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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 system.

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 Texas.

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 moneymaker.

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 dont 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 time.

"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 leagues.

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