Northwoods League: Expansion and Realignment Scenarios

Congratulations to the La Crosse Loggers, 2012 Northwoods League Champions!  Now it’s time to get back to school, you lazy bums.  Do you think playing baseball will pay off those student loans?

Now for the next step in their journey: becoming actual loggers.

Of course, baseball will pay off.  It’s a game of dreams.  It’s a…field of dreams.  That previous line is a Sport Change original.

Continuing along in our two week “Boys of Summer” baseball blast, it seems like a good time to revisit the Northwoods League.  Previously, we explored some of the bizarre qualities of the current alignment of the Northwoods League.  Here’s a link to that post.

For the uninitiated (or those that don’t live in the Upper Midwest) the Northwoods League is America’s most successful and thriving summer collegiate baseball league.  The sixteen teams in mid-sized cities are comprised of college ball players who wish to keep playing through the summer yet not be paid, and thus, maintain their college eligibility.  The teams are in no direct way connected to MLB teams or any minor league system, whether independent or farm club.  These college joes are giving themselves the opportunity to play in front of good-sized crowds using wooden bats and MiLB regulation balls.  Then at night, they deliver pizza and sweep out movie theatres.  Or just freeload off their parents and host families.  Yep.  Host families, just like foreign exchange students.  Now that is endearing.

The ballplayers are like foreign exchange students visiting the exotic Upper Midwest.

In this post, I’d like to have some fun exploring potential new franchises for the NWL and then realigning them in a ways that make sense.  In the interest of orienting one’s self to the current teams and the Sport Change simple realignment proposal, click here.

As you can see, the teams are mostly clumped in central Minnesota and Wisconsin with a few outliers: Waterloo, Iowa; Battle Creek, Michigan; and most dramatic–Thunder Bay, Ontario.

First, I will explore potential expansion teams using the following criteria:

-Stadium.  Obviously, a serviceable stadium is paramount to any city that intends to support a team.  By and large, the stadiums that are currently in use in the NWL are stadiums that were at one time used by teams in other leagues.  Which brings me to my next criterion..

-Precedence.  For starters, we’ll just look at cities that have at one time hosted teams in the Northwoods League, the A-ball Midwest League, the now-defunct Prairie League, and the now-defunct Northern League.  Additionally, we’ll explore poaching teams from the Frontier League and the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.  And since this is a fun fantasy, I’ll throw in some improbable non-precedent fantasy candidates.

-Market.  A populous willing to buy tickets, apparel, and otherwise support the team is certainly a plus.  In some cases, like Madison’s, the franchise holds the potential to be a true moneymaker.  In some cases, making enough to keep the wheels on the bus and the tank full of gas is a bare minimum.  Considering the small size of some of the markets and the lack of MLB affiliation, the NWL draws pretty well.  The low end (Alexandria, Thunder Bay) draw just under 1,000 fans per game (average) while the leader (Madison) sets the bar quite high with 6,000+ per game average.  The league average is around 1,700 these days.  Not too shabby, and in fact more than the Advanced A Florida State League in the farm system.  For our purposes, we’ll also aim for cities with a minimum of 10,000 people, but with an emphasis on cities with 50,000+.

-Geography.  If any league can look beyond money for a minute and seek geographic common sense, this might be it.   Why?  Because of money.  In the form of travel expenses that tally up for these tiny teams as they travel far and wide.  However, based on the current geographic layout, it seems that common sense has taken a backseat after all.  We’ll use the current layout as a template and consider the following regions to be within the bounds: All of Minnesota, all of Wisconsin,  the northern edge of the three Is: Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, and eastern Michigan.  Also: the eastern edge of the Dakotas, southeastern Manitoba, southwestern Ontario, and what the heck, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, eh?  I’ll assign each candidate a compass direction or two and use that as another tool to make selections.

Using these criteria, here are the top candidates:

Free and Clear (no current team in this city)

-Austin, Minnesota.  Directions: South or West.  The home of Spam once hosted a NWL team called the Austin Southern Minny Stars.  Austin’s population would put them on the lower end of the NWL spectrum.  The city is close to Mankato and Rochester, so that would be good for travel and rivalries.

-Brainerd, Minnesota.  Directions: North or West.  As recently as last year, Brainerd hosted a team in the Northwoods League.  Of course, they folded.  I tend to shy away from cities that have recently lost their team.  It’s hard to make a case for them.  The one thing Brainerd has going for it is location.

-Dubuque, Iowa.  Direction: South.  Dubuque has been the host city of a few different Minor level baseball clubs, most notably the Midwest League’s Dubuque Packers.  The Northwoods League used to have a team called the Dubuque Mud Puppies.  Perhaps they could be coaxed back.  Dubuque is a good sized city in Kinsella Country and seems well suited for a club.  Of course, the NWL would have to beat the Pioneer League and perhaps even the Midwest League to the punch.

-Grand Forks, North Dakota.  Directions: North or West. The Grand Forks Channel Cats used to call the Northwoods League home.  Could it happen again.  Maybe.  Grand Forks has about 50,000 people, so it fits the size range.  It would be another team marooned far to the Northwest, but isn’t that what the Northwoods is?

-Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Directions: South or East.  Kenosha is snuggled right between Milwaukee and Chicago in a high-population stretch on Lake Michigan.  Kenosha has a nice old ballpark that was once home to the Kenosha Comets of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, made famous in A League of their Own.  The former Midwest League Kenosha Twins also used Simmons Field; which was later used by the Frontier League Mammoths and the Kenosha Kroakers of the…wait for it…Northwoods League.  It seems logical in a lot of ways, so we’ll keep it on the table.  The downside is that none of these teams stuck.

-Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Direction: East.  The Kalamazoo Kings recently dropped out of the Frontier League, and Homer Stryker Field lies vacant.  Kalamazoo is a good-sized city and would provide the perfect rival for Battle Creek.

-Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  Direction: East.  The Manitowoc Skunks stunk up the NWL for a few years in the 90s, and it’s a bit hard to see them crawling back.  However, Manitowoc has one unique advantage: the ferry.  I picked the East as their direction because I like the idea of a baseball team catching the Manitowoc-Ludington ferry across Lake Michigan to play the teams in the Great Lakes State.

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Frontier League (Potential Poachings)

The Frontier League is similar to the Northwoods except for two main differences.  1. The players are post-college or undrafted and get paid to play.  2. Most of the teams are in Illinois, and none are West of that state.  A bizarre Pioneer league anecdote:  there’s a team called the Road Warriors.  Just the Road Warriors.  They have no home.  Where are they based out of?  Nowhere.  They are the Road Warriors.  OK, Pennsylvania.

-Rockford, Illinois.  Direction: South.  Rockford is a nice-sized city that has hosted teams ranging from the Midwest League’s Cubbies to Geena Davis’s Peaches.  The only drawback is that the Rockford Riverhawks currently call the Frontier League home.

-Schaumburg, Illinois.  Directions: South or East.  The Schaumburg Boomers just started play last year, so I’d imagine they’d try to give the Frontier at least another year or two.  Or the Frontier League give them another another year or two.

-Traverse City, Michigan.  I like this one.  Kalamazoo left the Frontier, and now the Beach Bums are the sole team in the “Mitten.”   They are a marooned alone in Michigan, just like the Battle Creek Bombers.  Hmmm.

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American Association (Potential Poachings)

The American Association is certainly an odd duck.  It’s a collection of teams stretching from Laredo, Texas to Winnipeg, Manitoba.  They are apparently old teams that are upset at MiLB (like the El Paso Diablos) as well as the remnants of the old Northern League–like these teams listed below.

-Fargo, North Dakota.  Directions: West or North.  The Redhawks have been around for a long time–since the Northern League hey day of the nineties.  It’s hard to envision poaching any teams from the AAIPB, especially the ‘Hawks, who do a good job filling seats.

-Gary, Indiana.  Direction: East.  The Rail Cats are having a fine time now, and Gary just doesn’t seem like the Northwoods.  Let’s leave Indiana for the Frontier League.

-Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  Direction: West.  If there’s a chance, it’s here.  The Canaries draw pretty low, and if the team were to move elsewhere (how about oh, Abiliene), a Sioux Falls franchise could be birthed in the NWL.

-St. Paul, Minnesota.  Direction: West.  I don’t see it.  Other than Madison, no other NWL team draws up to the level of the Saints.  They seem to be in a different category.

-Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Direction: North.  This is tempting, with Thunder Bay in need of a rival.  However, there are two factors to consider: 1. Thunder Bay (and Canada, really) might not be that practical for the Northwoods League.  I’ll explain later.  2. Winnipeg is a larger market better suited for competing against teams in Kansas City or St. Paul.  The Goldeyes are likely to stay where they are, but maybe we won’t totally throw them out.

Speaking of throwing teams out of the running, let’s eliminate: Brainerd, Rockford, Schaumburg, Gary, and St. Paul.  Then let’s rank the remaining top ten and give ’em a quick brand:

Rankings from most appropriate to least:

1. Traverse City  (they remain the Beach Bums)

2. Dubuque (got to resurrect the great name of Mud Puppies)

3. Kenosha (Kroakers is similar to Bullfrogs, and I prefer the Frontier nickname, the Mammoths)

4. Kalamazoo (the Keepers is tempting (get it?), but in honor of Bell’s beer: the Brews)

5. Austin (too easy: the Spammers)

6. Manitowoc (let’s bring back the Skunks)

7. Grand Forks (I’m not a fan of Channel Cats, so how about Knives…get it?)

8. Sioux Falls (Canaries works fine)

9. Fargo (Redhawks...sure)

10. Winnipeg (Always like the Goldeyes moniker)

_

Realignment scenario #1: Add Top Four.

For this scenario, let’s just take the top four expansion teams.  That’s Traverse, Dubuque, Kenosha, and Kalamazoo.  Let’s align:

North: Thunder Bay, Duluth, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Green Bay

West: Willmar, Mankato, St. Cloud, Rochester, Alexandria

South: Waterloo, Dubuque, Wisconsin Rapids, La Crosse, Madison

East: Battle Creek, Traverse City, Kalamazoo, Lakeshore, Kenosha

Click here for a map of this scenario 

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Realignment scenario #2: Keep those Four and Add Four More

For this scenario, four more teams are added to those from Scenario #1.  The added teams are: Winnipeg, Grand Forks, Fargo, and Austin.

North: Duluth, Thunder Bay, Alexandria, Winnipeg, Grand Forks, Fargo,

West: St. Cloud, Mankato, Rochester, Willmar, Austin, Eau Claire

South: Waterloo, Dubuque, La Crosse, Madison, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin

East: Green Bay, Lakeshore, Kenosha, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Traverse City

Click here for the map

What’s to like?  The East is in nice shape with three teams in Wisconsin and three in Michigan.  Though the North is so spread out, there’s something cool about Canadian and Dakota teams.

What’s to loathe?  Alexandria should be in the West, Eau Claire should not be in the West, the South teams aren’t so southern.  There are other ways to align, but if we’re keeping the Canadian teams in the North, this is one of the few ways to do it.  I’m not a big fan of this one, so let’s keep moving.

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Realignment scenario #3: Thunder Bay Moves

Speaking of moving, in this scenario, the Thunder Bay Border Cats are moved.  Why?  A few reasons: 1. They are the second lowest in ticket sales throughout the league, despite playing in a good-sized city.  2. They are far removed from any other team–even Duluth is a haul.  3. Last year, a series of games in Thunder Bay was postponed repeatedly.  Why?  I’m not sure, but it may have something to do with the logistical nightmare of making sure that every member of the visiting team has both a passport and a clean criminal record to make it across the border.  So even though I’ve got love for the B-Cats, let’s imagine they move to….Kalamazoo.  I just can’t stand to see Battle Creek alone out there East of Lake Michigan.

North: Duluth Huskies, Eau Claire Express, Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, Wisconsin Woodchucks

West: Alexandria Beetles, Mankato Moondogs, St. Cloud Rox, Willmar Stingers

South: La Crosse Loggers, Madison Mallards, Rochester Honkers, Waterloo Bucks

East: Battle Creek Bombers, Green Bay Bullfrogs, Lakeshore Chinooks, Kalamazoo Brews

Click here for map

I like this scenario, and I think it makes the alignment slightly better than my initial Northwoods League Realignment.  I could see the NWL actually doing this, so all the better.

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Scenario #4: AAIPB Disbands.

This scenario plays on the fantasy of the AAIPB (American Association of Independent Professional Baseball) disbanding.  Maybe some of the Texas teams find their way to the Texas League–especially the El Paso Diablos and Laredo Lemurs–through some sort of MiLB realignment.  The Kansas City T-Bones may go hungry.  Anyway, the teams in question here would be the five that I mentioned above.  Let’s say that Gary gets absorbed into the Frontier League and the NWL takes the St. Paul Saints, Sioux Falls Canaries, Fargo/Moorhead Redhawks, and Winnipeg Goldeyes.  Let’s see how that shakes out:

North: Thunder Bay, Duluth, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and the St. Paul Saints

West: Alexandria, St. Cloud, Willmar, Fargo Redhawks, and Winnipeg Goldeyes

South: Waterloo, La Crosse, Rochester, Mankato, and Sioux Falls Canaries

East: Madison, Lakeshore, Green Bay, Wisconsin Rapids, and Battle Creek

Here’s the map

That worked alright.  Originally, I had Sioux Falls in the West, St. Cloud in the North, and St. Paul in the South.  When I tried it this way, it just looked better.  Especially because yellow is the color I use for the South and Canaries are yellow.  OK, one more scenario:

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Scenario #5: the Lovable Longshots

If you’ve followed this post for this long (unlikely) then you’re probably ready for anything.  In that spirit, I present to you: the Lovable Longshots.  These are four teams that are added because there is something lovable about them.  Some are fun ideas as host cities and some fit a geographic niche within the league.  All four are very unlikely to host teams.  Let’s get lovable!

Here are the eight:

-Ashland, Wisconsin.  A small city on Lake Superior represents the northern half of Wisconsin and fills a need for another Northern team.  The team will be called the Sportsmen as a tip of the hat to hunting and fishing, as well as all other sports.

-Bemidji, Minnesota.  Another good team to too represent a big chunk of land.  A city famous for Paul Bunyan and Babe will be the Bemidji Blue Oxen with singular form being Blue Ox.

-Decorah, Iowa.  A nice position in the driftless region near Waterloo and La Crosse.  Decorah is famous for Norwegian heritage, so as such; the Nordics.

-Marquette, Michigan.  Say yah to da U.P., eh?  Marquette’s a decent sized city and as a tip of the hardhat to the old mining tradition, the Miners will play ball in the 51st state.

Add those four in and then four from the top ten list: Traverse City, Manitowoc, Dubuque, and St. Paul.  Here’s how it is:

North: Thunder Bay, Duluth, Wisconsin, Eau Claire, Ashland Sportsmen, and Marquette Miners

West: Alexandria, St. Cloud, Willmar, Mankato, and St. Paul Saints

South: Rochester, Waterloo, La Crosse, Dubuque Mud Puppies, and Decorah Nordics

West: Green Bay, Lakeshore, Madison, Battle Creek, Traverse City, and Manitowoc Skunks

Here’s the last map

Alright.  Got that out of the system.  Now to shut up about the Northwoods League.  Thanks for reading.

SPORT CHANGE

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2 comments
    • I could see it as a Lovable Longshot. The population is smaller, but there would be a draw from Ann Arbor. The big question would be: is there an adequate stadium? Most of the current NWL teams play in old Midwest League or Prairie League stadiums. I was unable to find info about ballparks in the city. If Ypsi got a franchise, what would be a good nickname?

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