Barry Larkin and Pete Rose, two all-time Cincinnati Reds greats, appeared at Sports Gallery in 2016 for a public signing. Sports Gallery is owned by Mark Fugate, middle. The store is temporarily closed and all player signings postponed due to the coronavirus. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Living through coronavirus: No baseball means no Reds players, no revenue for memorabilia store owner

He feels like it’s Opening Day and the Cincinnati Reds are down 10-0 before they bat.

Mark Fugate, owner of Sports Gallery in Forest Park, has temporarily closed his store and he made that decision four days before Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered all “non-essential” businesses to close to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in the state.

“I didn’t feel it was safe,” said Fugate, 55, of Liberty Twp. when asked why he closed. “I was concerned for us at the store, our customers and the players. We just shut down. It was time. Just step back and take a break.”

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The timing of the coronavirus lockdown couldn’t be worse for small, family-owned businesses like Sports Gallery. They have no corporate financial backing. When business is good, they eat steak. Other times it’s hot dogs.

Sports Gallery is operated by Fugate, his wife, Sheli, and daughter, Calli. He wonders how many small businesses, unable to survive the coronavirus closings, may be forced to file for bankruptcy, may never reopen.

“Nobody wants to close,” he said. “It’s very tough. But baseballs and bobbleheads are not essential at this point in time.”

He estimates nearly 40 percent of this year’s revenue would have been generated in March, April, May and June. He said those four months would have outproduced sales during the Christmas season and RedsFest, a two-day convention in December at the Duke Energy Center where Sports Gallery rents a booth.

Also, he said, by being closed, he’s losing opportunities to buy memorabilia from the public.

“My dad always told me, ‘Sometimes you make more money buying than selling,’” Fugate said.

Fugate was scheduled to fly to Arizona earlier this month for a private signing with Reds first baseman Joey Votto, then have public, paid signings in his store with the Nasty Boys (Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton) the day after Opening Day, Pete Rose and Tony Perez on March 28, Nick Esasky on April 25 and Johnny Bench and Eugenio Suarez on April 27.

Fugate called the back-to-back days with five former Reds players his “Opening Day Spectacular” and part of the biggest autograph event schedule in the store’s 10-year history.

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“It was going to be quite a week and weekend,” said Fugate, who had tickets to Reds Opening Day.

All the events have been postponed with no make-up dates announced. He doesn’t expect any Reds players to appear in the store until at least June.

The Votto signing was scheduled March 15, and to prepare for the event, Fugate shipped numerous boxes of bats and balls to Votto’s hotel and packed five suitcases with lighter items. Then baseball was halted and so was the signing. All of the items have been shipped back to the store and Fugate hopes to have Votto in later this summer.

Rose tried to fly in from his Las Vegas residence for a private signing March 21 at Sports Gallery, but his flight was cancelled, Fugate said.

The Reds have played under .500 baseball for six consecutive seasons, but after the off-season acquisitions, Fugate predicted 2020 would be the year the team returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

“Just didn’t know 2020 was going to be the Coronavirus Year, not the baseball year,” he said. “It’s depressing.”

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If the Reds perform well on the field that equates to larger sales in the sports memorabilia business, Fugate said. Wins and player appearances “create a frenzy,” he said.

Now Fugate wonders how long it will be until Major League Baseball returns, and even when it does, will players and customers feel safe enough to be together in public.

He’s also worried about all the employees who live week-to-week, paycheck-to-paycheck. And what about all those bars, restaurants and hotels on the Banks next to Great American Ball Park that depend on the Reds?

“It’s a difficult time for everybody,” he said.

Sports Gallery can survive being closed for two months, he said.

“But God forbid three months,” he said. “I’m not sure where we would be. That makes me a little nervous.”

He remembers the first time he heard the word coronavirus and its impact on China. He figured the virus would remain in China. He never imagined this.

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