Bottom Of Indy Ball Keeps Churning

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A radio announcer resigns on the air because he hasn't been paid. A team owner who has served time in prison is removed from an ownership group so the team can move forward with its plans to be the centerpiece of a reality show. A league actually exists with teams in Maui, Calgary, suburban Chicago and Texas.

In other words, it's just another year in independent baseball.

On the whole, you'd have to say that independent baseball has been a good thing for players, fans and owners since it returned to the minor league landscape in 1993.

But along the way, a lot of people—not to mention cities that have invested millions in ballparks and other facilities—have taken it on the chin, victims of franchises, or sometimes entire leagues, that have been poorly planned, and in most cases poorly funded.

Independent baseball has grown tremendously in the past 18 years, and the best leagues stand on equal footing with just about any affiliated minor league. The Atlantic League, for example, just won out over the Mets in their effort to establish a new franchise in Nassau County on Long Island. Local officials based their decision in large part on the success of the league's Long Island Ducks, who annually draw more than 400,000 fans in neighboring Suffolk County.

But that's not what gets the attention. The attention goes to teams like the Lake County Fielders in the North American League, which does in fact stretch to every corner of the continent. (For more on the problems of that team and league, click here)

"You don't see anything about the Long Island Ducks or St. Paul Saints doing very well," one independent league president said,  "but when something like this happens it's, 'A-ha, this is independent baseball where they don't pay the players.' "

Colorful History

The rush to start fly-by-night operations started almost immediately after the return of indy ball, though the Frontier and Northern leagues saw only modest success in the beginning.

One of the first, and still most notable, was the Great Central League, established in 1994 by former Minneapolis strip-club owner Dick Jacobson. The league had teams in Champaign-Urbana, Ill.; Lafayette, Ind.; Mason City, Iowa; and Minneapolis.

In what became a model for future franchises, the Minneapolis Millers' general manager quit before the season even started, replaced by a man named John King, who resigned two weeks into the season, in part because the Millers' ballpark did not have bathrooms. Fans had to go across the parking lot to another building to find restrooms, but players often did not have that luxury, so they would seek refuge behind fences or light towers.

On road trips the team often had to leave players behind because there wasn't room for them on the team bus. Players once refused to show up for one game because of a dispute with team management—but no one notified the visiting team, the Mason City Bats, or the handicapped children who had been invited to the game. Finally, at season's end Minneapolis players showed up to get the final paychecks, only to find the owner missing and the team's offices locked and empty.

A modern bookend to the Millers would be the Newark Bears, who have teetered on the brink of collapse for the last several years. After losing their franchise in the Atlantic League, the Bears moved to the Can-Am League, where they continue to struggle.

Doug Spiel, a pain management doctor, and his fiancée, Danielle Dronet, the owner of a public relations firm, gained control of the team from Tom Cetnar, a former police officer who once served six months in prison for official misconduct, and his girlfriend Shelley Garrett. Spiel and Dronet hope to land a reality show as part of their effort to turn the team around, according to The Star-Ledger of Newark.

Meanwhile, the Bears are averaging 764 fans a game, according to the numbers they report to the Can-Am League. And the Essex County Improvement Authority, which issued the bonds to pay for Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium, remains on the hook for most of the $30 million of debt incurred by the project.

So while many of the problems haven't changed for the teams at the bottom of the independent baseball food chain, the stakes certainly are a lot higher.