Independent Leagues

Dreaming about an Independent League Baseball Tour

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“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game — and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams.” -Jacques Barzun

During a recent Royals television broadcast, they showed an assumed father and son who were holding up a sign showing their 12-city baseball tour that they are currently on.

It included stops in Denver, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Seattle.

As fun as this sounds, I think I’d rather take a tour of minor league and independent league cities, or maybe even local high school and college teams.

I’m not after the best product on the field. I’m after an experience. I want to hear what the locals chant as their slugger comes to the plate. I want to see how their mascots interact with fans. I want to hear stories about players from bygone eras. And I want to see the quirky offerings from various stadiums.

I’ve driven by a stadium in Sioux City, Iowa a couple of times. It belongs to an independent team in the American Association. Lewis & Clark Park holds just 3,800 fans and, according to this article, has a Catholic priest as a play-by-play guy. I don’t know if he’s still calling games for the Sioux City Explorers – a team that is affectionately referred to as the X’s, but I’d definitely bring a radio just in case.

As a kid, I used to follow the Omaha Royals. They played in the American Association, but back then it was affiliated ball, rather than an independent league. I pulled up AA’s website recently and saw that there are a number of independent teams in the league within driving distance of my home. I could make a dream trip out of just this league,

Here are the rest of the stop I’d make:

The Sioux Falls Canaries play just a bit farther up the road on I-29 in a stadium that holds 4,500 people.

The team’s PA announcer, Dan Christopherson, is known for being comedic. In fact, during one promotion (an open tryout that would have allowed nine people to play in an exhibition – but only five people showed up, so they all played), Christopherson gave at least one of them such an enthusiastic introduction that it embarrassed the player. I think I’d go to a Canaries game just to hear the PA guy.

The Lincoln Saltdogs play just sixty miles from where I live but I’ve never been to one of their games. They play in Haymarket Park (capacity: 4,500), where the University of Nebraska plays. I’ve been to a Nebraska game there and the place is electric because it’s usually packed. The team is playing well right now, boasting the best record in the league at 43-23.

I read a story recently about a former Saltdogs season ticket holder who has been diagnosed with Myositis and one of his last wishes was to attend one more Saltdogs game. The team partnered with a hospital to make it happen. And not only did they make it happen, but they also put him and his family and friends up in a special skybox suite.

Knowing this makes me want to take in a Saltdogs game.

The Wichita Wingnuts play in historic Lawrence–Dumont Stadium which was built in 1934 and was the previous home of the College World Series (for one year, in the 1949 season). As a journalist who has covered the CWS in Omaha multiple times, I’d love to see its former home, even though it has been renovated. And it looks like it’s due for another renovation. It currently has one of those quirky artificial turf infields and grass outfields. I sort of hope they keep it that way.

The Salina Stockade stand out because they have the worst record, by far, in the AA, going just 10-56 in 2017. But that wouldn’t keep me from visiting  Dean Evans Stadium. It has picnic tables located next to the dugouts. And a quaint little press box that resembles ones you see in high school football stadiums. The dugouts sit above ground, which is an odd sight, and there’s a ton of foul territory on both sides of the field. I couldn’t find the capacity online but the grandstand looks tiny. That would make for an intimate atmosphere.

Finally, I’d like to make a visit to CommunityAmerica Park, home of the Kansas City T-Bones. It holds a capacity of 6,250 fans. That seems a bit too big for independent baseball in my opinion. But this mom loved attending a game there so much that she wrote a top 10 post about her experience. They have a promotion which offers a random fan $100,000 of a T-Bones player hits a home run through a bull’s eye on a sign in left field. According to this article, it’s only happened once in 14 seasons.

Maybe I’ll find a way to make this little six-city tour happen one day. How about you? Do you have a dream baseball tour in mind?

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MiLB

Jack McKeon Reminisces About His Days as Manager of the Omaha Royals

Jack McKeon

In 2010, shortly before Rosenblatt Stadium was razed, I had a chance to attend a celebration for the 1970 Omaha Royals championship team. The team’s manager, Jack McKeon, came back for the event and I had a chance to interview him. Here’s the article I wrote at the time. The man has a baseball memory like none I’ve ever seen. 

You might think winning the 1970 Championship as the manager of the Omaha Royals would rank pretty far down the list of accomplishments on Jack McKeon’s resume considering he went on to manage the 2003 Florida Marlins to the World Series title, was twice named the NL manager of the year (1999 and 2003) and managed some 15 years at the big league level with stops in Kansas City (1973-75), Oakland (1977-78), San Diego (1988-90), Cincinnati (1997-2000) and Florida (2003-05).

But McKeon holds the 1970 title in high esteem.

“You’ve gotta look back at my career and say number one is the winning the World Series in 2003,” said McKeon, who was at Rosenblatt last night for a dinner honoring the 1970 Championship team. “Number two was in 1999 when I was manager of the year in Cincinnati and we won 96 games and didn’t make the playoffs. And I think after that, number three would be the 1970 team in Omaha.”

McKeon reminisced about that team with the media.

“In ‘70 we started off very slow,” McKeon said. “We had such good, resilient players and despite being out of first place by 10 or 12 games on July the 6th, we came back and won the thing. That’s why I always have fond memories of the ‘70 team. They were like biscuits. You know, when things got hot, they rose to the occasion.”

He didn’t need much prompting to continue talking about the team.

“The ’70 team was special. We never got to .500 until August 1 that year and I kept preaching to the players about the fact that, ‘Hey, get to .500 and we’ll roll.’ Well, you know, I was trying to be politically correct and trying to be optimistic and maybe deep in my heart I didn’t believe it, but I was trying to sell them guys and trying to motivate them. But we got to .500 on August 1st. From August the 1st on, I think we won like 26 out of the next 34 games and ended up winning the pennant by two or three or four games.”

McKeon’s memory is spot on. The Royals went 73-65 in 1970 and went on to win the East Division of the American Association by three games over the Iowa Oaks. Then they went on to defeat the Denver Bears four games to one to win the championship. The 1970 title was the second one for Omaha in just its second year of existence.

Was there one particular moment that turned the season?

“We struggled early in the year and I made a call to Kansas City and I said, ‘Look, we’ve got a bunch of old guys here that can’t play. Let’s get them out of here and bring some young kids in.’ That’s when we brought in the Lloyd Gladdens, the Jim Yorks, and a Charlie Days, and [Ted] Parks at third base. We brought some of those young players in and they kind of sparked us and, you know, we just started to roll.”

The 1970 season wasn’t the first time McKeon pleaded for younger players in Omaha. He recalled his battle to get young players up with the 1969 team, too.

“I remember Paul Splittorff as a young kid having a very good Spring Training,” McKeon said. “And the director of player development, Charlie Metro, I saw him in Spring Training, and I said, ‘I’d like to have him [Splittorff], and Jerry Cram and Al Fitzmorris in Omaha – three young kids and they said, ‘Ah, you can’t have those guys. They’re too young. They’re not ready. You’ll ruin ‘em. They’re [in] over their heads.’

“I kept pleading and pleading and finally they gave in and I remember Charlie Metro telling me, ‘Don’t you come complaining to me in about mid-May or June that these guys can’t cut it.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of ‘em.’ Well, the rest is history. Each one of them won anywhere from 10 to 13 games that year and we won the pennant by about six or seven games.”

Again, his memory is right on. The Omaha Royals won the pennant by six games over the Tulsa Oilers in 1969. Splittorff won 12 games that season; Cram won 10; and Fitzmorris won 10.

So, does McKeon ever think about those formative years at the beginning of the organization and the role he played in the success of the organization later in the decade?

“Oh yeah,” McKeon said. “The good thing about not only managing the Royals here in Omaha was the fact that I managed the instructional league team as well. And that gave me an advantage to teach my system – not only to the players in Omaha, but they knew it before they got to Omaha. So, when I became the manager in Kansas City, all these players that graduated up there with me, they knew how to play the game. And fortunately, we had some successful years in Kansas City.”


Shortly after this interview with McKeon, I had a chance to interview Paul Splittorff and we talked about McKeon going to bat for him and other young players of that era. This interview was conducted on September 2, 2010 (the Omaha Royals final game at the stadium).

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MiLB

The Boy Who Stole the Show at the Speed Zone Booth

A buddy and I attended a minor league game a month ago. We sought shelter from the sun in a covered picnic area in left field, giving us the perfect view of speed zone.

Speed zone is that booth where you pay an attendant two dollars to throw three pitches toward a dummy catcher, trying to prove you belong in the big leagues, but when the radar gun flashes 47, you realize you belong in the left field stands.

I certainly wasn’t going to try to prove myself. No ER visits for me, thank you.

A few kids gave it the old college try and some of them had better arms than me.

I learned later that one kid, who was in the 13 and under category, hit 67 earlier that day. I was a pitcher when I was fifteen and I’m sure I never hit that speed.

An older man (maybe 60 years old) offered the young attendant his two dollars and reached for three baseballs.

He wound his arm around several times, as if he were waving a runner home from third. I had a feeling that no amount of stretching was going to help.

He put his left hand on his right shoulder in his final warm-ups, as if he feared his shoulder might explode with his first attempt to hit 90 miles per hour.

He went into his first windup and stepped forward to unleash the fury.

His first pitch was high. Very high and pretty slow.

His second and third pitches bounced.

A woman behind him glanced up at the speed gun and laughed. That’s never good. But maybe it was his wife and maybe she was laughing with him.

Yeah, I don’t believe that either.

As he walked away, he wound his arm again in windmill fashion and grabbed his shoulder. I bet he felt it the next day. And maybe the one after that.

Another man, maybe in his 40s, sailed three pitches over the dummy catcher, hitting the top of the tarp. He, too, grabbed his shoulder after his turn.

A little boy with Down syndrome, who was maybe five, was next. What happened next is the most precious sight you’ll ever see.

He took a few steps in so he was closer to the plate. He wrapped the ball behind his back and looked for a sign from the dummy catcher. Once he got it – a fastball, no doubt – he came set. Apparently, he’d inherited a runner or two, so he was pitching from the stretch.

The game was on the line.

His first pitch hit the catcher’s mask.

Strike one.

After getting ahead, his second pitch bounced in front of home plate in an attempt to get the dummy battery to chase it. Sure enough, he did (at least in my mind). A swing and a miss.

Strike two.

His mom only bought three chances, so he’d need to go for the strikeout with his remaining ball.

He lofted the pitch, LaLob style. Somewhere, Dave LaRoche was applauding – even though he hasn’t toed the slab since 1983. This kid must come from good stock – a mom or dad who is teaching him the history of the game.

The dummy batter had no idea what he was looking at as the ball fell from the sky. He swung three seconds before it reached home plate.

Strike three.

“Yer out!”

Yeah, I have an imagination. But that’s the best part of going to a baseball game.


By the way, if you haven’t seen LaRoche pitch, you’ll want to check out this video:

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MLB

The Man Inside the “The Freeze” Suit

One of the best baseball promotions you’ll see this year is happening in Atlanta where “The Freeze,” a former college track star, races against fans. He spots them gigantic leads and then systematically chases them down.

It’s led to some hilarious moments this season, including this one:

The MLB network recently did an interview with the man in the suit, Nigel Talton. He says he’s working two jobs right now, which is limiting his training, but he hopes to compete in the Olympics. The only question is, will he show up for the trials in the suit?

If you missed the interview, here it is:

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College World Series

FSU Coach Mike Martin on His Favorite Rosenblatt Memories

The Hall of Fame room at Rosenblatt Stadium was buzzing just minutes after TCU eliminated FSU in 2010, ending Coach Mike Martin’s 14th attempt to win a national championship with the Seminoles.

After answering questions about the game from the press, Martin stepped down from the platform and I pulled him aside to ask him about his favorite Rosenblatt memories. As he tries to win a title for the 16th time this year, I can’t help but reflect on his answers from seven years ago.

Yes, a national championship would be great. But I have a feeling that the answers he gave me that night will be the ones he thinks about most, no matter whether he wins a championship or not.

Here’s what he said:

“I would say the biggest memory that I have is the time I was in the dugout about 16 years ago,” Martin said with raw emotion filling his voice as he remembered watching his own son, Mike Martin, Jr. walk up to the plate. “And I said, ‘Everybody’s out here watching their son. They’re having a big time and all I do is coach – scream and yell and jump up and down. I ain’t gonna coach. I’m gonna be a daddy.’

“I didn’t give a sign. I just sat there – for one minute, and I watched my son hit. I looked at the scoreboard. I looked at the fans. Two pitches later, he gets a base hit up the middle. Doug Mientkiewicz goes to third, points at Mike and I became a coach again. That’s one I’ll always treasure.

“The other memories I had that are special are coaching guys like Buster Posey, who came up against Miami in ‘08 with the bases loaded and we’re down five,” Martin said. “The count goes to 3-2 and they threw him a slider down and he took it for ball four.

“Anybody else would have been anxious and wanting to be a hero. He took it and walked his last at bat as a Seminole. It made me proud just to know him – to see what he’s all about, to take that pitch for his team. And what’s fun now – two years later, he’s in the big leagues and look what he’s doing now every night.”

That particular year (2010), the fans of Omaha had embraced TCU, but they respected Martin and what he’d done over the years and, in turn, Martin had nothing but good things to say about the city.

“The people of Omaha are the best,” Martin said. “This is just a super place to end your season. These people have just embraced this event. They make you feel so welcome and there’s no warmer – this is the heartland of America, undoubtedly, and it’s because of the great people.”

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MLB

Trevor Bauer’s Fascinating Long Toss Sessions

Trevor Bauer rocketed a ball toward the sky at Kauffman Stadium a few weeks ago during a game of long toss. It seemed like it would never come down. But it did. Landing perfectly in the glove of the Indians bullpen catcher on the other side of the field.

The coach tossed the ball to a buffer — a guy in the middle because he couldn’t have possibly made the same throw.

When I got home, I looked up Bauer’s long toss routine. According to this Big League Stew article, he maxes out at 450-475 feet—at least a football field and half. And he does so with seeming little effort. I know that’s not true. Partially because he says so in this Sports Illustrated article.

“It’s done with a very fluid motion,” Bauer told SI. “It appears to be effortless because the body is very synced up. It’s not effortless. It’s actually max effort, but it can only happen when the body is connected. To launch a ball 300, 350 or 400 feet, it takes a high level of athleticism. That’s a big reason why I like it.”

He also says it helps to loosen him up.

Perched overhead in the sports bar in right field, I was fascinated by every throw. The physical skill it takes to be able to throw a baseball that far is hard to fathom.

Just for some perspective, Doug Flutie tossed his “Miracle in Miami” from his own 37-yard line—a 63-yard pass. Kordell Stewart launched his “Miracle in Michigan” from his own 27-yard line—a 73-yard pass.

Throwing a football isn’t the same thing, but knowing that Bauer is throwing long toss that is approximately twice the distance of Stewart’s pass creates quite a visual, doesn’t it?

In 2012, while Bauer was still with the Diamondbacks, Ken Rosenthal wrote a story about how some of the Mariners lined up along the third baseline to watch Bauer throw long toss from pole to pole.

“So strange. So, so strange,” Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan says in the story. “Everyone has got their routines and stuff. But he was almost in our bullpen, throwing into their bullpen. That’s crazy.”

Several fans have captured one of Bauer’s long toss sessions on YouTube. Here’s one that’ll give you a good perspective on just how far he’s throwing the ball.

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MLB

MLB to Allow Players to Wear Nicknames on Jerseys

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When Mike Moustakas strode up to the plate a couple of weekends ago in Kansas City, I turned to a friend in the ballpark and asked him if he thought Moose had a chance to break the Royals all-time season home run record, set by Bye Bye.

I grew up listening to the Royals on the radio, where nicknames were prevalent during the broadcast or pre- and post-game shows. Guys like A.O, Flash, Gooby, Ape, Quiz, Soupy, Sabes, Splitt were just part of my vernacular.

That’s why my first reaction to this story about MLB allowing players to wear nicknames on their jerseys during the Aug. 25-27 weekend is positive.

What’s your take?

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