Bad Time For Indy Ball

The current recession has cost millions of Americans their jobs and has cost the U.S. Treasury billions of dollars in deficit spending. And as you would expect, it’s causing headaches for independent leagues as well.

All sports have been affected by the economic downturn, but the effects may be felt especially hard in some of the independent leagues, where the margin between success and dissolution is smaller.

“I’ve been around this industry for 30 years and I’ve not run across people worrying this much,” Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee said.

This still isn’t the bad old days of the minor leagues when teams could be bought for the cost of assuming their debts and many teams played in front of selected friends and family. But plenty of teams this season will be playing in front of outfield walls that are no longer completely covered in advertising. Many teams are finding that the corporations that could be counted on for group sales and sponsorships in the past are tapped out this year.

It’s serious enough that some independent league officials expect that not all of the current leagues will still be around when 2010 arrives.

“I think this in many ways could be the toughest year for independent baseball,” Can-Am League and American Association commissioner Miles Wolff said. “In the early years there was all this excitement that this is something new. There was St. Paul and Long Island, where baseball was back. Now all those cities have matured. Now it’s a mode where we have to continue. There are not a lot of new things happening to make people say, ‘Wow.’ “

The crazy promotions that seemed fresh and new in the 1990s are now a regular part of the minor league experience. And where in the ’90s there always seemed to be a new market to move to if a team should start to falter, the building boom is largely over these days.

A new stadium in planned for Pensacola (American Association), and the Northern League hopes to have an expansion team in Zion, Ill., next year. But it is much more difficult to get funding for new stadium.

“The new ballpark phenomenon in independent and affiliated baseball is just about over,” Wolff said.

Baseball has already seen some fallout from the economy when the Can-Am League dropped from eight teams to six in March when the owners of the Atlantic City Surf announced that they were forced to shut down because they were unable to find a buyer for the team. The league had already been attempting to subsidize a team in Ottawa that it had taken over when its ownership group pulled out after the 2008 season. But faced with the financially impossible task of subsidizing two teams, the league instead cut back to six teams.

In the case of the Can-Am League, Wolff found that the prospective owners for an independent league team disappeared about the time the stock market tanked. Northern League commissioner Clark Griffith saw the same thing as he worked this offseason to add expansion teams.

“I was working hard (on expansion) last fall. Discussions more or less ended when the market tanked,” Griffith said

But Griffith says that recently he’s started to see increased interest from potential owners. The Northern League has been looking for expansion franchises ever since it dropped to six teams in 2008. While this will be a second straight year as a six-team league, Griffith says the league’s plan is to have 10 teams in 2011. It has announced the expansion franchise in Zion for 2010, but still is searching for a partner expansion team for next year.

But for now, every league is focusing on trying to ensure that all the franchises are equipped to survive a difficult economic year.

“Everyone is looking to get through this season,” Wolff said.

Flu News Is Bad News

The Golden Baseball League is one of the few leagues expanding for 2009 as new clubs in Victoria, B.C., Tucson and Tijuana, Mexico, bring the league up to 10 teams. But the outbreak of the swine flu in Mexico may put a crimp in the league’s plans for Tijuana.

The outbreak began nearly a month before Opening Day in Tijuana on May 23, but as that date neared, the league was working on potential backup plans in case a ban on public gatherings carries over into the season.

“We’re going through the potential impact and some of the potential options we may have to embark upon,” Golden Baseball League commissioner Kevin Outcalt said. “Hopefully everything will be fine by then.”

Hurry-Up Mode

While the economy is making things difficult for everyone, every independent league that played in 2008 will be back for 2009, though in the case of the United League that wasn’t always a sure thing.

The league declared bankruptcy in December, and at that time it appeared that several of the league’s teams would be absorbed into the Continental Baseball League. But in March, Byron Pierce and John Bryant, the original founders of the league, who had left the league after the first year, bought the league’s assets in court with plans to bring the league back for the 2009 season.

So the United League is back with five of the six teams from last year—Alexandria left to join the Continental League—and the expansion Coastal Bend Thunder in Robstown, Texas. With such a late start to putting together a schedule, selling tickets and putting together rosters, the league will not begin its 2009 season until June 11. And the 96-game schedule has been cut back to 80 games, with a resulting cut in the salary cap.

A late start is making putting together rosters more difficult, as every other independent league is getting off to an earlier start. Some players have decided to head elsewhere because they’ll get into action quicker. But at the same time, there may be an unexpected benefit. Since the United League season will not begin until after the Major League Baseball draft, and after most college baseball teams’ seasons have ended, the league will be well equipped to add undrafted college players.

Back In The U.S.

The last time Hideki Irabu came to the U.S., it created an uproar. This time he’s much more subtly returning to the States. Irabu has signed with the Golden Baseball League’s Long Beach Armada in hopes of showing he can still pitch as a 39-year-old.

The righthander showed a 91-92 mph fastball and a solid breaking ball in live action against a pickup team that included several current Golden Leaguers. The Armada quickly saw enough to decide to give Irabu another chance. He last pitched competitively in 2004 when he seemingly finished his career as a pitcher with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League. He made just three starts, going 0-2, 13.11 with seven strikeouts and four walks in 11 1â"3 innings.