Wooden's World of Baseball

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Winter Independent Baseball?

Times are good for independent baseball — so good that it appears that the indys will not be holding winter meetings for the 2nd year in a row. So good that not one but two new independent leagues are slated to start play in 2007 (The South Coast League and the Continental Baseball League), a year after two new leagues were born (the American Association and the United League). So good that the Atlantic League has willingly let a franchise defect to its pseudorival, the Can-Am League, for the 2nd straight season (the latter of which will be going to 10 teams after struggling to keep 8 teams!) because it's looking ahead to expansion both in 2007 (York) and 2008 (Maryland).

And now, there are plans for three fall/winter leagues: The Fall Baseball League (nee The Baja League), the ULB Winter League, and the Arizona Winter League.

Now I'm not so starry-eyed that I think all of these will succeed. In fact, I'd place a Duke-Brothers bet (that's a hefty $1 for those of you who don't remember Trading Places ;-) that the Baja league is as quixotic as its website is amateurish and will not happen this year, if ever. Similarly, the Continental Baseball League (apparently, creating new league names is not a popular option) looks likes it's only slightly more organized than the Colonial League of Professional Baseball. I'm not even counting the New York State League, which is nothing more than a press release, let alone a DIY website.

But the Arizona Winter League looks like a very real possibility, if for no other reason than the "parent" league is so well-funded, not to mention the draw of playing in the same state as where the affiliates have spring training. It and the ULB's effort look like what they are: a place for collegiate players who didn't play professional ball last year to get back into the game and see if they have what it takes, and perhaps, some foreign-born players (I'm not buying the line that "independent professional players under contract [will be] using this as a development/instructional opportunity to get ready for the 2007 summer season.")

All of this bears witness to two essential and underreported premises:

1) Andrew Zimbalist's contention that MLB can fully support 32 teams
Since the number of affiliates has been frozen at 160 and a list of stringent stadium standards adopted (ostensibly to prevent players from playing at places like McKenzie Field, but in reality to force cities to compete with each other to build new facilities), the independents have an easier time expanding and/or moving in where the affiliates have left.

2) Baseball has entered a new golden era
The necessary corollary is that if there is this much demand for baseball, or at least, affordable summer entertainment, then the indys would not be expanding and setting attendance records.
Blather all you want about the 1950s and before, but the reality is this: These operations are operating under much more competition than in past eras and they are doing it without the use of free labor, as the affiliates then and now do.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The 2007 CanAm League Schedule

It's that time of year when you look over the next season's schedule and start to plot out your next summer of baseball. For the affiliated teams, this isn't that exciting; generally speaking, the teams are the same from year to year. My new "hometown team," for example had the 2007 schedule released less than two weeks after the 2006 season ended.

For the indys, it's much more interesting adventure, as teams come and go and travelling squads are shuffled in and out, often at the last minute. The CanAm League, nee the Northeast League, a.k.a. the Northern League East from 1999 to 2002, released its 2007 slate last week.

And there's an interesting twist this time around.

Since I began following the CanAm in 2003, the eight teams would play two series against each other, once per half. Some teams would play each other 14 times, others 13, and some 12, but it was roughly an "even" schedule, not counting the luck of the draw when the Aces (2004) took over Allentown's schedule and the Grays (2005) took over Bangor's slate.

The Grays have been revived, and in an obvious effort to reduce travel costs, the schedule has been drawn up and it's decidedly unbalanced. For example, my old hometown team, the North Shore Spirit, are now playing intrastate rivals Worcester and Brockton 14 and 13 games respectively but the hated Quebec Capitales just six times. In fact, the Spirit travel just once to Quebec, Sussex and Atlantic City.

It doesn't take too much imagination to see how this could very well benefit certain teams from a competition standpoint. New Jersey and Atlantic City play the Grays the most (each 14 times) while Worcester (6) and Sussex play them the least (9). Nashua and New Haven each play the Grays 10 times, but they get the bulk of their games (six for the Cutters, seven for the Pride) in August and September, when travelling teams should theoretically be worn down after three-plus months on the road.

To play devil's advocate, perhaps a schedule optimized for the least amount of travel will make the 2007 Grays competitive throughout the whole season. The 2005 edition played .500 ball in the first half only to fade away in the 2nd half while the 2004 Aces were more competitive in the 2nd half than in the first (relatively speaking of course). The longer lead time should also make for a team that is built, assuming the league assigns/hires a player procurement guy to build a team or the Grays are given the best picks at the tryout camp.

And all of this presumes that the Surf will be able to make the transition from the Atlantic League; what if they are unable to have any of their 2006 players come back? The prevailing wisdom is that that will be the case (especially when there's a team to replace them in the Atlantic League), whereas the Pride were able to convince a few to stay and "play down" rather than retire or join the Pennsylvania Road Warriors. What if the 2007 Surf are anything like the 2006 Skyhawks?

These are the thoughts that help shorten the winter, if only just a little bit.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The New Stadium Shuffle

Today, my wife sent off $704 to the Potomac Nationals for a full-season ticket package for 2007, less than eight months after I purchased a half-season (weekend) package for my birthday. Why did I decide to upgrade? Let's count the ways:

3.) I attended 50 games in Woodbridge this year. In the ticket-selling business, the biggest obstacle that you have to overcome is people feeling like they have to go to every game, to justify the expense. I went for the weekend package, due in large part to the perception that going to midweek games would be too hard. What I quickly discovered was that it takes just about as much time to get to the park as it does to get home. After the game, it takes about 20-25 minutes to get home. So the real difference was that 20-25 minutes. The ticket folks also threw in several free midweek passes that more than encouraged me to go during the week and check it out.

2.) The array of freebies and incentives. I work in Marketing and have done it for the past 10 years. I know the value of "free" and the feeling of getting something for nothing, even if I know better (e.g. The trick is to get me there and show up and spend money on concessions). But just a small list:
  • FREE VIP Parking (this past year they charged me $3 a night)
  • Free Fan-pack (Polo shirt, ball cap, baseball)
  • 20% discount at the team store
  • Guaranteed giveaway item
  • Invite to VIP picnic and special BP session
Oh and one small item, cleverly disguised as the 2nd bullet in the mailing I got, which leads to the #1 reason I upgraded:

1.) Priority Seating for new stadium when completed.
G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium was built in 1984, which was was in those pre-Camdenian days when a minor-league stadium could be about as good as your average high-school field (at least in WMass; I'm sure there are schoolboy fields in Texas and California that are better than what the Univ. of Mass, a Div. I team plays in at Amherst).

Today, there aren't many ballparks left that are older than the players that play in them. Independent baseball, in fact, owes a great deal to that 1990 decision to enact ballpark standards because a lot of them in the early going were the fields where the ownership groups decided not to meet those standards. I think the Pftiz must have been grandfathered because it was so "new" or that the Carolina League has waived that requirement because Potomac's ownership (or in those days, Prince William County) had been in the league for more than a decade, which when you review its historical list of teams, is a near-eternity.

That said, you can see that most of the reviews see it the way I do: good atmosphere, good concessions, crappy facilities. Here's just a quick sample:

Uncle Bob's Ballparks

Ballpark Reviews

Charlie's Ballparks

My seat, by the way, is roughly askew towards the RH batter's box, just as it was when I saw games with my friend Phil at Fraser Field. As you can no doubt guess, I don't want to lose that to some schmuck who decides to buy seats as a tax writeoff, which is why you see so many of those seats empty during midweek games.

So I spent nearly twice as much for the right to keep that when the facility improves, and to spend even more when they raise ticket prices 20-30 percent. Damn marketers.