North American League Clears Most Hurdles

With four months until the season begins, the North American League had cleared most of the hurdles involved in combining three leagues into one.

The league formed somewhat out of necessity in recent months. With the Golden League, Northern League and United League all losing teams from last year's rolls, forming a conglomeration of the 11 remaining teams from the three leagues—with one travel team to give the league an even number—made more sense than trying to limp along with four or fewer teams, as would have been the case for the Northern and United leagues.

Former Golden League CEO Kevin Outcalt will serve as the leader of the new league. Harry Stavrenos, the director of baseball operations for the Northern League last year, will become the executive director of baseball operations for the NAL.

With leadership in place, the new league has also established its rules. Like the Golden League last year, the North American League will not have a DH. Each team will have a $90,000 salary cap, though teams can exceed it if they pay a tax that will be distributed to teams under the salary cap. The league will also have a $70,000 salary floor. And any player 31 or older must have either Double-A experience or above (or the equivalent foreign experience) or have played in the league the year before.

"We're looking more for players who are trying to advance their careers," Outcalt said.

The league has also set up a new and interesting all-star game format that will pit the best young players from around the league in a one-game prospect showcase that is intended to help scouts from Organized Baseball see and sign the league's players.

As for playoffs, the league's top six teams will face each other in a double-elimination tournament at a neutral site.

To try to adjust to the league's huge geographic footprint, the NAL will have four national account executives.

"At the league level, we're getting lots of traction with national budgets because the league has the ability to play in multiple markets," Outcalt said. "And collective purchasing is helping to bring costs down."

All of that was the easy part. Getting the teams to the starting line may be more difficult.

The Schaumburg Flyers, one of the three Chicagoland teams, is nearly $1 million in debt and if facing eviction from its stadium. A possible sale allowed the team to delay proceedings until Feb. 24, but if the sale does not go through by then, the team could lose it lease. A similar situation already led to the loss of the Joliet Jammers, as the newly renamed Joliet Slammers will be part of the Frontier League.

Despite those hurdles the new league has managed to pull off the seemingly impossible. With a league that spans four time zones, organizers have figured out a way to keep travel costs down. When the league was first announced, the first big question was how a league with teams in Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, Illinois and Texas could manage to be affordable. You can't exactly charter a bus from Schaumburg to Maui.

The league will try to do it by making cost its primary scheduling focus. Several teams will be very familiar with each other. Under the current schedule, Edinburg and Rio Grande Valley will face each other for 20 consecutive games. After taking off a couple of weeks to play elsewhere, the two teams will return to play 12 straight games to finish the season. In all, 44 of their 96 games will be against each other.

They aren't the only teams with schedules slanted to playing one other team. To cut down on Maui's hefty travel costs, the Na Koa Ikaika Maui club will face the league's travel team 38 times. The Lake County Fielders and Flyers are set to play each other 36 times.

The unbalanced schedule will make qualifying for the playoffs a rather uneven affair, as quality of competition will vary greatly around the league.

As an employee with one of the league's teams explained, the new schedules may come with some other difficulties. When teams play each other repeatedly, old slights get remembered over and over leading to an increased possibility of brawls.

"By the end of these schedules, you may need penalty boxes," the front-office employee said.