and beyond.
“This is the hardest thing that I’ve been involved with in my 40-plus years of having a day job,” SeaWolves owner Fernando Aguirre said Wednesday. “All of us had to make tough decisions. We had to take some risks. And we had to trust others to do their part.
“Baseball is a team sport. Saving Double-A baseball in Erie was the ultimate team challenge, and it culminated today with this invitation from the Tigers.”
The SeaWolves got word November 2019 of MLB’s proposal to nix relationships with 42 minor-league teams, essentially taking the minors from 160 affiliated teams to 140. The MLB said the reduction would improve the overall conditions of the farm systems, from player salaries to higher-quality ballpark standards.
And the SeaWolves — affiliated with the Tigers since 2001 — were on the daunting list.
“We have spent so much time figuring it out, talking about the challenges,” Aguirre said. “It’s been a rollercoaster. There were days and times when I felt I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t know what was going to happen the next day.”
Saving the SeaWolves actually started before the ballclub was projected to be killed off by MLB’s proposal. The Erie County Convention Center Authority operates UPMC Park, where the SeaWolves play, , and Erie Events executive director Casey Wells had already agreed to pour $16 million into the stadium.
Even with upgrades underway, the SeaWolves could have lost their affiliation, potentially leaving the ballpark empty. The Tigers would have just picked a different club to be their Double-A affiliate.
Turns out, those upgrades were the team’s saving grace.
In August 2018, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf visited the ballpark to announce Erie Events received a $12 million RACP grant (from taxpayers) to make the improvements. The agreement was for $3 million per year across a four-year span.
“It was very important,” Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield said Wednesday. “The way this is being restructured, it’s driven by wanting to have better facilities, better working environments for the players. … The improvements were essential.”
Added Aguirre: “Our commitment is to have it ready for the season. Now, we are still waiting for the final round of funds from Gov. Wolf. We have gotten verbal confirmation that it’s coming. I expect that any day now, literally. We’re going to have one of the best facilities in all of baseball next season.”
The first major project of the UPMC Park renovations started the day after the 2018 season. The grass, infield dirt, warning track, pitcher’s mound, drainage pipes and irrigation system were ripped out. A fresh playing surface was installed.
During the 2019 season, two high-definition scoreboards — one in right-center field and the other a left-field ribbon board — were installed by Daktronics.
Other improvements include updated restrooms, enhanced ballpark suites, new home plate suites, expanded picnic perch and party deck areas, an upgraded stadium club and, for the first time in history, a team store. The park entrance and the ticket office are new, as well.
And then there are the working environments for the players, which, according to Baseball America MLB made demands for in its proposal: bigger clubhouses, expanded training rooms, weight rooms, hitting and pitching tunnels with power outlets, LED lights and much more.
“The agreement that we came up with was a lot of different things that are there to help the players,” Littlefield said. “Better conditions overall, whether it’s time in the clubhouse, training room, video room, batting tunnels, variety of things on the field. Obviously, a few years back, Erie did a great job with the improvement of the field. It’s one of the best fields in all of organized baseball. There’s a lot of factors that came in.”
The player development contract between the SeaWolves and Tigers runs through the 2020 season, meaning an extension must happen soon. Littlefield said MLB will announce the specifics of the contract later.
“They’re still working through some of that,” Littlefield said. “We’re very excited about being in Erie. We’ve been here almost 20 years now and look forward to a long relationship.”
The SeaWolves’ current lease agreement to use the ballpark also runs through 2020. Nothing has been signed, but Aguirre (the owner) and Wells (Erie Events’ executive director) previously shook hands on a 10-year extension — through the 2030 season.
“In fact, I couldn’t sign it until we have the licensing agreement signed from baseball. That has to happen first,” Aguirre said. “All major deals have to be approved by Major League Baseball, and because they’re still hammering out all the details of the licensing agreements, we have to wait for that to happen.”
It’s a good thing Wells has been invested in saving the SeaWolves from the beginning.
“When you have great partners and you trust one another, and great support from our elected officials, and you believe you have the right program and people involved, you move forward,” Wells said Wednesday.
“All of life is about risk and reward. Without risk, sometimes you don’t get the reward. You have to persevere; you’ve got to continue to move forward to believe that the outcome is worthwhile. That the risk is worth the reward.”
Road to Detroit
Notable alumni of the SeaWolves include Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson, Joel Zumaya and Andrew Miller, to name a few. The team’s ballpark was most recently home to five top pitching prospects — Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Joey Wentz — in the 2019 season.
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Along with saving the SeaWolves, the Tigers announced Wednesday the organization’s minor league structure for the 2021 season: Toledo Mud Hens (Triple-A), Erie SeaWolves (Double-A), West Michigan Whitecaps (High-A) and Lakeland Flying Tigers (Single-A).
One difference is the switch between High-A and Single-A, where West Michigan and Lakeland have traded spots. Another change is that the Tigers dropped their Short-Season A affiliate, the Norwich Sea Unicorns, in Connecticut.
“Overall, it’s going to be very much a positive as to how things are going to be aligned moving forward,” Littlefield said about losing the Sea Unicorns. “I think it’s better for the player development system. We’ve got four strong affiliates. We’ll have better facilities overall, better working environments. It’ll benefit the players in a very positive way.”
The Tigers will have four rookie-level teams: two in Lakeland, Florida, and two more in the Dominican Republic at the organization’s academy in San Pedro de Macoris.