AAABA opening night crowd

The crowd is shown during opening night of the AAABA tournament at Sargent’s Stadium at the Point in Johnstown, PA., Monday, Aug.5, 2019.

The 76th annual AAABA Tournament isn’t scheduled to be held until August, but the COVID-19 pandemic already is impacting the summer tradition – perhaps even threatening the host organization’s ability to hold the event.

“At the present time, we are still planning on having the tournament and going through with it,” said George Arcurio III, president of the Johnstown Oldtimers Baseball Association, which sponsors the event. “There are many factors involved right now.”

The AAABA Tournament is set for Aug. 3-9 at Sargent’s Stadium, Roxbury Park and outlying fields throughout the region.

Current concerns and restrictions due to COVID-19 will have a long-term effect on the tournament, Arcurio said.

The Johnstown Oldtimers president said the health and well-being of people is the top priority. Social distancing and other precautions must be followed, he said.

But like so many businesses, organizations and individuals impacted by the situation, the AAABA Tournament will have to adapt, Arcurio said. The NCAA already has canceled all spring sports, including baseball. Most of the AAABA-level players are college athletes.

“If this shutdown goes to the end of April, then having leagues being able to compete is one problem,” Arcurio said. “The second fear is it’s not enough time for us to try to raise money to sustain the tournament.

“It takes us approximately $150,000 to $160,000 a year, because we house and feed every player, every manager and every coach. Plus, we’re responsible for the out-of-town umpires. We have to make sure we have everything in order, plus the baseballs and things like that.

“April is our most important month for fund-raising. April, May and June, then we wrap it up in July.” 

'Difficult times'

Arcurio said if businesses and individuals are struggling financially, the tournament is affected because recreation becomes a secondary concern during difficult times.

“We usually average 180 ads in our program book, which is a big money-maker for us,” Arcurio said. “Our AAABA Ambassadors do a great job of going out and getting advertisements. With the businesses closed, we are not going to be able to raise money in that situation either.

“Our other big problem is housing,” he added. “At this time we are not aware of if UPJ is going to be able to open up in time for us to house the players by Aug. 1. We put nine teams at UPJ. The Holiday Inn downtown, we usually have three teams there. The Holiday Inn Express in Richland, we put three teams there. The Hampton Inn houses the New Orleans team. We divide our business.”

AAABA Tournament Executive Director John Austin recently sent an email to all franchises about the situation.

“They’ve been informed that this is a critical time for the Johnstown Oldtimers to raise their money,” Austin said. “It’s just a wait and see for us until (the Johnstown Oldtimers) can decide if it’s going to be a go or if it’s not going to be a go. We’re certainly hoping and wanting it to be a go. We’re all thinking positively that it will work out.”

Leagues face uncertainty

Austin also oversees the Altoona franchise that represents the Blair County city in the tournament. Like most of the franchises, Altoona faces uncertainty regarding its summer schedule.

“From a local standpoint, Central Blair Recreation in Altoona is basically shut down and they have no idea like everybody else when we’re going to get up and running from their standpoint,” Austin said. “Leagues are sitting back and waiting to see when everything is going to be a go before we actually can move on and plan for the summer.”

Altoona has two AAABA teams that participate in an unlimited league before coming to Johnstown each summer. Those teams must play in a required number of AAABA level games to qualify for the tournament.

“I spoke to the president of the unlimited league that we play in and we agreed if we can’t get started until after June 1, we’d definitely cut back in the number of games that we play and I’ll make sure my two teams play the number of games that are required for AAABA Tournament competition,” Austin said. “Basically, the whole thing is a wait-and-see situation. If and when we get the green light and things are allowed to start up again, then I think everybody is going to jump in and start making their plans.”

Like Arcurio, Austin said people's health is the primary concern and the leagues will adapt.

Johnstown Collegiate Baseball League Commissioner Don Stanton said the city league is in a similar situation.

Sargent’s Stadium at the Point and Roxbury Park are closed to the public due to COVID-19 concerns, Stanton said. The JCBL has a regularly-scheduled meeting on April 7, but that might be adjusted due to restrictions, Stanton said.

“As far as our league, I was told that the Point Stadium is closed,” Stanton said. “Until that is lifted – and who knows when that will be? – everything will depend on how long this goes. We don’t start until the first week of June. But it could be one of those things, where if we’re into May (before restrictions are lifted), instead of playing a 28-game schedule we might have to start a week or two later and play a 21-game schedule.”

'Up in the air' 

Stanton confirmed he did receive notice from Austin regarding the difficult circumstances the Johnstown Oldtimers face.

He said the JCBL will work with Arcurio and the Oldtimers to assist in any way possible.

“Everything is still up in the air as far as how long this is going to go on," Stanton said. "We’re at the mercy of this, like anybody else.”

Arcurio said a decision probably must be made in May whether or not the tournament will proceed or be postponed for the first time since the event was held in 1945.

The AAABA Tournament has been hosted by Johnstown in all but two years – in 1946, when Washington, D.C., hosted; and in 1977, when it was played in Altoona after the third major Johnstown flood.

“In the next four weeks, we will wait to see where the virus situation is going to go,” Arcurio said. “My intention is to sit down with the mayor and city officials to see where we are with the Point and Roxbury Park. The Point is essential to us because it is the only place where we are able to receive revenue for the tournament and our organization.

“The Pasquerilla Conference Center is where we hold our hall of fame banquet,” Arcurio said. “If they are not open or can’t serve food, we can’t have our banquet. The War Memorial, 1st Summit Arena, is closed. We hold our players banquet there every year. We’re looking at a major problem the whole way around.”

Arcurio and other organizers had hoped the tournament would build on the momentum stemming from a successful 75th anniversary event in 2019. But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have called various businesses, a few that have been able to remain open. To this point they’re still with us,” Arcurio said. “They say this tournament is a Johnstown thing. You go to the other 200 businesses that usually are able to buy an ad for $100 or $125, and if they’re closed for four to eight weeks, how can you go to those places and ask them for help when they’re barely surviving?

“My only hope is somewhere down the line, we can find some new major sponsors who will come forward and help us to keep this thing going,” he added. “If we have to put a hold on for one year, then we’ll have to do that. It’s not what I want to do.”

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.

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