Back from the Brink on Bellemeade
After three years of changes, crises and Covid, ’Hoppers GM Donald Moore enjoying a return to baseball as usual.
By Ogi Overman
Let’s say Donald Moore was cruising along with a seven-inning shutout and a five-run lead. Suddenly, the plate shrunk to half its size, the hitters assumed Pujols proportions, the defense forgot their gloves, and the mound became a foxhole. And the ump went blind.
As farcical as that scenario sounds, by substituting a few words, the situation Moore found himself in over the past three years was almost as dire.
After twenty-one years as president and general manager of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, Moore was indeed cruising along with a veteran staff and one of the most successful franchises in minor league baseball. Granted, each season has its challenges, but none were insurmountable. Then, one by one, the wheels started coming off like a Model A Ford on a railroad track.
“There’s a template to this, it stays pretty much the same year after year the longer you do it,” mused Moore. “But the last couple of years it’s thrown a curve-knuckle-spitball straight at our head.”
The wild pitches started off innocently enough in September 2018, when the Grasshoppers opted out of their Major League affiliation with the Florida Marlins in favor of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“That has worked out really well,” smiled the Page and N.C. State alum. “We signed a new 10-year agreement with them and couldn’t be happier. They’re a class organization.”
The following season brought ominous rumblings of not only a total realignment of all of minor league baseball but the elimination of an unspecified number of clubs. When the hammer finally dropped, the ’Hoppers found themselves in a new league with a new classification (High A East League), but unlike 42 other towns, at least Greensboro still had a professional team.
“We learned our fate in late-2019,” said Moore, “that we would go from Low to High A and still be with Pittsburgh, but didn’t know who would be in our league or what the schedule would look like.”
Two things, however, proved to work in the Grasshoppers’ favor: six-game homestands, and a natural rivalry with the neighboring Winston-Salem Dash. “That gave us something to promote,” Moore stated.
Then, on the eve of the 2020 season (and during the ACC Basketball Tournament being held in Greensboro) the Nightmare on Bellemeade — and everywhere else — began unfolding. Covid 19 forced the cancellation of the entire season.
“We went from a 17-year track record of profitability and thousands coming through the gate each night, down to nothing,” lamented the affable GM. “By June we were down from 19 to five employees, all of whom took pay cuts, and we all worked to salvage over a million in revenue and ticket sales we already had. Some of our sponsors wanted their money back, but some hung on.
“I’d never had to deal with anything like it, had given no thought I would ever have to. I was honestly not sure if we were going to continue to exist. It crossed my mind that we’d had a great ride but it really could be over.”
Mercifully, the pandemic lifted just enough last year to salvage a May 4 opening day to a 60-home-game season, albeit with strict Covid attendance, masking and distancing protocols in place. Bizarre as the season was, Moore revealed that it taught him two things: “We went to digital ticketing, which showed me that people were open to change. And, although attendance was down 20 percent, they spent more money per person than ever, which showed me that folks were happy to get out and spend money. All things considered, we had a helluva year.”
So good, in fact, that a new ownership group, Temerity Baseball, LLC, headed by Andy Sandler, believed in Greensboro enough to purchase the club. Sandler, a lifelong fan who grew up in Brooklyn and resides in D.C., had acquired the Kannapolis franchise in 2019.
“Andy is a great guy who loves baseball and loves this part of the country,” smiled Moore. “There may be a few tweaks here and there, but by and large it will be business as usual.”
As if that weren’t enough, during a three-year span all three of the beloved bat dogs — Master Yogi Berra, Miss Babe Ruth and Miss Lou Lou Gehrig — that brought national acclaim to Greensboro and helped Moore earn six General Manager of the Year and two Baseball America Class A Franchise of the Year awards crossed over the rainbow bridge. Little Jackie Robinson decided she’d rather remain in the front office, which brings us to current bat retriever, Willie Mae Mays. Noted Moore, “She looks very promising.”
And with Covid (knock, knock) in the rearview mirror and a favorable schedule, so does the 2022 season.
“Of 66 home games, we have the most weekend dates ever, plus July 4th, on a Monday,” beamed Moore, “which means more fireworks shows than ever.”
And the ump has miraculously regained his sight.