Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Looks like last days for Northern League Fishing around
Goldeyes among four NL teams poised to join American Association
With attendance in free-fall, the club struggling on the field and some fans in open revolt, the Winnipeg Goldeyes needed to do something dramatic and they needed to do it quickly.
Well, did they ever.
The Fish are one of four Northern League teams -- the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, Gary SouthShore Railcats and Kansas City T-Bones are the others -- who will learn today if their application has been approved to join the 10-team American Association baseball league in time for next season.
Miles Wolff, who Goldeyes fans will recognize as the man who resurrected the Northern League in 1993 but is presently the commissioner of the American Association, confirmed on Tuesday that Winnipeg is among four Northern League teams who have applied for admission to the AA beginning with the 2011 season.
"That's what we're here to decide -- if that's something we want to do," Wolff said in a phone interview Tuesday from Dallas, where the owners of the American Association had gathered for a meeting.
"It's not up to me, it's up to the members to decide," said Wolff. "But I look at the geography and the strength of the (Northern League) teams involved and there's a lot of good arguments to be made for it."
Goldeyes majority owner Sam Katz said Tuesday afternoon he's aware discussions are taking place about a "potential merger," as he invited Wolff to visit Winnipeg this summer.
But Katz declined to comment on the quality of play in the American Association or discuss specific details of how the Goldeyes would fit into a bus league that stretches all the way to Texas and Florida.
"There have been talks of a merger and until those discussions take place, I have nothing else to say," Katz told reporters Tuesday. "Wait for the meeting regarding the potential merger and then ask those kinds of questions."
Katz also surmised there would be no penalty for leaving the Northern League if it merges with the American Association. Northern League commissioner Clark Griffith disagreed. "A league cannot just go out and sign teams from another league that are party to a membership agreement," Griffith said in an interview.
Wolff said some of the legal work and many details have already been worked out, but it will ultimately be up to the 10 owners of the AA whether they want to admit Winnipeg and the three other Northern League clubs. Wolff said it was possible a vote could take place late Tuesday, but it was more likely to happen this morning before the league's owners meeting wraps up at noon.
Wolff said he felt there were good reasons for the new teams to be accepted, but he didn't know which way the vote would go.
"We've had talks and we've had discussions, but this isn't a rubber stamp. We're meeting and should know something definite in the next 24 hours..."
If it happens, the Fish and the other three clubs would abandon the Northern League to join a burgeoning five-year old AA circuit that boasts a massive geographic footprint. And, in the process, they would also likely drive a stake through the heart of the Northern League -- a historic circuit that was considered the premier independent league in all of baseball just a few short years ago.
It is a stunning turn of events for the once venerable Northern League -- and for Goldeyes management, who just a few short weeks ago seemed to be in denial about the need for dramatic change after the club recorded its worst season in franchise history on the field and saw attendance fall for the sixth straight year.
It is also a humbling concession of total defeat to the American Association, which was formed in 2005 out of a nasty schism that saw the defection of four Northern League teams at that time -- the St. Paul Saints, Sioux Falls Canaries, Sioux City Explorers and Lincoln Saltdogs -- to the American Association in what became a very personal dispute, with Fish owner Sam Katz at the epicentre.
Since the original defections, the Northern League has become a shell of its former self. The league shrunk to as few as six teams and while it got back up to eight in time for the 2010 season, there were issues with at least three of those clubs. A sale involving the Schaumburg Flyers has fallen through with no new buyer on the horizon, while there are also reports the Joliet Jackhammers are also now for sale. And the status of the first-year Lake County Fielders franchise has also been muddied by lengthy delays and snafus in the construction of a new ballpark in their home of Zion, Ill.
Indeed, of the four Northern League clubs that would remain should the other four be accepted into the AA today, only the Rockford RiverHawks could be described as stable. And that club could easily return to the Chicago-area based Frontier League, where they were playing as recently as 2009 anyway.
Griffith was still holding out hope yesterday that the Northern league would remain intact.
And if the four teams do defect? "We'll play next year," Griffith said. "We'll have something in place. We have good teams, good locations... The Northern League isn't going away."
Griffith said he is exploring "several options" that would add two teams to the league in time for next season and allow for a six-team circuit.
A Northern League owners meeting took place in Chicago over the weekend, but representatives from Winnipeg and the three other clubs were not present.
-- With files from Bart Kives
THE American Association was formed in October 2005 when four teams defected from the Northern League -- the St. Paul Saints, Sioux Falls Canaries, Sioux City Explorers and Lincoln Saltdogs -- and joined with five teams from the defunct Central League -- the Pensacola Pelicans, Shreveport-Bossier Captains, Fort Worth Cats, Coastal Bend Aviators and El Paso Diablos. A 10th team, in St. Joseph, Mo., was added to give the league 10 teams for its inaugural 2006 season.
In 2007, the Aviators and the St. Joe Blacksnakes folded and were replaced for the 2008 season by the Wichita Wingnuts and Grande Prairie (Dallas) Airhogs.
The league presently operates with two divisions -- a North Division consisting of the four former Northern League teams and Wichita and a South Division consisting of the three Texas teams plus Shreveport and Pensacola.
If the four NL clubs are accepted today, it seems likely the league would be broken into three divisions -- North, Central and South. AA commissioner Miles Wolff said regardless of how the divisions might be configured, it's already been accepted that northern teams like Winnipeg would not face southern teams like El Paso until the post-season. It would also be a temporary alignment in any event as two expansion teams, including one in Laredo, Texas, are scheduled to join the AA for 2012.
The AA is very similar to the Northern League. Both leagues are independent and consist of a mix of raw rookies and older veterans, all of whom are unsigned by major league organizations. Like the NL, the level of baseball in the AA is the equivalent of A-ball in organized baseball, but can resemble as high as AA-ball some nights. Northern League fans would be unlikely to notice much difference in terms of the on-field product.
Pensacola has the smallest ballpark, the 3,000-seat Pelican Park. El Paso has the largest park, the 9,725-seat Cohen Stadium. The average capacity is 5,517, about the same as the existing Northern League.
There are some subtle differences between the two leagues, but the main rule differences are:
-- The AA has a $110,000 salary cap, $20,000 less than the Northern League;
-- The AA requires clubs to carry one more rookie and is more restrictive about how a club can use veteran players.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2010 C1