Cooper: Fans Feel The Pain As Indy Ball Continues To Shrink
It wasn't that long ago when it didn't seem crazy to think that the biggest four independent leagues (American Association, Atlantic, Can-Am and Frontier) might one day field close to 60 teams.
When the 2020 season begins, the four leagues will be fortunate if they field 40 teams combined.
The Kansas City T-Bones, a long-running stalwart of the American Association, were battling being evicted from their stadium because of more than $700,000 in back rent and utility payments. The Can-Am League's Ottawa Champions have had their lease cancelled because of more than $400,000 in unpaid rent.
And the Frontier League crowned the River City Rascals as the league champions in a celebration that was also a fond farewell. The Rascals owners announced in August that they were shutting down at the end of the season.
Coming into the 2010s, indy ball seemed to be growing and growing. Coming into the 2020s, the picture is much less promising.
In the 1990s, indy ball flourished by coming into markets who were no longer viable affiliated markets, either because of territorial restrictions or because their ballparks were no longer sufficient to meet required standards.
Now the same thing has happened to indy ball. Year after year, indy ball owners are deciding that the finances of summer college leagues are more attractive. While there are fewer home games in a shorter season, the college players are unpaid and worker's comp costs are dramatically reduced. Over the past few years, an announcement of an indy ball team's departure is often soon followed by the announcement of a new summer wood bat team filling the stadium.
That's likely what will happen in O'Fallon, Mo., home of the Rascals, although nothing has been announced as of yet. Baseball will survive, just in a different form. For many, the change means very little. Many fans at any minor or summer wood bat league game are there for the experience. If the names on the backs of the jerseys change more frequently and if the caliber of play dips, they will never notice it.
But the River City Rascals booster club aren't those fans. They are proud that their city had professional baseball. They liked the fact that the same players often came back year after year. They invited those players into their homes. They kept in touch with them long after those players left town. And they respected players who were playing simply because they didn't want to let the game go—no Rascals player is getting rich. Wages are subsistence level at best.
The Rascals fans know that. So during the season the booster club does everything it can to help ease the burdens for the players. And along the way, from May to August, booster club members all hang out together at the ballpark.
"When somebody is out after the game, we are all out after the game," said Tim Perry, a long-time booster club member. "It really is a community. I think of it as a family. When my dad passed away last year, close to half the people there for me were from the ballpark."
After it was announced that the team was done after the 2019 season, the Rascals pulled off a Major League-style surge, rolling through the playoffs and beating the Florence Freedom, 7-5, in the deciding Game 5 of the Frontier League Championship Series.
The Rascals won the title despite having a roster whose payroll sat well below the league's salary cap. Manager Steve Brook didn't have money to pay his coaches—they volunteered for the gig because they love baseball and love the Rascals.
And in the playoffs, the booster club ended up paying for the $2,700 needed for player's hotel rooms and meal money for Game 5 of the championship series on the road after ownership said it wouldn't.
"I was able to raise it in 45 minutes," Brook said. "The booster club did an amazing job. These people are used to what we've been dealing with for a lot of years."
When the Rascals players needed new bats, the booster club bought them. When manager Steve Brook told the club that it would really help the players if the booster club paid their clubhouse dues, the club stepped up and handled the expense. In many ways, it's been the booster club that has helped the Rascals survive as long as they have.
Many of those same booster club members were waiting in the Rascals' parking lot at 5 a.m. the morning after the Rascals won the title in Florence, Ky. They waited for both a celebration and a wake.
"(The championship) was the definition of bittersweet. Well, if you are going to go out, go out on top," Perry said.
No one really wanted the pre-dawn celebration to end. It was a chance to celebrate a team that reached its goals. But once the celebration ended, the unknown began.
"All of what has been built, the trust and comradeship. We have become family. It's going to be tough," Rascals chaplain and booster club member Randy "Rev" Curless said. "We basically live together at the park."
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Even with the likelihood of a year without minor league baseball, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos have resolved to keep their staff intact.
The title capped another excellent season for Brook. He was a Rascals player for four years, then a coach for two more before becoming the team's manager in 2010. He's taken the team to seven playoff berths in 10 seasons. His teams won the title in both his first season as Rascals manager and now in their last.
And now he's left in limbo as well. Brook's resume is well worth a shot at a managerial job elsewhere. He's consistently won with River CIty and players consistently get better over the course of the season.
But the Rascals' O'Fallon, Mo., home is Brook's home too. He teaches high school there, as the schedules have little enough overlap that he can make it work. Spring training workouts begin when he can get out of school. The beginning of the school year coincided with the Frontier League playoffs, Brook would sometimes get back from road games in the middle of the night, grab a few hours of sleep and head off to teach first thing in the morning. On the morning after the deciding championship game, he joined in the celebration, then went to school to begin teaching.
While he and his family might be open to moving for the right job, the reality is that he had his right job—as the Rascals' manager.
"He not only brings good baseball players but good character guys. By him bringing in really good guys, our host families and our booster club trust these guys, we like having them in our home. It's just fun," Curless said. "Because of that, there is this bond between the booster club, our host families and our manager."
In some ways, winning on the road was the perfect finale for the Rascals. A group of 50 or so very dedicated fans made the trip to Florence to root on the team. And then another 150 or so hardcore fans were waiting at the park when they returned to join in the celebration. It was a family celebration among a group of players, coaches and fans who have been bonded together by continually being there for each other.
While the average player may value a sincere fan, that bond grows much tighter when those fans are inviting the players into their homes and also providing the necessities the players need to perform on the field.
It was special. And now it's gone.
"Honestly that's probably going to be the worst part of it," Perry said. "You can go anywhere and watch baseball. You can't go anywhere and find a family."