Indy movement harkens back to crazy early days
by Will Lingo
October 14, 2005
Is it any
wonder that so many minor league executives find independent baseball more fun
than the affiliated minor leagues?
Over the last couple of months, we've watched and waited--and waited and
waited--as Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball try to figure out if
they're going to make changes to their player-development and scouting
The rumored changes cover a range of issues, from the date of the draft to
whether the Rookie-level Arizona and Gulf Coast leagues will exist next year. And
they've gone from "done deal" to "dead in the water" at least a couple of times
in recent weeks, with no formal action at all. And as noted on Page 5, the next
step appears to be a vote of owners in November.
And so the wait goes on.
Meanwhile in independent baseball, a couple of weeks ago everything was
quietly moving ahead toward next season. Then the new United League suddenly
started grabbing franchises away from the established Central League in
That story was interesting enough, as our own indy newshound J.J. Cooper
feverishly tried to track down which teams were going where.
And then the real indy story broke. Three longtime members of the Northern
League, including the flagship St. Paul Saints franchise, announced they were
leaving, for destinations unknown. The breakaway republics have already been
joined by a fourth team, so who knows what's next for the rest of the Northern
League or those four franchises.
Now that's what I call action.
Back To The Good Ol' Days
This recalls the heady early days of the new era of indy ball, which as it
happens coincide with my early days at Baseball America. The Northern League and
Frontier League debuted in 1993, with the Northern finding quick success and the
Frontier barely surviving.
That brought on the Texas-Louisiana League (the forerunner of the Central
League) in 1994, as well as the widely forgotten Great Central and North Central
leagues. The success of the Northern League prompted many entrepreneurial
types--including one man who reportedly made his fortune from strip clubs--to
decide opening a baseball league was a fun idea that could also be a big
So in 1995, a full 11 independent leagues took the field, at least briefly.
The Atlantic Coast and North Central leagues staged a furious battle for the
first league to go under, with the Atlantic League getting through 17 games and
the North Central making it to 20.
While those were not great days if you were a city looking to get your lease
payments or an employee hoping your paycheck didn't bounce, they were fun for
those of us who got to watch from the bleachers.
Rarely a week went by when someone didn't call the BA offices with some
half-baked idea for indy league success. Even the leagues that didn't make it
through a whole season were a notch above those on the indy food chain that only
came up with league names but never played a game.
The best part of any league's gala announcement of its formation was its
impressive list of franchise sites. Upon further review, it usually came out that
most of these cities were simply places where the league would like to
have a team. Minor problems like no ballpark, no owner, or no fans usually got in
the way, though.
Older And Wiser
As with any industry, though, independent ball eventually stabilized, with
about six stable leagues and the occasional league or two coming or going. You
still had the occasional wacky promotion or team that spent the entire season on
the road, but rarely did you hear about players getting traded for catfish and
blues albums any longer.
But they say history goes in cycles, so maybe we're headed for another period
of upheaval. Even the people at the center of the current news take us back to
the beginning of the indy revolution. Miles Wolff, the former president of
Baseball America, is commissioner of the Central League now but was the man who
got the Northern League started up again and inspired the whole mess. Byron
Pierce, one of the men behind the United League, was also there at the beginning
of the Texas-Louisiana League.
But like most of the others, Pierce has been through this before, so he's not
as naive now.
"I donŐt know what it is, but this time around. I don't have the extreme
excitement about Opening Day I had in 1994," he said. "I know how much work is
ahead. Last time there was all that adrenaline flowing; now it's like we're
working our way back through the minor leagues. This time we know how much work
it will take, but I'm sure Opening Day will still have the same meaning as last
"You get 12 years older and a heck of a lot wiser. I know what's up now."
We probably can't expect the complete free-for-all that was indy ball in the
1990s, but we hope the past few weeks are a harbinger of what should be a
fascinating winter. We're tired of waiting to see what happens to the complex