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Down the Right Field Line

Independent Baseball: a World Away from the Major Leagues

Think Independent Professional Baseball. What do those words mean to you? Well for my hometown and 53 other cities in the United States and Canada it means watching baseball a world away from the Major Leagues.

The first modern independent professional baseball league was the Northern League; which was founded in 1993. The original Northern League teams were the Sioux Falls Canaries (Now the Fighting Pheasants.), the St. Paul Saints, the Duluth Superior Dukes (Who famously had a woman pitch for them.), the Rochester MN Aces, the Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks, and my hometown team the Sioux City Explorers. The Northern League was founded on the idea of bringing professional baseball to cities that wanted minor league teams, but could not attract major league farm teams to their city. The first commissioner was Miles Wolf, who is now the commissioner of the American Association of Independent Baseball.

At first many people doubted whether the league would succeed. Many people highly doubted whether people would attend games to see players not associated with a major league franchise. Most doubters called for the early demise of the St. Paul Saints because they would be competing directly with the Minnesota Twins for fans. (In fact the Saints have been one of the most successful independent teams ever. Some sports writers even called the league a "beer league". But in reality it was a tremendous success. Only one franchise had lagging attendance. The Rochester Aces were sold to an owner who moved the franchise to Winnipeg; and created the very successful Winnipeg Goldeyes.

In 1998 the league expanded to 8 teams. In 1999 it merged with the Northeast League; which was created in 1995 on the heels of the Northern League?s success. This meant that in just 6 years the league had gone from just 6 teams to an incredible 16 teams! When the merger contract ended in 2002 the Northeast league teams broke off and formed the Can-Am League. In 2004 expansion teams in Calgary and Edmonton were added. In 2005, the four original Northern League franchises left: Sioux Falls, Sioux City, St. Paul, and Lincoln Saltdogs (Formerly Duluth-Superior Dukes.) broke off to form the American Association of Independent baseball with an expansion franchise in St. Joe Missouri, and four Central League teams. In 2008 St. Joe moved to Wichita, Kansas and an expansion franchise was added in Grand Prairie, Texas. This is the reality of minor league baseball; especially independent baseball. Teams and leagues constantly change location and shape.

Another one of the great things about minor league baseball is how accessible the players are. For instance the players often practice among the fans. At my home park of Lewis and Clark Park, the batting cage is actually located in the General Admission Section. Players will often come out and hit during games. Players will also often play catch in my favorite snagging spot. This opens up many new snagging possibilities that you wouldn?t find in bigger stadiums.

One of the things I love most about minor league baseball is how accessible the players are. Every now and then you will have easy access to a former major leaguer. Darryl Strawberry famously played for the St. Paul Saints in 1996. Last year I got a bat from former Detroit second baseman Kevin Hooper who now manages the Wichita Wingnuts. Last year I got an autograph from Butch Henry; who played for 5 teams throughout his 7 year career. This season already I have gotten autographs from former Phillie and Mariner T.J. Bohn, Reggie Abercrombie who played for the Marlins from 2006-2008, and Joe Bisenius. (Bisenius, who grew up 3 houses down from me, was briefly part of the 2008 Phillies World Series team; and he even got a partial share from their World Series win.) And every now and then a future major leaguer will come along. Kevin Millar, J.D. Drew, George Sherrill, now former Padre Eliezer Elfonzo, Chris Coste, Scott Richmond, Brad Zeigler, Royals pitcher Luke Hochover, and Pirates pitcher Chris Jakubauskas, Jared Weaver, Bobby Hill, and Steven Drew all played independent baseball before making the Major Leagues.

But for the fans of independent baseball teams it isn?t about which teams have the most former major league players, it isn?t about having the fanciest stadium, it isn?t about having the most money, and really it isn?t even about talking the game too seriously. It is about having a local team to go root for. It is just about being able to call a team your own while giving the players one last shot at the big leagues. That is what I love about independent baseball. It isn?t about the money! It can?t be!

The thing I love about independent baseball is that every player out there just loves baseball. In a way, it is baseball at its best. It is baseball in its purest form: players playing just because they love baseball and they can?t let that Major league dream die just yet. There are no Milton Bradley like players. There are players that you may not always like, but at the end of the day you can always respect because each and every guy is there just because he loves baseball.

For me ballhawking at independent games isn?t just a hobby; it is a way of life. I used to look down on independent players. I was always jealous that I don?t live near an AAA or MLB team. But in the last year, I have gained more respect than ever for these guys. I don?t know what will happen to me after high school. I don?t know if I will live near a Major League, AAA, or AA team; I just know this. Independent baseball will always have a special place in my heart.

Phil Joens is a contributing columnist to myGameBalls.com and also maintains a Blog.

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