The Sussex Skyhawks were an independent professional baseball team based out of Augusta, New Jersey. Founded in early 2006, the Skyhawks followed on the heels of the New Jersey Cardinals (1994-2005), a short season Class A farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals that left town following the 2005 season.
The Skyhawks were owned and managed by Floyd Hall, the former CEO of Kmart (1995-2001) and his son Larry Hall. The Halls were experienced minor league operators who built an ice rink and a 4,000-seat baseball stadium in Montclair, New Jersey and owned the New Jersey Jackals of the Can-Am League. The Jackals (1998-present) are a rock of stability in the Can-Am League, but the Halls wouldn’t have quite the same good fortune in Augusta.
The Skyhawks were the worst team in the Can-Am League during their first two seasons in 2006 and 2007 under field manager Brian Drahman. Things turned around in 2008 after the Skyhawks replaced Drahman with Hal Lanier, the former manager of the Houston Astros (1986-1988) who was the National League’s Manager-of-the-Year in 1986. The Skyhawks made the playoffs with a 52-42 record and defeated the Worcester Tornadoes in the first round. In the championship series, Sussex swept the perennial league power Quebec Capitales 3 games to zero to capture the 2008 Can-Am League title. Despite the improvements on the field, Skyhawks attendance was only 1,713 per game which was second worst in the eight-team loop.
In 2009 the Skyhawks returned to their losing ways, finishing 38-56 under Lanier. Former Major League catcher Ed Ott replaced Lanier as field manager in 2010. The Skyhawks finished dead last at 35-56. After five seasons of play the Skyhawks had three last places finishes and one league championship. Attendance dropped year-over-year for all five seasons of the team’s existence, bottoming out at 1,670 per game in 2010.
The Halls threw in the towel and folded the team in January 2011. Skylands Park in Augusta has sat empty for the past three summers.
The Pittsfield Colonials were an independent pro baseball franchise that toiled for two summers at historic Wahconah Park. The Colonials failed to find an audience in Western Massachusetts’ Berkshires region, but they did make a fashion statement with their collared, old-timey uniforms.
Colonials owner Buddy Lewis was an executive at Nocona Athletic Goods, a domestic manufacturer of baseball gloves. In 2009, Lewis was part of the investor group responsible for the American Defenders of New Hampshire and the Pittsfield American Defenders, a disastrous duo of military-themed ball clubs. The Pittsfield American Defenders were an amateur team, competing in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Their season was a washout thanks to poor weather and general lack of interest.
Up in New Hampshire, where Lewis’ group operated a professional team in the independent Can-Am League, things got real weird, real quick. The Nashua Pride (1998-2008) played independent ball at Holman Stadium for over a decade, but in 2008 Pride owner John Stabile, exhausted by years of heavy financial losses, sold the club to Buddy Lewis’ group. Lewis’ partners included Terry Allvord, a naval veteran and promoter of barnstorming U.S. Military All-Star baseball teams. Allvord’s group re-branded the Pride as the “American Defenders of New Hampshire”, cloaking the team in desert-style camouflage uniforms.
The Defenders’ patriotic/military theme quickly crossed into morbid tastelessness. The team’s mascot, a plush figure in fatigues and war paint, was named “Ground Zero” and wore the jersey number 9-11, for instance. The Defenders were an epic flop, evicted from Holman Stadium before their only season ended for failing to pay their bills. Among the unpaid invoices at issue were the overtime details for local police and fire personnel who provided game day security at Holman Stadium. It was the ultimate irony for an organization that built its brand around reverence for military personnel and public safety officers.
Allvord quickly vanished and took the military concept with him. The Pittsfield-based collegiate team was sold off and packed off to Bristol, Connecticut. Buddy Lewis still owned the carcass of the New Hampshire ball club, as well as the lease at Pittsfield. In December 2009, he decided to give the Can-Am League a second try and moved the former American Defenders of New Hampshire 150 miles west to Pittsfield. The re-branded Pittsfield Colonials would be the city’s first professional baseball team since the departure of the Berkshire Black Bears after the summer of 2003.
Former Boston Red Sox slugger Brian Daubach (above left), who endured the 2009 debacle in Nashua as the Defenders’ camo-clad field manager, relocated with the team to Pittsfield. Daubach took the Colonials to a third place finish at 48-45 and then onto the Can-Am League championship series, in 2010 where they lost to the Quebec Capitales.
At the box office, however, the Colonials were a flop, finishing last in the league with 29,485 fans for 42 home dates. By comparison, the six other Can-Am League clubs drew between 70,000 and 150,000 fans each.
Nevertheless, the Colonials returned for a second season in 2011. Daubach departed, but the team didn’t miss a beat under new skipper Jamie Keefe, improving to 53-39. The Colonials made the playoffs again, but lost in the semi-finals. Attendance ticked up marginally to 37,154 for 44 dates, but was still worst in the league. At league meetings in October 2011, the Colonials ownership either wouldn’t or couldn’t replenish the team’s $200,000 line of credit and the Can-Am League voted to terminate Pittsfield’s membership.
The Colonials were replaced at Wahconah Park for the amateur Pittsfield Suns of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League in 2012.
Berkshires resident and Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer James Taylor performed the National Anthem at the Colonials’ first home game in 2010.
The Worcester Tornadoes were a professional baseball club that played in Worcester, Massachusetts for eight seasons from 2005 to 2012. The Tornadoes were part of the independent Can-Am League, whose clubs have no affiliation with Major League Baseball. The arrival of the Tornadoes in the spring of 2005 marked the return of pro baseball to Worcester after a 71-year absence.
The team’s original ownership group, headed by Newton, Massachusetts developer Ted Tye, built a modest 3,000-seat baseball stadium on the campus of Holy Cross University over the span of just 10 weeks in the spring of 2005. Just prior to opening day, Hanover Insurance agreed to pay a reported $100,000 per year for stadium naming right from 2005 to 2007, which was one of the largest corporate sponsorship deals in the Can-Am League.
The Tornadoes’ first season in 2005 was a charmed one. The face of the ball club was field manager Rich Gedman, a Worcester native who played eleven seasons for the Boston Red Sox. The Tornadoes got hot at the end of the season and swept the Quebec Capitales 3 games to zero in the Can-Am League Championship Series that September. 124,745 fans came out to watch, giving the Tornadoes an average of 2,599 per game.
Local interest in the Tornadoes peaked at 2,779 per game in 2006 after the club hired veteran independent baseball exec Todd Marlin to run the front office operations. But Marlin’s efforts to reign in the club’s operational budget rankled Gedman and Marlin was dismissed at the end of the season. Attendance began to drop and a star-crossed attempt to get into the concert promotion business crunched the team’s finances. By 2009, attendance dipped to 1,818 per game and the original Tornadoes ownership group ran out of money. Maryland-based investor and former minor league exec Todd Breighner assumed the team’s debt and took over ownership in the fall of 2009. Gedman departed in 2010 after six seasons at the helm.
The Tornadoes’ great success story was the ball club’s discovery of Chris Colabello. The strapping 6′ 4″ 220-pound 1B/3B was an undrafted rookie free agent out of Worcester’s Assumption College during the Tornadoes’ first season in 2005. Colabello played all or parts of seven seasons with the Tornadoes from 2005 to 2011. Overall, Colabello labored in the minors for nine long seasons before making his Major League debut as a 29-year old rookie with the Minnesota Twins in May 2013.
Less inspiring was the Tornadoes’ pursuit of 47-year old steroid casualty Jose Canseco during the team’s final grim season in the summer of 2012. Owner Todd Breighner agreed to pay the former American League MVP $14,000 per month in a personal services contract later published by The Worcester Telegram & Gazette. But fans had little interest and Canseco was washed up, hitting .194 with just one home run in 20 games. Canseco later claimed he was never paid and filed suit against Breighner, issuing personal attacks against the team owner in the Worcester media.
Canseco wasn’t Breighner’s only problem during the summer of 2012. A trio of local creditors, including the hotel that was to provide Canseco’s accommodations, filed suit for unpaid debts during the 2012 season. They quickly attached the team’s few assets and the team was locked out of its Main Street office in August 2012. In the final indignity, the Tornadoes’ uniforms were repossessed during the season’s final week and the team was forced to play in generic loaner uniforms from the league office. By the end of August, the Can-Am League had seen enough and revoked the franchise on August 31, 2012.
Worcester was without baseball in 2013. Groups from several independent pro leagues and collegiate wooden bat leagues have expressed interest in bringing baseball back to Fitton Field in the summer of 2014.
The New Haven County Cutters were an independent baseball team in the Northeast League (2004) and Can-Am League (2005-2007). The ball club, which played at Yale Field, struggled badly at the box office throughout its existence, but managed to hang around for four seasons before succumbing to the inevitable and folding on October 30, 2007.
The Cutters were a roadworn franchise, with roots dating back to 1996, when Wall Street commodity trader Jonathan Fleisig purchased an expansion franchise in the North Atlantic League, a low-level indy circuit. Fleisig’s Massachusetts Mad Dogs played four seasons (1996-1999) at Fraser Field in Lynn, Massachusetts, but the dilapidated ballpark was in such bad shape that portions of the structure were condemned and unusable during Fleisig’s tenancy.
Fleisig pulled out of Lynn in frustration after the 1999 season and put his franchise on ice for two seasons before resuscitating the ball club in Pittsfield, Massachusetts as the Berkshire Black Bears in 2002. Like Lynn, Pittsfield had a rundown ballpark (Wahconah Park) and a depressed local economy. The Black Bears muddled along for two summers in Pittsfield but failed to draw much support. The Black Bears didn’t leave much of a mark in Pittsfield, but Fleisig did make an impression – a bad one – on Ball Four author Jim Bouton, whose own effort to obtain the lease at Wahconah in 2002 lost out to Fleisig’s proposal. Bouton retaliated with a vengeful and entertaining memoir titled Foul Ball about his rivalry with Fleisig and his bureaucratic brawls with City of Pittsfield officials and journalists. The Black Bears gave up on Pittsfield after two seasons in December 2003 and signed a new lease deal at Yale Field in New Haven.
In New Haven, the team adopted the Cutters identity, along with a pastel palette of powder blue and yellow. Former NHL All-Star and longtime New York Rangers captain Brian Leetch was introduced as one of several minority partners in the club to lend some celebrity appeal. Management made some modest upgrades to ancient Yale Field, including the installation of no frills, air-conditioned luxury suites adjacent to the press box. Fleisig and his partners also hired The Goldklang Group in an advisory role, long-time minor league baseball investors and management consultants who operated a half dozen ball clubs around the country, including one of the most successful independent teams, the St. Paul Saints, and the Cutters’ own Northeast League rivals, the Brockton Rox.
The cover illustration on this 2005 Cutters program (above) is by the late Goldklang in-house artist Andy Nelson and uses the Group’s “Fun Is Good” brand mark. In the photo at right, you can see that the Cutters’ Northeast League rivals the Brockton Rox used the same branding that summer. In this and other years, Nelson’s artwork ignored conventional imagery of ballplayers and baseball “action” in favor of mascots, fans and other imagery that reinforced the Goldklang Group’s “Fun Is Good” brand and affordable family entertainment emphasis.
Fleisig’s previous stops in Lynn and Pittsfield were marred by dilapidated ballparks. In Yale Field he had another old and outmoded ballpark (1927) and he faced a new problem as well. The Cutters were coming into Yale Field on the heels of the New Haven Ravens (1994-2003), a double-A farm club of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Ravens were the worst box office draw in the Eastern League from 2001 to 2003, with their final lame duck summer of 2003 especially poor, as it was announced prior to the season that the club was moving to Manchester, New Hampshire in 2004. There are places in America where independent baseball thrives – Long Island, St. Paul, Somerset County in New Jersey to name a few – but the common thread is communities that have been starved for baseball for decades. In cities and towns where independent clubs come right in on the heels of departing affiliated teams, the track record is one of almost 100% failure. The indy ball concept tends to suffer by comparison when local fans have grown accustomed to watching “the stars of the future” for a Major League organization. New Haven was no different.
Photo courtesy of James Siscel, www.baseballroadtrip.net
Circumstance also dealt the Cutters a blow just before their New Haven debut in 2004. The club was scheduled to start on the road with a short three-game road trip in Allentown, Pennsylvania starting on May 31, 2004. The home opener was scheduled for Thursday, June 3rd against Brockton at Yale Field. But just three weeks prior to the season, the Allentown Ambassadors abruptly shut down, forcing the remaining Northeast League owners to replace them on the schedule with a collectively-financed road team called The Aces. All road dates at Allentown now became additional home dates against the Aces. For strong draws like Brockton and Quebec, the additional home dates were a boon to the bottom line. For New Haven, though, it was a disaster. With a winter’s worth of promotion and festivities targeted towards the Thursday, June 3rd home opener, the team suddenly had to open at home with on a Monday night during the school year. The Aces series drew only a few hundred fans, deflating the Cutters best laid plans for a grand opening. The instability on display with last minute schedule changes and teams folding also did little to promote the quality of independent baseball to an already dubious New Haven marketplace.
For the 2004 season, the Cutters drew a meager 56,982 for 52 home dates, a drop of nearly 85,000 fans from the Ravens 140,922 for 71 dates in 2003. Field Manager Jarvis Brown was let go after the club failed to make the Northeast League playoffs in 2004.
After the 2004 season, the Northeast League re-organized itself as the Can-Am League (short for Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball) as a legal maneuver in ongoing litigation with the former owner of the Allentown Ambassadors. The Cutters replaced Jarvis Brown with new Manager Mike Church and the team’s performance picked up. The Cutters made the Can-Am League playoffs in both 2005 and 2006. The club’s best season was in 2006 when the club finished 58-38 overall and lost to Brockton in the opening round of the playoffs.
Attendance ticked up slightly to 67,607 in 2005 and 62,356 in 2006, but the Cutters still languished near the bottom of the league at barely 1,000 fans per game. During the club’s fourth and final season in 2007, announced attendance improved to 1,653 per game (82,651), which ranked 8th among the Can-Am League’s 9th clubs, ahead of only the Nashua Pride. Ownership folded the club on October 30th, 2007.
2007 was a dark time for New Haven professional sports. The New Haven Coliseum – home to minor league hockey for the better part of four decades – was imploded in January. The October demise of the Cutters left New Haven without a professional sports team for the first time in 109 years in 2008.
Jonathan Fleisig finally gave up on his Lynn/Pittsfield/New Haven independent club after a decade of wandering through New England. He continues to be active in minor league hockey , where he has owned the Bakersfield (CA) Condors of the ECHL for more than 15 years, among other investments in the sport.
“Always go with your gut” and “always have a plan” both seem like solid pieces of advice. But what do you do when those two decision-making maxims contradict each other?
In December 2005 I set off for the baseball winter meetings in Dallas. I was three months into my first General Manager job, managing the business operations of an independent baseball club in Massachusetts called the Brockton Rox. The Rox were quite popular at that time, drawing close to 4,000 fans per game at Campanelli Stadium, an $18 million ballpark erected in 2002. But during the club’s fourth season in the summer of 2005, average game attendance declined for the first time. One factor among many was that the Rox’ entertainment set pieces – the mascot routines, music & video board selections, between-innings entertainment and nightly promotions – had grown stale and repetitive. Even on nights when the ballpark was full in 2005, the buzz of anticipation and the joyful noise of laughter and cheering felt subdued.
So I went to Dallas with a plan. I was going to hire a new Director of Promotions for the Rox, someone brimming with fresh ideas. And I was determined not to settle for anyone with less than two years of pro baseball experience. Promotions is often an entry-level position in the low-level minors. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but the constant turnover of enthusiastic-but-inexperienced young people is a key reason why minor league teams get stale.
Once a team is several years old, a funny thing happens: the taste and sophistication of the team’s fan base starts to surpass that of the young front office workers who arrive each spring to begin their sports management careers. Tired old warhorses like 1980′s theme nights, sumo wrestling contests, or mascots leading the crowd in the YMCA may seem fun & fresh to newly minted college grads who haven’t attended many minor league games yet themselves. But to the season ticket holders and other ballpark regulars, these are re-runs they have seen a hundred times over. The Rox were known for creative entertainment. We didn’t have the luxury of another dull season while a first-year staffer rode out their learning curve.
Several industry veterans advised that I was likely to be disappointed in Dallas. I was recruiting at the Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities (PBEO) job fair. The PBEO is a terrific way to break into front office work. Hundreds of entry-level jobs and internships are available all over the country. But we faced a few challenges. First, the PBEO is very much geared to students and recent grads. The pool of candidates with two years or more of experiences was going to be shallow. Second, independent baseball clubs like the Rox were banned from the Winter Meetings. We snuck into the PBEO with bogus credentials and posted a fake job description under the name of a New York Yankees farm club to attract candidates. We revealed the bait and switch at the start of each interview. The bad news: you aren’t going to be working for the Yankees or in a warm Southern climate. The good news: we might have a job for you anyway.
I liked two candidates on Day One. Mike Then was the Assistant General Manager of the Mankato (MN) Moon Dogs of the Northwoods League. Mike had the two years of experience I was looking for. He also had experience selling which was an unexpected plus. And Mike had existing relationships with key vendors who sold promotional items and with some great touring acts like Rockin’ Ray & Skyy Dogs USA and Jon Terry’s SRO Productions. My only hesitation with Mike was his steamroller enthusiasm. During a second interview over margaritas at the hotel bar, Mike talked a blue streak, rattling off dozens of promotions he already had planned for the Rox to fill our entire 50-game calendar. The Rox had a 12-person staff and part of our culture was that everyone collaborated on entertainment and customer service. I wasn’t sure how Mike’s style was going to go down with the rest of the gang. The point of the job wasn’t to have all of the ideas yourself. It was to draw out, cultivate and refine the best ideas from the entire organization.
The other candidate was Bailey Frye. Bailey and I immediately clicked in our first interview. She was charming, intelligent and genuinely creative. Bailey’s life was more or less a promotion in progress. Example: she and her best friend impulsively flew from New York to New Mexico after becoming convinced they had discovered a clue to the location of a buried treasure (they hadn’t). I also sensed that Bailey would work collaboratively with our staff, rather than pound them into submission as I feared Mike would.
But Bailey didn’t fit my preconceived plan. Her only previous experience was as a student intern for the Scranton-Wilkes Barre (PA) Red Barons, where she was the on-field emcee during between innings breaks in 2005. We met again for breakfast for a second interview and I pressed her further on the internship. What kind of office duties did she have with the Red Barons when the team was on the road?
“Oh. Well, the Barons didn’t have any work for me in the office,” Bailey admitted. “I only worked on game nights.”
My heart sank. Occasionally you start to actively root for a candidate during an interview. You know they’ve got longs odds, but you want them to say the right things to make you take the chance. But game day internships are the lowest form of internship. Some staff members don’t even bother to learn your name. You rarely get mentored. Bailey had no experience working in an office atmosphere of any kind, let alone a baseball front office. My gut told me that Bailey was the perfect fit for us, but I couldn’t reconcile her lack of experience with our plan for the team. A few days after the Meetings, I called Mike Then – the safer choice – and offered him the job.
And then serendipity happened. Mike turned it down. And I felt…relieved. I dialed up Bailey. A week had gone by since the end of the PBEO. Had I waited too long? Bailey answered the phone and told me she accepted an entry-level job selling tickets for the Kannapolis Intimidators in North Carolina.
“Congratulations,” I said. “Do you want to do that?”
And that’s how I lucked into hiring the best creative mind I ever worked with. (In fact, I’ve hired her twice). She immediately revived the Rox game day experience in 2006. I resigned after the 2007 season, but one of the last baseball promotions we worked on together was one of her best: KISS The Season Goodbye on August 25th, 2007 -Gene Simmons’ 57th birthday. This was the in-stadium video board promo:
The idea began when the Rox staff saw a KISS cover band called Kisstory play at the Westgate Lanes bowling alley in Brockton. They sounded pretty good. Ersatz Paul Stanley played a mirror ball guitar and had appropriately poofy chest hair. Mock Ace Frehley looked constipated but nailed all his solos. During “Strutter” a 70-year old woman emerged from the barroom crowd of 14 or so spectators and ground her hips lasciviously in front of a mortified Gene Simmons impersonator. Fake Peter Criss was a better drummer than the real Peter Criss.
“One of the ways I brainstorm promo ideas is to look through birthdays and anniversaries of famous people and events,” Bailey explained in 2012. “I loved using music to theme games anyway, but what really excited me about KISS is how visual and over-the-top they are, which is what a promotion should be all about.”
Bailey booked Kisstory for a post-game concert on August 25th. I don’t want to know where she found a group of high school majorettes (right) that performed to KISS songs in borderline S&M regalia. They couldn’t catch their batons worth a damn, but they looked killer flashing the devil horns in their KISS make up and black leather.
We brought Kisstory in early in the afternoon for a sound check and put them on a small trailer parked on top of home plate for a stage. They were deafeningly loud. I walked from home plate, down the left field line, out the back gate of the ballpark, through the Registry of Motor Vehicles parking lot and down around the corner past the Brockton Fairgrounds. I could still make out the chorus of “Christine Sixteen” on Forest Avenue about six blocks away.
The finishing touch were the Rox’ commemorative KISS uniforms for the night, featuring a Gene Simmons birthday patch on the sleeve. (These were auctioned off for charity to meet payroll during the game). The players actually liked these jerseys, unlike the pink ones we auctioned off for breast cancer research earlier in the year, when one pitcher actively tried to miss his scheduled start to avoid taking the mound in pink.
Unbeknownst to most of our staff, I had already handed in my resignation, effective shortly after the season. I knew I wouldn’t be working baseball again for a while, so I decided I wanted to sit in the production room and spin music for this game, a job I had loved during my first years in baseball as a promotions manager.
The challenge was to balance our KISS theme with the affordable family entertainment brand. We cut out a large swath of the KISS oeuvre from the playlist: “Love Gun” (too suggestive), “Lick It Up” (too sucky), and everything off of “Music From The Elder” (too embarrassing). We supplemented the soundtrack with a few era appropriate chestnuts by the likes of Van Halen and Cheap Trick. And, of course, Gene Simmons’ mind-blowing cover of “When You Wish Upon A Star” from his 1978 solo album. Those played well with many of the fans, who were legitimately a little rougher around the edges than a typical Rox crowd. More denim, more leather, more implants.
“I didn’t know their music that well,” Bailey recalled. ” The one song that sticks out in my memory is <Peter Criss’> “Beth” because I remember you telling me at the bowling alley that if the drummer came out from behind his kit and sang “Beth” we could hire them on the spot. I had never been so excited for a power ballad in all my life.”
The production booth at Campanelli Stadium makes for a tight fit. The P.A. announcer, video board tech and music tech are all jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, surrounded by computer monitors, microphones and sound boards. Early in the game, a Rox base runner broke from first on an attempted steal. I accidentally bumped a volume level on the sound board with my right elbow while the runner was en route to second. I already had my selection cued up for the next inning break. Paul Stanley yelled out “Cold Gin!” (Alive! 1975) as the catcher sprang from his crouch to fire the ball towards second. I quickly turned the level back to zero and then peered sheepishly at the field, where the catcher, umpire and pitcher were glaring up at the press box.
Bailey and her “Fun Team” of interns and local high school kids were in fine form that night, moving the theatrics along from one script point to the next with precision and efficiency. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Rox and their opponents that night – a league-operated team of nomads called the “The Grays” that played all of their games on the road. The first inning took over an hour to complete. By 9:00 PM were still in the third inning. We had an extraordinary noise curfew of 11:00 PM, which was typically only an issue with fireworks displays. But the sound and fury of the afternoon’s Kisstory sound check easily rivaled any pyrotechnics show.
In the end, the Rox and Grays ended up taking more than four hours to complete a nine-inning baseball game. It was the longest non-extra innings game of the season. It was sickening and I had to pull the plug on Kisstory’s performance – the centerpiece of Bailey’s vision. The crowd booed vigorously and the band were clearly disappointed. But they came down for an impromptu late game autograph signing and generated a huge line. We brought the clumsy teenage dominatrixes/majorettes back out for an encore performance, accompanied by members of Kissory on air guitar. The crowd was grudgingly forgiving.
Bailey’s take: “To say I was devastated was an understatement. Not only was I bummed that all our planning and hard work wouldn’t have a chance to be realized by the fans, but I knew the band was going to be heart broken. One of the toughest things I have ever had to do was tell four grown men in full KISS makeup and costume that they wouldn’t get to play their rock n’ roll.”
Bailey Frye stayed at the Rox for four years. When she left the Rox after the 2009 season, I jumped at the chance to hire her for the Boston Breakers of Women’s Professional Soccer, where she once again designed the best in-stadium fan experience in the league. Today she is the Events Manager for the Baltimore Orioles, the team she grew up cheering for as a kid.
Last September, my wife and her sister entered a team in Pigskin Fantasies, the fantasy football league of which I have been a member for 10 years. The $140 entry fee was a modest investment compared with the $700 million that Bob McNair forked over for the NFL’s most recent expansion team, the Houston Texans, in 2002. Nevertheless their team, “Mayhem & Foolishness” shared a few of the basic trappings of a real professional football franchise: they drafted players, generated a modest revenue stream, established an online presence, and even created their own apparel - long sleeved t-shirts featuring the pirated likenesses of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.
For the record, Mayhem & Foolishness posted a record of 2-12 in 2011 and an operating loss of about $100. Now I know that my wife and my sister-in-law don’t think of fantasy football in terms of net profits. If they did, they wouldn’t have stuck with Ryan Fitzgerald down the stretch this fall. My wife is an entrepeneur, however. She runs her own busy psychotherapy practice and she identifies herself, with good justification, as both a therapist and a small business owner.
But what if my wife got it into her head that she was fundamentally in the business of fantasy football ownership – i.e. a professional gambler? At what point does an idea become an enterprise? When a business goes bankrupt the precise condition and timing of its demise is recorded. But can a dream that fails to catch fire ever cease to exist? If a friend insists that they are, despite all evidence to the contrary, a classic car mechanic or a bounty hunter or a professional magician, who am I to say otherwise? Maybe business is just really slow.
Consider the long, strange journey of the Plymouth River Eels, a proposed independent baseball team in Southeastern Massachusetts that insisted it was in business for upwards of four years but never truly was. Founded in 2005, the River Eels did almost everything you’d expect a minor league baseball team to do. Everything except play baseball games. They conducted clinics and name-the-mascot contests for local school children. They had architectural renderings and hired a groundskeeper and even commissioned a team song. At one time, the River Eels claimed over 1,500 season ticket reservations and signed 10-year sponsorship deals with local car dealerships and insurance agencies. As late as 2010, one team official continued to promote merchandise for the River Eels on Twitter.
When it comes to the Plymouth River Eels, two things are certain. The River Eels never played a game of baseball. And for (at least) three summers, the River Eels were Plymouth’s home town ball club. Only one of these statements can be true, but neither of them is wrong.
Massachusetts State Representative Tom O’Brien announced the formation of Bay Colony Baseball and Athletics, LLC and the Plymouth River Eels baseball club in November 2005, flanked by business partners Mike Rothberg and Erik Christensen. At the introductory press conference, the trio unveiled architectural drawings for a privately funded 5,500 seat ballpark with adjacent convention center and restaurant. Total price tag: an estimated $34.5 million. The River Eels expected to throw out their first pitch in May of 2007.
The Eels drew inspiration from the success of the nearby Brockton Rox of the independent Can-Am League. During the summer of 2004, the three-year old Rox drew 204,000 fans to Campanelli Stadium, an $18 million ballpark and convention center complex built in 2002. The Rox also ran the Campanelli Stadium concessions business, and grossed over $100,000 a night when Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Def Leppard came through town on summer ballpark tours.
But if the Rox offered a tempting model they also presented a problem: proximity. Campanelli Stadium is only 35 miles from Plymouth and the Rox tapped into the bedroom communities along the Route 3 corridor to Plymouth for a significant portion of their fan base. If Bay Colony Baseball and Athletics wanted a Can-Am League membership, it was going to have to buy the Rox’ permission.
Rox management was divided on the River Eels. The team’s out of state owners and advisors were skeptical of the project and of opening the market to a potential competitor. But Rox President Jim Lucas wanted to work with the River Eels on a deal: the Rox would help broker the acquisition of the Can-Am League’s struggling Elmira Pioneers franchise for somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000. On top of that, the the River Eels would pay a six-figure annual territorial rights fee to the Rox for several years. Lucas and O’Brien negotiated until August 2006, when the Rox abruptly ousted Lucas. Two months later The Brockton Enterprise reported that the former Rox President was under investigation by the Plymouth County District Attorney. Lucas was indicted by a grand jury in 2007 for allegedly embezzling approximately $50,000 from his former ball club. The charges were later dismissed, but with Lucas gone, negotiations with the Rox and the Can-Am League ended for good.
In 2006, the River Eels reached agreement with former California Angels shortstop Gary DiSarcina to manage the ball club, but on the eve of that announcement the Boston Red Sox offered DiSarcina a managerial post in their farm system. The River Eels let him go and it was just as well – the planned May 2007 debut came and went with no league membership, no groundbreaking and no deal to purchase the 28 acre parcel of land eyed for the ballpark.
“We haven’t heard from them in more than a year,” Plymouth Planning Director Lee Hartmann told The Patriot-Ledger newspaper in February 2008.
But the team continued to market itself in the community, hosting a used equipment drive and later a baseball clinic in January and February 2008. The team inked a 10-year sponsorship deal with a local Chevy dealer to sponsor the dugouts tops at the ballpark.
In May 2008 activity ticked up once again as the River Eels signed a purchase and sale agreement to acquire the stadium land for $5.1 million. By this time Bay Colony Baseball and Athletics was up against a deadline – the company needed to file a written plan for the property by June, or else lose favorable tax breaks approved by local voters in October 2007. But the land deal blew up for unspecified reasons on the day of closing. By this point, the looming economic crisis began to impact the project as well. Stadium contractor Payton Construction, which also built Brockton’s Campanelli Stadium, filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors in September 2007, leaving the River Eels without a builder.
After the land deal collapsed in May 2008, the River Eels went silent again, as they had for much of 2007. The last media article published on the team arrived in June 2009, in which River Eels Vice President Mike Rothberg insisted the project was still a matter of when, not if. River Eels front man Tom O’Brien was notably absent from that article.
Today, the River Eel has become more of a Loch Ness monster – an acknowledged myth that periodically raises its head in view of a few onlookers. O’Brien is now the Treasurer of Plymouth County. He has not commented in the press about the River Eels since May 2008. As late as March 2010, team co-founder Mike Rothberg posted an update on his Twitter account plugging a new and improved version of the River Eels website. However, that website finally came down later in 2010, nearly five years after the launch of the team.
The idea of the River Eels seems to have finally met its end sometime in 2010 or 2011 . On the other hand, the team remains only one tweet, one Facebook post, or one $25 box of business cards away from a return to its former condition.
The River Eels live?! A member of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League writes in to say that a man with Plymouth River Eels business cards attended an organizational meeting for the start-up collegiate wooden bat league in December 2010 or January 2011. But the new league debuted in the summer of 2011 and has since conducted another round of expansion for 2012 and a Plymouth River Eels entry has yet to surface.
The Elmira Pioneers ended their run in professional baseball as a member of the independent Northeast/Northern/Can-Am League, where they played from 1996 to 2005.
A small, isolated city in the Southern Tier of upstate New York, Elmira’s professional baseball history stretches back to 1888. The team joined the Double-A Eastern League in 1923, and spent most of the next fifty years there. With the city hit hard by the industrial Northeast’s economic woes of the 1970s, the Pioneers dropped down to the Single-A New York-Penn League in 1973. The affiliated club would eventually be a casualty of the ballpark boom of the 1990s, moving to a new stadium in Lowell, Mass., after the 1995 season.
At the same time, independent baseball had become an outgrowth of the renewed interest in the game. Looking to capture the success of the Northern League, which started in 1993, indy leagues exploded in 1995. The Northeast League was one of 11 leagues to begin the season (only 8 finished the year), and slogged through a shaky first campaign with six clubs in New York State.
After a mediocre first season, Newburgh Nighthawks owner Bill Cummings moved his club to Elmira’s now-vacant Dunn Field during the off-season. The team’s first hurdle occurred when the affiliated club’s ownership group was reluctant to let the new club use the trademarked Pioneers name; an alternate “Elmira Cougars” logo and identity had been developed when the prior regime relented at the last minute.
The new team’s most important asset was its ballpark, Dunn Field. A handsome 1930’s-era, 4,000-seat gem, the park was in excellent condition, with over $1 million invested in it by the City of Elmira in 1993 to meet National Association specs. In a downtrodden city that had lost 40% of its population since 1950, Dunn Field was a link to a more prosperous era, and Elmirans had a great amount of affection for and pride in the park. City fathers also recognized the importance of keeping professional baseball in Elmira: the Pioneers paid no rent at the ballpark, and, somewhat incredibly, actually received a subsidy from the City of Elmira that reached as high $50,000 per season during the independent team’s stay.
With former St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves stalwart Ken Oberkfell as the club’s manager, the “new” Pioneers went 31-41 in their first season in 1996, drawing a respectable 41,501. However, Cummings and the club’s other investors were unfamiliar with the Elmira market, and having lost a sizeable amount of money in their first year, the Pioneers nearly folded.
The club was rescued by the Ervins, a wealthy area family who purchased the team. Well-connected in the community, they immediately changed the club’s logo and got to work getting on board many of the sponsors and fans who lamented the loss of the affiliated Pioneers.
With fans starting to warm up to the independent club, attendance rose to 52,372 in 1997. On the field, despite an unspectacular 44-38 regular-season record, the Pioneers caught fire in the playoffs and won the league championship under veteran independent manager Dan Shwam, the club’s only pennant during its Northeast League tenure.
In 1998, the Pioneers were unable to recapture the previous year’s magic, and proffered a forgettable 32-51 campaign, with attendance virtually unchanged at 52,436. However, now at eight teams, the Northeast League was slowly gaining respectability among independent leagues.
At the same time, the Midwest-based Northern League had begun to explore markets in the Northeast. With the logistical and financial hassles that would inevitably arise with just a couple of teams far from the league’s main territory, the Northern instead merged with the Northeast League, creating a 16-team circuit that kept the “Northern League” name.
The two 8-team conferences only met for the midseason All-Star Game and the championship series, so it was more or less business as usual for the individual clubs. Unfortunately for the Ervins family, the Pioneers were still losing money, and the owners struggled with the realities of operating a team in Elmira, frequently ruminating during the off-seasons about whether they could continue to keep the club alive.
With only 90,000 people in Chemung County, and few other population centers nearby, potential corporate sponsorship for the team was limited. Furthermore, the nature of the area’s small, stagnant business community didn’t lend itself particularly well to sponsorship. Since everyone in town already knew exactly who and where they were to begin with, Elmira’s small businesses didn’t particularly feel the need to promote themselves with a fence sign or major ad campaign.
As far as fan support, the 1997 championship helped, as did division championships in 2000 and 2001, but the Pioneers struggled to convince fans of independent baseball’s merits, a common issue for many indy teams. The quality of play in the Northern League was certainly better than the New York-Penn League, and the team played to win, rather than to develop fans for a faraway Major League affiliate. Yet, the previous sixty years of seeing the likes of Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver, Wade Boggs, and Curt Schilling come through town had conditioned Pioneers fans to watch affiliated baseball.
The constant uncertainty surrounding the club’s future didn’t help, and fans and sponsors grew tired of frequent “Save the Pioneers” campaigns that tried to shore up the team’s limited resources.
Finally, prior to the 2002 season, the Ervins sold 51 percent of the club to Silex Corp., a Japanese ownership group led by former major-league pitchers Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu and Mac Suzuki. The new group bought the club with the intention of developing Japanese players in Elmira, and hopefully moving them to major-league organizations. With a limited number of Japanese players on the roster in 2002, the team put together its best season as an independent club, going 54-36, but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Patrick McKernan, the former assistant GM at Triple-A Albuquerque, had been hired as the Pioneers’ GM prior to the season, and the club’s attendance remained steady, in the 1,500 per game range. With the experienced McKernan running a tighter ship, the team lost the least amount of money in its independent history in 2003 (around $150,000).
Nevertheless, ownership’s enthusiasm for running the Pioneers was waning, and the club operated with a significantly reduced budget in 2004.
The experiment with Japanese players had been lackluster at best; players of any consequence were rarely sent to the team (only four Japanese players were in Elmira for 2004, and just two in 2005), and with a virtually nonexistent Asian population in Elmira, fans didn’t particularly identify with them anyway. Furthermore, the Pioneers had to deal with foreign players’ typical visa issues: not only could getting them into the country be problematic, but crossing the Canadian border was also a headache, meaning that the Japanese players were frequently left behind when the Pioneers went to powerhouse Quebec.
With former Detroit Tiger Greg Keagle, a native of neighboring Horseheads, as the club’s manager in 2004 and 2005, the bare-bones Pioneers trudged through two woeful seasons on the field, going 32-60 and 28-64, respectively. Ownership finally called it a day after the 2005 campaign, and the Pioneers transitioned to the amateur New York Collegiate League, where they remain today.
Nashua, New Hampshire has a fascinating but unsteady history with postwar baseball. In 1946, Branch Rickey placed a Class B Brooklyn Dodgers farm club in the city’s Holman Stadium. Rickey chose Nashua after his Danville, Iowa farm team refused to take on two promising African-American players, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella. The Nashua Dodgers would be the first racially integrated team of the modern era, one summer before Jackie Robinson arrived in Brooklyn. Nashua also featured a 34-year old first baseman named Walter Alston winding down an unremarkable minor league career. As player-manager, Alston led the Nashua Dodgers to the New England League title in 1946. He later won four World Series crowns as manager of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers and joined Roy Campanella in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. For all that remarkable legacy, the Dodgers lasted only four seasons in Nashua, folding in 1949.
Baseball did not return until 1983, when George Como, Jerry Mileur and Ben Surner bought the Holyoke (MA) Millers double-A Eastern League club and moved it to town. After one season as a California Angels affiliate, Como and Surner signed on with the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates. During the Pirates three-year run in Nashua from 1984 to 1986, Pittsburgh finished dead last in the National League East three years straight, posted the worst record in baseball in 1985 and became the focal point of an infamous FBI cocaine sting that ultimately ensnared the Parrot Pirate mascot. In May 1986 Nashua fans purchased only 150 advance tickets for a local exhibition game against the big club from Pittsburgh. Nashua officials cancelled the game due to lack of interest, piling on more national embarassment for their parent club. Como and Mileur moved the club to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that winter.
By the early 1990′s, Holman Stadium no longer met the improved standards required by the Professional Baseball Agreement, the set of commandments governing the partnership between Major League Baseball and its farm clubs. Like many small communities with charming but outmoded Works Progress Administration ballparks, Nashua had been shut out of affiliated ball. What arrived next were independent leagues, beginning with the low budget North Atlantic League in 1995. The Nashua Hawks took roost in Holman in 1995. A year later they were evicted midseason, with City officials padlocking the gates against the club thanks to unpaid bills.
In late 1997, Chris English, a hedge fund manager from suburban Boston arrived in town representing the Atlantic League, a far more respectable and well-financed independent start-up whose investors were involved in major ballpark construction projects in Bridgeport, Long Island, Atlantic City, Newark and Bridgewater, New Jersey. The Nashua Pride would be an anomaly within the Atlantic League in many ways. The team was distant from the league’s New York-Philadelphia axis and there would be no $30 million stadium project in Nashua. Instead, English and his General Manager Billy Johnson embarked on a renovation of Holman Stadium, which included the installation of 2,800 box seats salvaged from the recently demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to replace the flat concrete slabs of Holman’s old grandstand.
The Pride averaged 1,581 fans over 57 home games on sales of approximately 250 season tickets during that first season in 1998. Former Major Leaguer Milt Cuyler began the 1998 season in Nashua before earning a September call-up to the Texas Rangers, helping to establish the Atlantic League as a worthy destination for ex-Big Leaguers.
The Nashua Pride hit their peak in the summer of 2000. English and Johnson hired former Red Sox star Butch Hobson as the club’s new field manager. Hobson was something of a cult figure in New England. The Alabama native played football for Bear Bryant before coming up with the Sox in 1976. The next season, Hobson hit 30 home runs batting primarily out of the #8 spot in the line-up, a virtually unheard of feat in the pre-steroid era. Sox fans tended to forgive Hobson’s erratic fielding (43 errors in 1978), knowing that he suffered from loose bone chips floating in his right elbow. He was known to manually adjust the painful chips between plays. Hobson only played three full seasons in the majors due to his injury problems, which added to the mystique of what might have been for the handsome cornerman.
Hobson later managed the Red Sox through three fallow seasons from 1992 to 1994. In 1996, Hobson, an admitted partier during his playing days turned born again Christian, was arrested in a cocaine sting while managing the Philadelphia Phillies triple-A farm club. Hobson refuted the charges, ultimately pleading no contest and performing community service. Although the incident may have derailed his opportunity to return to the Majors as a Manager, Red Sox Nation never seemed to hold it against him and he was greeted as a returning hero in Nashua during the summer of 2000.
Buoyed by a veteran roster stocked with former Major Leaguers such as Casey Candaele, Milt Cuyler, Sam Horn, Glenn Murray, John Roper, Ken Ryan, and others, the Pride won the 2000 Atlantic League Championship, sweeping the Somerset Patriots in four games. At the box office, the Pride drew 140,000 fans – an average of nearly 2,000 per game and an increase of 50,000 fans over the inaugural season two summers earlier.
In addition to a beloved manager and a winning team, the Pride also benefitted from the ever-growing notoriety of The World Famous MonkeyBoy, a mischievous dancing mascot portrayed by the Pride’s ticket manager Chris Ames. Monkey Boy arguably rivaled Hobson in local popularity during the 2000 season and Ames would ultimately take the character with him as a national touring act that continued for many years after he left the Pride.
English commissioned a documentary film crew to chronicle his ball club during the 2000 season. 81-year old Curt Gowdy provided the voice over narration. After negotiations to sell the documentary to pay cable and Japanese broadcasting interests fell through, a (mostly) family-friendly 58-minute edit was released on VHS format in the spring of 2001 under the title Stolen Bases. The film owed its title to a central scene where Hobson, upon being ejected, ripped a base out of the ground, autographed it and handed it to a kid in the Holman Stadium grandstand on his way off the field. Stolen Bases had two private screenings in Nashua and was briefly offered for mail order purchase through Baseball America paired with a Butch Hobson Bobble Head doll.
In 2001, with Pride attendance on the upswing, the City of Nashua approved $4.5 million in upgrades to Holman Stadium. The improvements included a new steel second level with luxury suites and expanded press box, 2,800 new chairback seats, and new administrative, retail and box office space. The renovations were completed in time for the 2002 season, but the season seemed cursed from the outset. Manager Butch Hobson missed time in June for an angioplasty. On July 4th, 2002 the Pride embarked on a 21-game losing streak, the third longest in minor league history at the time. Attendance declined for the second straight year to 120,960, from the 2000 peak of 140,000.
In early 2003, the Toronto Blue Jays double-A affiliate in New Haven, Connecticut announced plans to relocate to Manchester, New Hampshire for the 2004 season. The Pride would now face competition from Major League-subsidized farm clubs located both 15 minutes to the north (Manchester) and fifteen minutes to the south (Lowell Spinners) along the Route 3 corridor. At the end of the 2004 season, Chris English threw in the towel after seven seasons of operating in the red.
“After they announced Manchester, it became clear we needed to move,” English recalled in 2011. “The 2000 ALPB Championship was one of the most entertaining years of my life. But no one could save Nashua.”
English handed the reigns to BKK Nashua, LLC, a consortium of fellow Atlantic League owners including league founder Frank Boulton (the “B” in BKK), Peter Kirk (“K”) and Steve Kalafer (“K”). With English’s departure, the BKK trio effectively controlled seven of the eight Atlantic League clubs, excluding only Mickey Herbert’s Bridgeport Bluefish franchise. League founder and CEO Boulton owned the immensely profitable Long Island Ducks and also controlled the Atlantic City Surf franchise. Kalafer, like Boulton, owned one wildly successful club (the Somerset Patriots) and one troublesome one (the Newark Bears). Kirk, a highly respected operator with a long track record in affiliated ball, had two Pennsylvania-based Atlanic League expansion teams preparing to debut in gleaming new stadiums under construction in Lancaster (2005) and York (2006). And collectively, the BKK trio had stepped in to purchase the Camden Riversharks club earlier in 2004 after its founder died suddenly .
In 2005, the Nashua Pride returned to the Atlantic League Championship Series for the third time in Hobson’s six years at the helm. And for the third time, they would face their arch rivals, Sparky Lyle’s Somerset Patriots. The Patriots swept the Pride this time around, 3 games to zero. Off the field, the 2005 season was difficult, as the opening of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats new stadium in nearby Manchester and budget reductions combined to reduce the Pride’s announced attendance to an all-time low of just 1,270 per game.
In the fall of 2005, Frank Boulton arranged a sale of the Pride to local real estate developer John Stabile and engineered the Pride’s transfer to the Can-Am League. The Can-Am League was another Northeast-based independent loop, which played a shorter schedule than the Atlantic League in cities stretching from New Jersey to Quebec City. Nashua became the first of several struggling Atlantic League franchises to be relegated to the lower cost Can-Am League. Atlantic City and Newark would follow in subsequent years. The sale of the Pride to Stabile put the franchise in local hands for the first time after eight seasons.
With the jump to the Can-Am League in 2006, the era of recognizable stars in Nashua essentially came to an end. Between 1998 and 2005, former Major League All-Stars Dante Bichette, Pete Incaviglia, Lance Johnson, Felix Jose suited up for the Pride as did 1989 National League Rookie-of-the Year Jerome Walton and closer Mel Rojas who signed a $13.75 million dollar contract with the Chicago Cubs in 1996, but earned only $3,000/month to pitch for the Pride in 2002. The Pride also sent several players to the Major Leagues, most notably the future Anaheim Angels All-Star Brendan Donnelly who pitched for the Pride in 1999 and made his Major League debut with the Angels at the age of 30 in 2002.
The Pride lasted three years in the Can-Am League, winning a league title in 2007. Community enthusiasm and attendance rebounded somewhat under the Stabile family’s ownership, but the team continued to run deficits of several hundred thousands dollars annually. Hobson departed after the 2007 season to return to the Atlantic League with Peter Kirk’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, but not before trotting out the base stealing trick one more time for Can-Am League fans in Lynn, Massachusetts.
The Pride lasted one final summer without him. In September 2008, after losing another half million dollars, an exhausted John Stabile sold out to Boston Baseball All Stars, LLC. Boston Baseball All Stars CEO Lt. Commander (ret.) Terry Allvord had toured the country for years with his U.S. Military All-Stars teams. Now in control of Nashua’s Can-Am League franchise, Allvord and his partners re-branded the team as the American Defenders of New Hampshire. The club would also play in uniforms modeled after desert camouflage fatigues.
Allvord’s military-themed promotions quickly crossed the line past conventional patriotic flourishes. The team’s mascot, a plush soldier in fatigues and war paint was named “Ground Zero” and sported the uniform number 9-11. The management initially sought to stop play each night at 9:11 PM to play Lee Greenwood’s three-minute long God Bless the USA, even if the game was between pitches of an at bat. Can-Am League officials quickly put the kibosh on that one.
The gimmick didn’t play in Nashua. American Defenders crowds often numbered fewer than 100 fans. The team traded or released its best players in midseason to dump payroll. General Manager Chris Hall, the final holdover from the Stabile regime, was let go in favor of Boston Baseball All-Stars investor Dan Duquette, the former Boston Red Sox GM who fired Butch Hobson in 1994. In August 2009, the City of Nashua evicted the American Defenders from Holman Stadium, parking a tractor on home plate to prevent the team from finishing its home schedule. Ironically for an organization that wrapped itself in the flag, the team’s list of unpaid creditors included the Nashua police and fire departments that assigned first responder details for the games.
In the summer of 2007, the worst kept secret in Ottawa was the impending loss of minor league baseball. The Ottawa Lynx, triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, were lame ducks set to move to a new stadium already under construction in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Lynx’ departure was contentious – the team had two years to run on its lease at Lynx Stadium. Lynx owner Ray Pecor and the City of Ottawa traded multi-million dollar lawsuits while the Lynx played out their 15th and final season.
Enter Miles Wolff and his independent Can-Am League. The former Baseball America publisher is best known as the man who purchased the Durham (NC) Bulls for $2,417 in 1979 and helped turn the team – and with it, minor league baseball itself – into a cultural phenomenom thanks to the 1988 Kevin Costner-Susan Sarandon film Bull Durham. In the 1990′s Wolff sold the Bulls and played a pivotal role in reviving the long-dormant industry of independent baseball – modestly budgeted leagues and teams which operate without subsidy or oversight from Major League parent clubs.
Wolff secured permission from the Ottawa City Council to take over the two remaining years on the Lynx’ lease in November 2007. The move marked the second time in recent years that the Can-Am League had entered a market immediately following the departure of a long-time affiliated baseball club. The league swooped into New Haven, Connecticut in early 2004, immediately after the city lost its Toronto Blue Jays farm club. The Can-Am’s New Haven County Cutters failed in 2007 after four seasons of red ink and community apathy. By contrast, the Can-Am League established strong followings in virgin markets like Brockton, Massachusetts or in places like Quebec City (owned by Wolff himself) where fans had waited decades for the return of professional baseball.
If the International League, to which the Lynx belonged from 1993 to 2007, was one level below the major leagues, the new Can-Am League is one level above oblivion, which is not to say that the baseball is awful.
In a nod to the area’s bilingual heritage, Wolff gave the club a dual English/French identity: the Ottawa Rapids/Rapides. Local designer Mike Eby designed a sharp set of primary and alternate logos in a blue/black/grey/white scheme. But these designs were mothballed when new ownership materialized just weeks before opening day.
In late April of 2008, Rob Hall and Rick Anderson and of Canadian online DVD rental house Zip.Ca purchased the Rapids. In an nod to Zip.ca’s corporate identity, Hall and Anderson changed the club’s name to the “Ottawa Rapidz” complete with a new logo that incorporated the Canadian maple leaf.
The Rapidz debuted in Ottawa on May 22nd, 2008. The club struggled mightily to compete on the field, finishing the first half of the season with a last-place record of 13-34. In late July, 68-year old Manager Ed Nottle returned briefly to Evansville, Indiana to be with his wife Patty, who was awaiting cancer test results. While Nottle was gone, the Rapidz reeled off a five-game winning streak. When Nottle returned to Ottawa a few days later, Hall dismissed him, attracting negative attention from fans and media due to the circumstances. Despite the shake-up, the Rapidz finished with a league worst 31-63 record.
Opening Day 2008 – photo courtesy Nicolas Rouleau
Off the field, the Rapidz finished fifth in the eight-team Can-Am League with announced average attendance of 2,197 per game. Rob Hall later told The Ottawa Sun that actual turnstile figures for the Rapidz in 2008 were 1,256 fans per game, with attendance boosted by aggressive distribution of comp tickets.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Rapidz first season in September 2008, Hall announced he was shutting the team down. Hall claimed an eye-popping $1.4 million in operating losses for just over four months of ownership. The figure was stunning given the extremely lean (less than $100K) player payrolls in the Can-Am League and the team’s moderate $108,000 annual rental fee for Ottawa Baseball Stadium. Hall cited those lease terms as the straw the broke the camel’s back. With the original Lynx lease set to expire after the 2009 season, Rapidz ownership met with city leaders in September to negotiate a long-term extension. Hall chose to interpret the city’s negotiating position - later characterized by Ottawa officials as offhand remarks – as a demand to increase the team’s annual rent burden from $108,000 to $1 million dollars per year starting in 2010. He subsequently cited this “demand” on the Rapidz website and in press interviews as the primary justification for shuttering the franchise. The Ottawa Citizen accused Hall of using the City as a “scapegoat” and both Wolff and City officials denied that the City imposed such terms.
At the end of September 2008, Can-Am League owners voted to revoke Hall’s membership and draw down his $200,000 letter of credit as a result of his failure to enter a team for the 2009 season. Just like the Lynx a year earlier, the Rapidz would now leave Ottawa under a cloud of lawsuits. See our downloads section below for .PDFs of several court records from these cases.
In November 2008, Wolff announced that the remaining Can-Am League members would provide $50,000 each to operate a team in Ottawa for the 2009 season, tentatively to be named the “Rapids” with the original pre-Zip.ca artwork. Wolff later scrapped that idea and held a name the team contest, with “Ottawa Voyageurs” announced as the winning entry in February 2009. In late March 2009, less than two months before opening day, the Can-Am League’s Atlantic City Surf folded. Without the Surf – and with no new local ownership for Ottawa on the horizon – the rationale for operating Ottawa as a ward of the league evaporated. Ottawa was no longer needed to ensure an even number of teams for scheduling purposes and the Voyageurs operating expenses would now have to be split among a smaller pool of owners. Can-Am League officials therefore announced that the Voyageurs would fold along with the Surf, thus ending the brief and chaotic tenure of independent baseball in Ottawa.