Saturday, February 26, 2011

How will we satisfy our “fix” for pro, if not quite Major League, baseball?

Will this suburban Wrigley replica really sit empty for a season? Will the sheriff be forced to evict a ballclub, leaving their gear out on the streets of Schaumburg? Will the Flyers fly again? For answers to these questions, tune in this spring. Same bat (and ball) time! Same bat (and ball) channel!

It is with bemusement that I have been watching the world of “Independent” baseball this off-season, and I must admit to great confusion about which ballclubs that exist on the fringes of the Chicago metro area are actually going to be in existence this summer.

For the biggest change among professional ballclubs that are not affiliated with the major leagues impacted the Northern League – the eight-team circuit that had ballclubs in Gary, Joliet, Schaumburg and up in Lake County (among others).

FOUR OF THE eight teams in that league announced a few months ago that they were leaving the league to join something called the American Association, which is a conglomeration of several regional independent leagues who think that by sticking together, they can create something substantial.

The Gary Southshore Railcats were among those four teams, which means their on-field fate will be determined in 2011 playing against teams such as the St. Paul Saints and the El Paso Diablos.

Yet the four teams that got left behind – they were given use of the name Northern League, but are so few in number that it would not be worth playing on their own – were the four ballclubs based in Illinois (mostly the Chicago area).

What gives? Do the big-wigs of independent baseball think the Chicago metro area is unworthy of their product?

THOSE TEAMS OFFICIALLY planned to merge with the remnants of the old Golden League in California and the United League to create their own “super-league” of independent ballclubs consisting of ballplayers whom no major league team was interested in having play for any of their own minor league affiliates.
One can literally walk from Joliet Union Station to the ballpark

Fans of the Joliet JackHammers have figured out that is not going to happen for them. The team officially went bankrupt, and a new group is putting together a ballclub (to be called the Slammers) to play in the team’s downtown Joliet stadium to play in the Frontier League – where they will get to be the fierce arch-rivals of the Crestwood-based Windy City Thunderbolts.

The old JackHammers went out of business because of much back rent owed to the city, and many other vendors are looking for their money. Which is the same fate that is befalling the Schaumburg Flyers.

Earlier this week, the Flyers officially were evicted from Alexian Field, the Schaumburg-based stadium located within walking distance of the Metra commuter station where they played their games. They have until the end of next week to get out.

OR MAYBE WE really will be treated to the sight of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police being called in to physically remove the team’s equipment from the ballpark? Would Sheriff Tom Dart have qualms about carrying out that eviction?

Some people speculate that a buyer for the Flyers can be found in the near-enough future that these financial matters can be resolved in time for Opening Day (which for these independent leagues comes in May). Others say there is a chance Schaumburg officials might just prefer to leave their ballpark empty for a year and focus on 2012 and beyond.

To me, the Joliet and Schaumburg franchises (along with any replacement ballclubs that will come in the future) have significant advantages in terms of their potential markets. Schaumburg is in the heart of those northwest suburbs that some think are the only part of the Chicago area that matters, while Joliet is in the heart of the county that (in terms of percentage, nearly 40) had the largest population growth during the past decade and is in the city that is now Illinois’s fourth largest.

They also have stadiums that are elite facilities compared to the buildings that some allegedly professional ballclubs in smaller cities are forced to use.

ALEXIAN FIELD IN Schaumburg is the building whose field dimensions were meant to copy-cat Wrigley Field, while Silver Cross Stadium in Joliet (both are named for area hospitals) is right in the heart of the downtown area – just a block from the county courthouse and Union Station and only a few blocks from the casino/luxury hotel that provides the area with a nightlife.

When those ballclubs were new and professional baseball being played nearby was still a novelty, those teams drew well (by minor league standards) and had potential for being cash cows.

Yet when the economy takes a plunge and people everywhere are cutting back on entertainment expenses (including the number of trips they will take to see a game), these teams still have more significant operating expenses because they’re not playing in places like Shreveport, La., or Wichita, Kan.

It’s also not like the teams themselves use their on-field play as the drawing card. My guess is that most people who would say they like independent baseball like catching a particular atmosphere, and couldn’t tell you how many times the local team won a Northern League championship.

FOR THE RECORD, Gary Southshore won in 2005 and 2007, while neither Joliet nor Schaumburg ever won a league title. It’s not like in smaller cities, where the ballclub is the sporting representative of the city. We may well be spoiled by the competent play of the Chicago White Sox, or the ineptitude of the Cubs that some find endearing (but I find embarrasing to the civic reputation).

Which is why I’ll be watching the situation in Schaumburg to see where, if anywhere, they wind up. And in Joliet, it will be interesting to see if the locals notice anything different about moving to a new league – one that actually has an age limit of 28 in order to preserve the image that the ballplayers are up-and-coming young talent.

Rather than aging geezers hoping desperately to use a few at-bats to stage their “comeback” to Major League Baseball – most likely with the Chicago Cubs. No wonder the North Siders are hopeless.


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