Independent Leagues Ready For Season After Wildest Winter

For many baseball fans, independent league baseball and the Northern League were always synonymous.

The league that housed the St. Paul Saints and Winnipeg Goldeyes established the idea that a league could survive and even thrive outside of affiliation with major league organizations.

So when the Saints and three other Northern League teams broke off to form the American Association in 2006, it signaled the most significant offseason in independent baseball since the Northern League and Frontier League kicked off the indy ball flood in 1993.

The 2006 offseason has now been trumped. As notable as the American Association/Northern League split was, it pales in comparison to the machinations that turned this offseason into a series of mergers, bankruptcies and last-minute scrambling.

Where seven leagues played in 2010, only five are scheduled to begin the 2011 season. There will be at least eight fewer teams as well, which means 250 fewer jobs for independent league players.

“In 18 years in this league, I’ve never had a winter like this,” Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee said. “The whole industry has gone topsy-turvy. It was a consolidation. But it wasn’t a smooth consolidation. It got kind of ugly there.”

Three leagues merged into one. League schedules that are usually released a month or two after the previous season were being revised in March. Of all the moves, nothing is more significant than the fact that when the 2011 season begins, the Northern League will be no more.

Six Years In The Making

Ever since the American Association and Northern League went their separate ways after the 2005 season, a rapproachment seemed inevitable. The two leagues split over personality conflicts and differing visions for the league, but from a financial standpoint they made more sense together than apart. Both were Midwest-based leagues that emphasized a mix of young talent and higher-priced veterans.

When St. Paul, Sioux City, Sioux Falls and Lincoln split off in 2005 to join several teams from the old Central League, it left Winnipeg and Fargo-Moorhead without some of their biggest rivals. But more significantly for the Northern League, the departure of Lincoln left Kansas City without a natural travel partner.

Most leagues prefer to have a pair of teams relatively close together because visiting teams can drive to one city, then pick up and move easily to play another nearby opponent. It saves on travel costs, making owners happy, and travel time, making players happy.

Without Lincoln, Kansas City was suddenly 600 miles (or more than 10 hours by bus) from its nearest division rival. Two years later, the Edmonton Cracker-Cats and Calgary Vipers left to join the Golden League, in part because of travel concerns.

The split wasn’t ideal for the new American Association either. To make the new league work, the four Northern League teams joined with five of the eight teams remaining from the dissolved Central League and a new franchise in St. Joseph, Mo. That allowed the American Association to begin play with a 10-team league, but it also meant that the league was spread from Pensacola, Fla., to St. Paul, Minn.

With two leagues sharing the same approach in the same region, they also logically became competitors for the same markets.

Never was that more apparent than when the Texas League’s Wichita Wranglers announced that they would be moving to Springfield, Ark., for the 2008 season.

Both the Northern League and American Association made pitches to the city of Wichita, explaining why their league would be the best fit for Lawrence Dumont stadium. For the American Association, Wichita would serve with Lincoln as a bridge between the league’s Northern Division and the old Central League teams based chiefly in Texas.

But for the Northern League, landing Wichita was vital. It would have solved the league’s scheduling problems with Kansas City, as well as keep it at eight teams after the departure of Edmonton and Calgary to the Golden League.

Wichita opted to go with the American Association. And in doing so, the seeds of the eventual demise of the Northern League were planted. The league’s failure to land the franchise left the league with few appealing options for expansion. It remained at six teams for the 2008 and ’09 seasons before getting back to eight for 2010 with the addition of the Frontier League’s Rockford RiverHawks (induced with help of a cash payment to join the league) and the expansion Lake County Fielders.

But adding two more Chicagoland clubs did not help the league’s geography. So during the 2010 season, American Association commissioner Miles Wolff and a pair of Northern League owners working with the league’s knowledge and approval—Winnipeg’s Sam Katz and Gary’s Pat Salvi—started to talk about interleague play, all-star games or other collaborative ventures.

As the talks continued, the two sides realized that enough of the animosity that led to the split had subsided to begin to think about bringing the two leagues together. Some details had to be worked out—like reconciling the differences between the Northern League’s $130,000 salary cap and the American Association’s $100,000 cap (they decided to meet in the middle at $115,000)—but once the talks got going, the possibility of a 20-team super-league quickly picked up steam.

It was not to be. In the final days leading up to a merger of sorts (the league’s name had not been yet determined, according to Wolff), it fell apart. Various independent baseball sources offered differing opinions about exactly how and why. But whatever the impetus, Fargo-Moorhead, Gary, Kansas City and Winnipeg joined the American Association, while the remaining four teams stayed with the Northern League.

The American Association also picked up the lease for the stadium in Amarillo, Texas, where the United League’s Amarillo Dillas had been evicted for failure to pay their rent. Even with the departure of Pensacola, which will get a franchise in the affiliated Southern League in 2012, the 10-team American Association had suddenly become a 14-team powerhouse.

The four remaining Northern League teams also had an option to join the Frontier League, under the league’s more restrictive player eligibility rules. They passed on that as well, opting instead to join with teams from the Golden League and United League to form the new North American League.

A New Approach

At the start, the North American League looked like it could be nearly as large as the American Association in terms of teams, though in terms of attendance it would pale in comparison. Of the 14 teams in the AA, 12 averaged 2,900 or more fans a game in 2010. The top two draws in the new North American League drew 2,700 fans.

More than anything, the North American League was an idea born out of necessity.

Independent leagues like to have at least six teams and preferably eight, partly because fans want to see a variety of opponents, and because a four-team league is a sign of weakness in a business where recruiting new cities is competitive. No independent league with four teams has ever survived for more than a year or two.

After the postseason shakeouts, however, three independent leagues had fewer than six potential teams: the aforementioned Northern League, as well as the Golden and United leagues.

The 10-team Golden League struggled through the 2010 season with three clubs—Tijuana, Yuma and St. George—being taken over by the league during the season. After the season, Victoria announced it would not return for 2011 either, and the league lost Tucson when the Padres moved their Triple-A affiliate to town.

Over in Texas, the six-team United League lost its lease in Amarillo to the American Association. The league had already operated a travel team in 2010, so it found itself with four legitimate franchises.

While the geography of a league that spans from Maui to Edmonton to Chicago to Texas is not ideal, merger seemed the best solution to all three leagues’ problems. Establishing divisions would ensure that most games could be played against nearby teams, with only one costly road trip to far-flung locales.

At least that was the plan. The wild offseason quickly threw those plans into disarray.

Of the four Northern League clubs left at the end of last season, only one reached the starting line this year. The Joliet Jammers lost their lease, and the city brought in a Frontier League franchise, the Joliet Slammers. Bankruptcy proceedings in Schaumburg led to that city signing a lease with an ownership group that will join the American Association in 2012. And the Rockford Riverhawks were sold to a new ownership group that will return them to the Frontier League, replacing the Kalamazoo Kings.

That leaves the North American League with significant travel issues. Lake County, in Zion, Ill., is left without any franchise within driving distance. It’s in a division with Edmonton, Calgary, Chico, Calif., and Maui.

The league is hoping the larger geographic footprint will open up sponsorship opportunities, something the Golden League had some success with. But the extreme travel distances have forced the league to release a schedule with a lot of long homestands and long road trips, extending more than 20 games.

The North American League has already announced four expansion sites for 2012, and commissioner Kevin Outcalt said he has hopes for as many as four more to be announced this year, but to get there, the league will have to endure a difficult 2011.

The Aftermath

This has been an offseason that few independent league owners or commissioners will want to repeat. But as rocky as it has been, the argument can be made that indy ball is stronger for having endured it.

The American Association and Frontier League ended up as the big winners of the shakeup. In essence, the American Association has re-formed the old Northern League (9 of the 12 cities from the 2005 Northern League are scheduled to play in the league in 2012), without the debt problems that some of the Northern League’s Chicago teams were facing. The league had been willing to add all eight Northern League clubs, but when that deal fell through, it grabbed four of the league’s strongest clubs, then gained a fifth strong market when the Schaumburg Flyers went bankrupt.

“We’ve come out with four, eventually five, really good markets with really good ownerships,” Wolff said.

The Frontier League also finds itself in arguably the best shape of its 19-year tenure. By bringing in Joliet and bringing back Rockford, the league replaced its two weakest franchises with clubs that play in good markets with new stadiums. With 12 teams and compact geography, the league appears well positioned for the future.

“You can relate it to a tree. Sometimes you have to cut back the limbs to make it grow more. We’re in a pruning stage,” Lee said.

As the 2011 season begins, time will tell whether all of the pruning is complete.