The Massachusetts Mad Dogs were a low-level independent baseball club based out of Fraser Field in Lynn, Massachusetts from 1996 to 1999. Popular former Boston Red Sox star George “Boomer” Scott was the team’s field manager and the team attracted further attention from Red Sox Nation in 1997 by signing the 37-year old former Red Sox pitcher and noted eccentric Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd.
The Mad Dogs were the first pro sports investment for Jonathan Fleisig, a Wall Street commodities trader and long-time minor league baseball and hockey investor. He bought the franchise for a reported $150,000 in 1995
The Mad Dogs played their first season in the North Atlantic League (1995-1996), a wobbly independent circuit with teams in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The Mad Dogs’ posted a 56-21 record – far and away the best in the league – but were upset in the championship series by the Catskill (NY) Cougars. Reported attendance was 52,384, or slightly over 1,000 fans per game. Following the 1996 season, the North Atlantic League disbanded and the Mad Dogs jumped to the more stable Northeast League.
Attendance plummeted in 1998 as the perilous condition of Fraser Field continued to deteriorate. The clam shell roof of the park was condemned prior to the Mad Dogs third season and propped up by makeshift beams and there were no permanent concessions facilities. In late 1998, Jonathan Fleisig hinted at leaving Lynn due to low season ticket sales and the decrepit state of the ballpark, but elected to return for a fourth and final season in the summer of 1999.
The Mad Dogs attracted some publicity during their finals season by signing 25-year old Tammy Holmes, thought to be the first female position player to play professional baseball for a men’s team. Holmes was a former member of the barnstorming female team the Silver Bullets, which attracted considerable national attention before folding in 1997. Holmes appeared in two games, going hitless in nine at-bats with five strikeouts.
In October 1999, league official approved a move of the Mad Dogs to Hartford, Connecticut where a planned $10 – $15 million renovation of Dillon Stadium would create a new home for the team. The Hartford deal later fell apart and the ball club was mothballed for two full seasons.
In 2002, Fleisig reactivated the franchise at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Boomer Scott returned as manager of the renamed Berkshire Black Bears. The story – well, one side of the story – of Fleisig’s rivalry with former New York Yankee and Ball Four author Jim Bouton to get the lease at Wahconah Park is captured in Bouton’s 2003 book Foul Ball. The Black Bears lasted only two seasons in Pittsfield, then moved again the New Haven’s Yale Field and became the New Haven County Cutters, still under Fleisig’s ownership.
The Cutters folded after the 2007 season, finally closing the book on the original franchise started three cities and three leagues earlier in 1996.
Following the demise of the Mad Dogs, a former fan purchased the team’s Spike The Bulldog mascot costume at a storage unit sale. He periodically dressed up in the costume to attend minor league games around New England. For several years in the early 2000′s, it was not unusual to see Spike quietly sitting alongside human fans in various ballpark grandstands around the region quietly keeping score in his game program.
The Surprise Fightin’ Falcons were a One-Year Wonder that played during the inaugural season of the Golden Baseball League (2005-2010). The Golden League was an independent loop that started as a class project at the Stanford Graduate School of Business that grew into a full-fledged business with $5 million in start-up funding and a $1 million presenting sponsorship from the Safeway supermarket chain in its first year.
The 2005 inaugural season featured four franchises in California (Chico, Fullerton, Long Beach, San Diego) and three in Arizona (Mesa, Surprise and Yuma). An eighth team intended for Tijuana, Mexico ran into problems and was hastily replaced by a travel team composed of Japanese players known as the Japan Samurai Bears. This creative solution to a potentially embarrassing setback earned the Golden League considerably national press attention.
The Mesa and Surprise teams in Arizona both played in state-of-the-art Major League spring training facilities. In the case of the Fightin’ Falcons, the team played at Surprise Stadium, a 10,000-seat facility constructed by HOK Sport in 2002 as the spring training home of the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers. On the down side, the large capacity created a poor atmosphere for independent baseball – the Fightin’ Falcons announced attendance of 49,057 scaled to just over 1,000 per game. The Golden League, which managed all of the teams under single-entity ownership in 2005, also reportedly had less- than-favorable concessions revenue splits with the Major League facilities in both Mesa and Surprise.
The Fightin’ Falcons played their first home game on May 26, 2005. Local baseball fans entering the gates were greeted with a complimentary bobble head doll of Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak, one of the Golden League’s original investors. Under the direction of field manager Ozzie Virgil Jr. Surprise finished the season at 45-45, 6th best in the 8-team circuit.
The Fightin’ Falcons oldest player, 37-year old outfielder Desi Wilson, was also their best. Wilson, who had a cup of coffee in the Majors with the San Francisco Giants in 1996, led the Golden League with a .411 batting average and took home league MVP honors.
Following the 2005 season the Golden League contracted two of its three Arizona franchises, eliminating Surprise and Mesa. The Fightin’ Falcons shut down on November 22, 2005.
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.
The Portland Mavericks. This renegade ball club existed for only five summers, but managed to leave an indelible stamp (their contemporary detractors might have said “stain”) on the landscape of minor league baseball. The Mavs came to town in 1973 after the Beavers, Portland’s long-time entry in the Pacific Coast League, moved to Spokane, Washington.
It didn’t seem like a promising trade-off for Portland baseball fans at first. The Beavers played triple-A baseball, just one step removed from the Major Leagues. Or at least one call up away from their woeful parent club, the Cleveland Indians, who seemed a dozen steps removed from Major League Baseball during the 1970′s. Unlike all of their rivals in the single-A Northwest League, the Mavs had no Major League affiliation. They were one of the first and only viable independent clubs, signing their own players wherever they could find them. The Mavs roster consisted of the unwanted, unwashed and washed-up, many of whom traveled from all over North America to attend owner Bing Russell’s open tryouts each June.
Russell was a long-time character actor in Westerns, best known for portraying Deputy Clem Foster on Bonanza. His motto for the Mavs was simply “Fun” and Mavs games at Portland’s multi-purpose Civic Stadium had a circus-like atmosphere. Russell was ahead of his time in emphasizing fun & entertainment as the primary product of minor league baseball. It was the people’s team and Portland fans flocked to Civic Stadium in record numbers. During the Mavs first season in 1973, the club set the all-time Class A short-season attendance mark and broke it again for each of the next two years.
A sampling of Mavericks moments:
First year Mavs manager Hank Robinson was banned from the Northwest League for assaulting an umpire.
1975 Mavs player/manager Frank Peters once rotated all nine players in his Mavs lineup to a new position each inning.
Russell appointed pro baseball’s first female General Manager in Lanny Moss in 1975 and first Asian-American GM with Jon Yoshiwara in 1977. (oddly, the 22-year old Yoshiwara was also a Mavs’ utility infielder that summer)
The club (twice) signed dead-armed ex-Yankee Jim Bouton, who was more or less blackballed by organized baseball for his taboo-shattering 1970 memoir Ball Four. Bouton ultimately made it back to the Majors after his second stint with the Mavs.
Bing Russell’s son Kurt played for the Mavs in 1973. The future star of Escape From New York and Miracle hit .229 in 23 games for the Mavs that summer.
Mavs batboy Todd Field grew up to become the Academy Award-nominated writer/director of the films Little Children and In The Bedroom
Unlike virtually all other defunct ball clubs, the Mavs never folded or moved. They were paid to go away. In late 1977, the Pacific Coast League decided to expand back into Portland. All of organized baseball operated under the auspices of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. In order for the PCL to get back into Portland, National Association President Bobby Bragan had to hammer out a settlement between the PCL and Bing Russell for rights to the Portland market. The going compensation rate to abandon a city to a higher level league was about $25,000. Russell demanded $206,000 and after a long winter of wrangling in various airport hotel rooms, he got every penny of it.
During the last season of Mavericks baseball in 1977, the low-level independent club drew 125,300 to see 33 games at Civic Stadium. When the Beavers, triple-A baseball and the Cleveland Indians returned in 1978, only 96,395 turned out for 69 games.
Big League Chew – Mavs’ pitcher Rob Nelson’s substitute for chewing tobacco – has gone on to sell more than a half a billion pouches worldwide since its introduction in 1980.
Bing Russell passed away in April 2003 at age 76. His blueprint for running a ball club influenced both the resurgence of independent baseball leagues in the mid-1990′s and the general re-branding and revival of minor league baseball as “affordable family entertainment” in the 1980′s.
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.
The Bangor Lumberjacks were the second of two failed attempts to establish low-level professional baseball in (or at least “near”) Bangor, Maine during the independent baseball boom of the 1990′s and early 21st century. Both the Lumberjacks and their predecessor, the Bangor Blue Ox (1996-1997), had a brand identity closely connected to Paul Bunyan folklore. Bangor claims to be the birthplace of the mythic logger and has a gargantuan statue of the woodsman in a downtown park.
In the case of the Lumberjacks, the Bunyan connection was a little more coincidental. The independent club already existed for eight years in Glens Falls, New York under the “Adirondack Lumberjacks” name before relocating to Maine. Bangor businessman Charles M. “Chip” Hutchinsbought the Northeast League ball club from Charles Jacey for a reported $575,000 in October 2002. In the move to Bangor, Hutchins retained the Lumberjacks moniker, along with Adirondack’s field manager Kash Beauchamp and Charles Jacey’s son Curt as the team’s General Manager.
Beauchamp was something of an independent baseball legend. The son of former Major League journeyman Jim Beauchamp, Kash was the first overall selection in the 1982 Major League Baseball amateur draft. He never made it to the Majors during a 12-year minor league career. When the independent baseball resurgence began with the formation of the Northern League in the summer of 1993, Beauchamp was one of the first players to sign, latching on with the Rochester (MN) Aces. He hit .367 and was named the league’s MVP that summer. Beauchamp later signed with the Cincinnati Reds and joined their farm system, helping to legitimize the upstart Northern League as a place where Major League organizations would scout and sign talent.
Stadium issues played a key role in the destiny of both of Bangor’s baseball efforts. The Blue Ox played for two seasons at the University of Maine’s Mahaney Diamond, ten miles up the road in Orono while hoping to get City Council approval of a $2 million bond for a new ballpark in Bangor. When that effort failed by a single vote in 1997, the team closed its doors. Unlike the Blue Ox, Hutchins could count on a new stadium - albeit a no-frills one – for his Lumberjacks. The John Winkin Baseball Complex at Bangor’s Husson College would feature 3,000 seats for baseball and a new FieldTurf surface. The ballpark had a low-seven figure price tag, footed in collaboration by long-time University of Maine Baseball Coach John Winkin, local philanthropist Harold Alfond, and the Bangor City Council. However, the approval process dragged out until the fall of 2003. Like the Blue Ox before them, the Lumberjacks would play their first season at Mahaney Diamond in Orono.
For the 2003 season, Beauchamp assembled an iconoclastic band of pro baseball castoffs. Jeff Sparks was a screwballer with an unconventional delivery who already made the unlikely leap from indy ball to the Major Leagues once, pitching in two dozen games for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999-2000. Now he was back in independent ball, still pursuing the dream. 31-year old Santiago Henry was in his 12th season of minor league baseball – but his first attempting to be a pitcher. Lorenzo De La Cruz was another guy entering his second decade in the minors. A holdover from Adirondack, he was expected to provide the power after batting .367 and winning league Player-of-the-Year honors in 2002.
The team fared poorly in its first season in Maine, finishing 42-49 or the worst record in the Northeast League’s North Division. At the turnstiles, the ‘Jacks averaged only 1,089 fans per game on season tickets sale of 400 at their temporary home in Orono.
One month after the season, the team received tragic news out of North Carolina, where the team’s 30-year hitting coach and occasional player Josh Brinkley, was struck and killed by a car while out jogging. As a player, Brinkley signed with the Montreal Expos as a 19-year old and advanced as high as double-A ball during five seasons in the Expos farm system. By age 24, Brinkley was out of affiliated baseball, but was able to extend his career in the independent leagues for another half decade. His 2003 summer in Bangor had been his first as a professional coach.
The Lumberjacks opened their new home on June 3rd, 2003 with a 9-4 victory over the New Jersey Jackals. Attendance was disappointing for the ‘Jacks debute at John Winkin Baseball Complex, estimated by The Bangor Daily News at only 1,500 fans.
Only five members of the disappointing 2003 team returned for the 2004 season in Bangor. Beauchamp returned as manager and shook up the team with strong results. Pitcher Jerry Long posted the league’s lowest ERA at 1.97. Outfielder Derry Hammond, a former Major League 3rd round draft pick who never panned out for the Milwaukee Brewers, bashed a league-leading 23 home runs.
But a strong season on the field concluded in embarassing fashion when the Lumberjacks failed to secure playoff dates at Winkin due to schedule miscommunications with the Husson College athletics department. The club had to scramble to secure dates across town at Mansfield Stadium, a 1,500-seat ballpark built by the author Stephen King and his wife to host youth baseball tournaments. Two weekend home dates for the playoff series against the New Jersey Jackals drew a paltry total of 638 fans. The Jackals eliminated the ‘Jacks three games to one in the best-of-five series. These proved to be the franchise’s final games.
Team owner Chip Hutchins quickly mothballed the club, shuttering the team’s office in Bangor Mall and laying off the team’s staff. Beauchamp’s contract elapsed and he moved on to another independent league our West. The team went dark for much of the winter as Hutchins looked for a buyer. Then in February 2005, Hutchins re-hired his old General Manager Curt Jacey, who hurriedly scrambled to sell tickets, sign up sponsors and assemble a ball club. In mid-April, Jacey appointed the team’s former hitting coach Chris Carminucci as the Lumberjacks’ field manager for the 2005 season.
Less than a week after Carminucci’s appointment, Hutchins informed his fellow Can-Am League owners that he was unwilling or unable to pay the league’s annual dues and operate the team for the 2005 season. On April 28th, 2005, the Can-Am League voted to terminate Bangor’s membership in the league. With the season barely a month away, the league replaced the Bangor on the schedule with a travel team called “the Grays”. Carminucci signed on to manage the Grays, bringing a handful of newly unemployed Lumberjacks along with him.
This marked the end of Bangor’s second go-around with independent baseball and the city is now widely viewed as too small to support the professional game.
Chris Carminucci led the Grays travel team to a surprising .500 record during the first half of the 2005 Can-Am League season. Keeping the team competitive under adverse circumstances helped establish Carminucci’s credentials as a manager, giving him a steady string of contacts and job offers in the tightly knit world of independent baseball. He later formed Carminucci Sports Group to own and operate independent and collegiate wooden bat league clubs, and became CEO and managing partner of the Can-Am League’s Brockton Rox franchise in 2009.
Minor league baseball’s Rocky Mount (NC) Pines were a one-year wonder in the single-A Carolina League in the summer of 1980. The team has attracted a minor cult following among baseball people due to its 24-114 record (.174 winning percentage), one of the worst in the history of the game.
The Pines were independent – no Major League parent club – which was one of the reasons for their epic futility. Of the 136 minor league teams active in the summer of 1980, the Pines were the only one to make a go of it without Major League affiliation.
The Pines owner, a 63-year old former minor league ballplayer named Lou Haneles, operated a handful of low-level minor league teams over the years, typically running them as independents and stocking the rosters with wanna-be pro ballplayers from his chain of instructional baseball schools. During the summer of 1979, Haneles owned the independent Newark Co-Pilots of the short-season New York-Penn League.
Carolina League President Jim Mills approached Haneles’ Co-Pilots manager Mal Fichman about moving up a competitive notch in 1980 by fielding a team in his Carolina League, which was expanding from six to eight teams. Rocky Mount, North Carolina’s Municipal Stadium sat empty and available after hosting Carolina League ball from 1962-1975. Fichman cobbled together the 1980 Pines roster from a handful of ex-Co-Pilots, some training camp cuts from Major League organizations and a group of dreamers that paid $220 apiece to attend instructional camps/tryouts run by Fichman and Haneles in Florida.
The citizens of Rocky Mount took little interest in the Pines. The club reported attendance of 26,702 for the season, of which nearly half the tickets were given away for free. The tight-fisted Haneles lost $80,000 by his own estimation to The Los Angeles Times.
By Swift’s account, Haneles never attended a single game to see his team play. He considered folding the club in midseason in June 1980 and after the season attempted to move the club to Hagerstown, Maryland. The Carolina League revoked the franchise and sold it to Lou Eliopoulos in December 1980, who promptly relocated it…to Hagerstown, Maryland. Haneles responded by suing everyone in sight – the Carolina League, Mills, the governing body of minor league baseball and its President, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Haneles sought $5 million in damages for restraint of trade and violation of anti-trust laws.
According to The Los Angeles Times, a U.S. District Court judge in Tampa, Florida named George Carr gave a gloomy assessment of Haneles’ legal prospects during court proceedings in late 1980:
“(Haneles) likelihood of prevailing on the merits is somewhat less than the likelihood of the Rocky Mount Pines prevailing over their opposition during the past season.”
Pro baseball never returned to Rocky Mount, NC after the Pines’ lone season in 1980. But the Carolina League franchise itself still exists today. The team played in Hagerstown as the Hagerstown Suns from 1981 to 1988. In 1989, the franchise shifted to Frederick, Maryland as the Frederick Keys, who continue to play to this day.
Former Pines catcher David Littlefield, who appeared in 11 games for Rocky Mount in 1980, later became General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates (2001-2007).
In 1980, it was exceptionally unusual to find an independent team active in minor league baseball. By the mid-1990′s entire independent leagues had sprung up around the country. Mal Fichman managed in several, winning three championships in the Midwest-based Frontier League. Fichman later became a scout specializing in the independent leagues for the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies. Through his efforts, more than 160 independent league players gained contracts in organized baseball and 17 ultimately reached the Major Leagues with the Padres. Fichman declined an interview request for this post.
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.