Jul. 12—The Pecos League's return to Santa Fe for Sunday's annual All-Star Game was more than just a celebration of the league's top players and the city that has long been considered the central hub for teams around the league.
It was, said league founder and president Andrew Dunn, a chance to prove the Pecos League is alive and well after the coronavirus pandemic changed the sport forever.
"I think it's the best ever," Dunn said after the South beat the North, 12-5, in Sunday's game at Fort Marcy Ballpark.
The game was called off after the North plated a run in the top of the eighth inning, just moments before a heavy storm dumped hail and rain on the field.
Alpine catcher Bryce Donovan was named most valuable player after going 3-for-3 with a home run, triple and three runs batted in. Santa Fe's Aaron McIntyre got the win in relief, working a scoreless fifth inning with two strikeouts.
Six Fuego played in the game, including shortstop Parker DePasquale. He was added to the South roster as a late substitution. They combined for five hits and three runs scored.
Dunn said the league sold more than 600 tickets to Sunday's game, although the actual count at the front gate was half that.
Regardless, Dunn said the outlook for the Pecos League has never been brighter than it is right now.
"I mean, obviously, the talent is up and down, but we have 14 teams in six different states and, most important, we have the Santa Fe Fuego and Roswell Invaders," he said. "Turnout has been great."
The mere idea of even playing baseball was in doubt until just a few months ago, when schedules were announced and rosters finalized.
There was never a doubt in Dunn's mind that baseball would be back in Santa Fe.
"Who would have known we would have even played, if anyone would have come," Dunn said. "We knew less about this than when we started the first year. No one knew what the hell the deal was but all those years later, here we are still going."
While Minor League Baseball shut down its operations in 2020 and the majors playing a shortened season without fans, the door was left wide open for Dunn's league. He moved his entire operation near his home in Houston, condensing what had been a 12-team, two-division league in 2019 into a four-team, one division mosh pit last summer.
The league held two games a day, four days a week between July and August. Players from all over were summoned, including current Fuego all-stars Jared Gay and Ben Tingen.
"Houston was the best decision we've ever made in the history of the league," Dunn said. "Everybody said, 'You can't play during a pandemic.' Well, in Houston nobody cared. We put our teams out there with six managers and 45 players from around the league and we did it. We built that bridge, a springboard to play another year and without it, I don't know. Maybe we're not here."
The conditions in South Texas didn't exactly cooperate. Dunn said it rained almost every day. The heat and humidity tested everyone.
What it also did was allow the Pecos League to grab the sports spotlight for just a few days. For most of its first week or two of competition, it was the only professional sports league to resurrect itself during the pandemic — even before the MLB restart and the launch of the NBA bubble in Orlando.
"It was well worth it, because to go two years without us being out there, man, it would have been tough to just rebuild from scratch," Dunn said. "It was big. It showed we had what it took to stay alive."
Common thinking says it should have been easier to build more talent after the minors were condensed by 40 teams this year.
"Actually the opposite was true," Dunn said. "All-time shortage of players since 1963. It's the hardest it's ever been to get players. What they don't tell you in all those stories is Major League Baseball did not renew any of the work visas, so there's a shortage of all those [foreign] guys, plus no one graduated from college and then you add all the new leagues, the leagues that expanded. Some leagues are out of luck, so we've really scrambled to get players, especially in California."
Like many things, the future is brighter for the Pecos League. Dunn projects several of the rival leagues to fold or condense, plus college seniors will finally be out of eligibility.
"It's been crazy hard to get guys, but the players we've gotten have been good and as you can see, people are loving their baseball coming back," Dunn said. "To have all these people come out and watch a game on a Sunday in Santa Fe, it says everything. We're back. We're not going anywhere."
NOTESThere were six home runs in Sunday's game, one of them from Fuego all-star Ryan Bernardy. Gay hit one off the top of the fence down the left field line but he was held to a single after admiring the shot for a split second in the batter's box. ... Roswell's Bret Leiferman hit a grand slam in what was a seven-run inning in the fifth for the South. ... The North led 1-0 after three innings, although the pace of the game wasn't great. Those three innings took more than an hour and 25 minutes to play. ... The Fuego (20-17) stumbled into the all-star break, losing four straight and getting swept at home by Tucson (24-10). Santa Fe is holding onto second place in the Mountain South Division, 51/2 games behind Tucson and just 11/2 games ahead of Alpine. ... The top two teams in all three divisions advance to the playoffs. The first-place team will host a best-of-three series against the team in second, then the Mountain North and Mountain South winners will face one another in a best-of-three that's followed by a championship series against the Pacific winner.