Minor league baseball is broken into two types of leagues, affiliated and independent. For the most part, you will read, see and hear about affiliated baseball teams. These are the minor league teams that are associated with a major league club and are the “farm teams” for these organizations. When players are drafted, they get sent to the lowest levels of the affiliated minor leagues and they do all they can to work their way up the system with the chance to make it to the big leagues. Affiliated teams have no control over their players and roster. Players come and go as the major league organization wishes. Players get called up. Players get demoted. Players get sent on rehab assignments.
Independent leagues are different. These leagues are set up in regions, in the hope of capturing a market that has no local baseball teams, whether major or affiliated minor leagues. Independent teams get to sign their own players and are in charge of their rosters. Independent teams rely on their location in a market without competition and their fan base to keep them going when they have no “father organization” to look up to. Some independent leagues come and go. Independent teams start and fade away. However, when an independent league is strong they can be as loved in a city as any major league club is.
The Northern League (Independent) began in 1993. In 2010, the league consisted of eight teams which covered the Midwest, the northern central part of the United States and a team in Canada. The United League was formed in 2006. In 2010, the league consisted of six teams that were centralized in the Texas area of the United States. The Golden Baseball League was formed in 2004. In 2010, the league had ten teams in the Western United States (including Hawaii), Canada and a team named for a city in Mexico but played in Arizona. What do these three leagues have in common? None have an active season in 2011. After the 2010 season, these three leagues merged to form the North American League, a league with teams in Illinois, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, California, Hawaii and Canada (Edmonton and Calgary).
Coming from the Northern League were the Lake County Fielders, Rockford Riverhawks and the Schaumberg Flyers. The Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, Gary SouthShore RailCats, Kansas City T-Bones and Winnipeg Goldeyes all joined the American Association to give that league a 14-team league in the central part of the United States (and Winnipeg in Canada). The Joilet Jackhammers were sold and renamed the Joilet Slammers and will play in the Frontier League in 2011.
Coming from the United League were the Edinburg Roadrunners, Rio Grande Valley Whitewings and the San Angelo Colts. The Amarillo Dillas were evicted from their stadium and a team from the American Association will be playing in Amarillo in 2011. The Laredo Broncos, with nowhere to play in 2011 is a franchise on hiatus. The Coastal Bend Thunder at last report were locked out of their stadium and will not play anywhere in 2011.
The six teams in the North American League’s Western Division all came from the Golden baseball League. The Calgary Vipers, Chico Outlaws, Edmonton Capitals, Na Koa Ikaika Maui and the Yuma Scorpions were all part of the 2010 Golden Baseball League. The Henderson Roadrunners (yes, two teams in the league named “Roadrunners”) were previously the St. George Roadrunners. The Orange County Flyers have taken the 2011 year off and are inactive. The Tuscon Toros became inactive after the 2010 season and the Victoria Seals folded after 2010. The final team from the 2010 Golden Baseball League, Tijuana Cimarrones is considered inactive for 2011.
Based upon various websites and accounts, the league was formed as a necessity. Each of the three individual leagues was having franchise issues. Independent leagues cannot function with three or four teams, so the leagues started looking around for ways to add teams to their league. Under the direction of Kevin Outcalt, Golden Baseball League Commissioner, the North American league was founded.
To save travel expenses, each team will play 75% of its 96-game season against its own division and also have a 12 game road-trip in which it will play each time in the other division. By having a larger foundation and more organizations, the league expects to have stronger buying power and higher league wide sponsorship (the driving force behind all minor league baseball organizations). In addition, some organizations are league owned which should bring additional revenue to the league as a whole. The season begins on May 25, with ten of the twelve teams playing. On May 26, there is a full twelve team schedule. The season runs through September 5, with playoffs beginning on September 8.
According to the league website, http://northamericanleague.pointstreaksites.com/view/northamericanleague/north-american-league, the league has some interesting rules and ideas as it moves forward. The league will follow the National League rule of not having a Designated Hitter. The league will implement Rule 6.02 (d) (1) which requires batters to always have one foot within the batter’s box between pitches to decrease time of game and the league will have either two or three umpires per game.
Each team will have 23 players on the roster as a maximum and no roster changes may occur after August 15th unless a player’s contract was purchased by a Major League baseball organization. No player in the league may be 32 on January 1, 2011 unless he has previous experience in one of the three founding leagues, AA, AAA, Major League or International experience. There is no minimum or maximum salary, but there is a floor of $60,000 per team and a maximum of $90,000 per team can have before paying luxury tax penalties. Yes, a minor league has the luxury tax!
The league is already thinking expansion. The Omaha Flame is proposed for Omaha, Nebraska. The Flame is expected to join the league’s play in 2012 and will play its home games at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. This is the same stadium that is the host to the NCAA Division 1 College World Series. The Orange County Flyers are hoping to return in the near future as they are working with the City of Fullerton, California to negotiate for their own ballpark to be built in the City of Fullerton. When the stadium is ready, the Flyers will join the rest of its Golden baseball League franchises. The Tucson Toros are not playing in 2011 as the San Diego Padres moved their AAA team to Tuscon. The Toros are expected to return to play in 2012. Tijuana Embajadores are also proposed for the 2012 season. This will be the fourth attempt to have an independent team in Mexico.
From the outside, the league seems strong. Between the three leagues that formed the North American League, 35 player contracts were purchased by major league organizations in 2010. These three leagues had half of the Top Indy Prospect List from baseball America and also had six of the 14 players on the Baseball America All-Indy First Team.
The formation of this league leaves six independent baseball leagues left in the United States. The previously mentioned American Association has fourteen teams with current expansion plans for at least fifteen. The Atlantic League currently has seven home teams plus a “road” team so that there are eight teams in the league, with current expansion plans for ten teams. The Canadian-American (Can-Am) League currently has seven home teams plus a “road” team so that there are eight teams in the league. The Frontier League currently has twelve teams with expansion plans to fourteen teams. The all-new Pecos League, playing its first season in 2011 is beginning with six organizations.
Independent baseball is strong in North America. The formation of the new North American League is a formation of those that combined their strongest components to form an ever stronger alliance that reaches from Illinois to Hawaii. Who knows, in the next few years, more teams may join forces with this new league to create an even larger force in minor league baseball. We can only wait and see. With dozens of defunct independent baseball leagues in our memories, we can only watch and wait to see the fate of the North American League.
Author’s Note – Russ Blatt was the assistant general manager of the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League in 2008 and was the Director of Operations of the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League from 2006 until 2008.