Saturday, November 13, 2010

GBL: Giant Baseball League?

When the Victoria Seals announced the club was ceasing operations this week, the news -- coupled with Tucson taking a year off and three franchises being absorbed by the league during the 2010 season -- seemed to spell the end of the Golden Baseball League. But a report out of the midwest points the other direction entirely. Could we be looking at the GBL going from the brink of extinction to becoming a super-league?

The Rockford (Illinois) RiverHawks will be joining the GBL for the 2011 season, according to a report from WREX Channel 13, an NBC affiliate. Before we get into the ramifications of what it all means, here is the story from WREX:

RiverHawks join Golden League
Posted: Nov 12, 2010 8:20 PM

By: Mike Morig

ROCKFORD (WREX) - After one season in the Northern League, the Rockford RiverHawks leave for the Golden League.

An official announcement is expected next week, but team owner Dave Ciarrachi told the 13 Sports Authority Friday night that the ‘Hawks are Golden League bound and the league itself will expand.

Ciarrachi said the league's new format will feature four divisions, one on the west coast, one in Canada, one in Texas, and one in the Midwest.

The RiverHawks will play in the Midwest division along with former Northern League teams from Schaumburg, Joliet, and Lake County. A potential fifth member of the division could come from Omaha.

Ciarrachi said the Golden League rules will allow the RiverHawks to keep the players they have, no matter their age.

The league will feature 16 or 17 teams and the name of the league along with the divisions will be discussed at the owners meetings later this month.

Talk about a game-changer. When the Golden Baseball League announced on the league's twitter feed that a major announcement was on the way, my only thought was a merger. What else could it have been? No league drums up attention to announce it's folding. But while I thought there might be a "merger" that would either bring the Calgary and Edmonton franchises back into the fold of the Northern League, the idea of a mega-league didn't quite come into focus.

The report indicates four divisions with a total of about 16 teams, which would make logistical sense to have a quartet of four-team divisions. Earlier in the year, the NCAA's Pacific 10 Conference was working to bring half of the Big XII -- including Texas and Oklahoma -- into the conference. What we're looking at here in the independent baseball equivalent, if it comes to fruition.

The RiverHawks spent 2010 in the Northern League after 17 years in the Frontier League (1993-2009). The Northern League and GBL worked together last season to co-host an open tryout before the baseball season began and also faced off in an All-Star Game that pitted the GBL against the NoL.

The Northern League has not been without its own shakeups this offseason. In mid-October, four Northern League teams -- the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks, Gary SouthShore Railcats, Kansas City T-Bones and Winnipeg Goldeneyes -- joined the 10-team American Association to form a 14-team independent league. The "AA" will now feature three divisions (North, Central and South) and a 100-game schedule in 2011. The geographic compartmentalization of the teams should help with travel costs, but that league has long suffered through excruciating road trips featuring 24-hour bus rides. I don't know how long the bus ride is from Winnipeg to Pensacola, but I'd hope for a flight instead. And the American Association might not be done either. Talk is that they are trying to get up to 16 teams before 2011.

When this announcement came down, the independent Northern League was cut in half, left with four of its eight teams, all in Illinois, the Joliet JackHammers, Lake County Fielders, Rockford RiverHawks and Schaumburg Flyers. Given the existing relationship between the GBL and Northern League, it was only natural that the two league look to link up and put together a league that can survive as one rather than two leagues that would surely collapse on their own at the current pace.

Now while that sounds all well and good, there were reports last week that those four remaining Northern League teams were already trying to join the independent Frontier League, according to a Joliet, Ill., news source. The 12-team Frontier League confirmed each team's application last week, but he didn't give an indication if those teams would be granted admission into the league.

Since that time, the GBL has tried to whet the appetites of baseball fans by dangling a major announcement on the horizon, an announcement expected before the end of the month. If the remnants of the Golden Baseball League and Frontier League merge, they will still be faced with some of the same issues that hampered the GBL in 2010, most notably an incredibly taxing distance between markets.

I'm not saying I didn't enjoy the weeklong road trip to Maui last season, but I was glad I didn't have to go to Tijuana (although my brief trip to San Luis on the other side of the border from Yuma wasn't exactly a picnic). But it was no secret that GBL franchises reluctantly shelled out $13,000+ for road trips to Maui, and the Na Koa Ikaika franchise at one point did not make a trip to the mainland (while they had already clinched a playoff berth and thus weren't hurting their own postseason, fans in other markets didn't get the games originally scheduled).

Na Koa Ikaika Maui's website hasn't been updated since the GBL Championship Series in September. The Maui News hasn't reported anything on the team's stability which was an issue toward the end of the season, as the team's owner Michael Cummings issued several assurances to the local media the franchise would be back in 2011. However the entire purpose of the Maui franchise was to be the springboard for two to four franchises in the Hawaiian Islands. The city of Hilo on the Big Island is the most likely spot for a new team with team owners obviously eyeing the heavily populated Oahu for future expansion as well.

If this mega-GBL/Northern League hybrid does form for 2011 with teams in Canada, the midwest, Texas and Western USA, then Hawaii must have at least two teams to be in the fold, otherwise it will simply be a greater financial burden on new teams who haven't had to endure this kind of expensive travel before. While the Illinois-centric Northern League did once comprise the Calgary and Edmonton markets, the league gladly let them go, letting go the higher travel costs of flights to Canada as well. Now the four Illinois teams may again be getting into bed with the province of Alberta. The only disappointing aspect to this is that the shut down of Victoria's franchise now has Canada two teams shy of a coveted 4-team division, as only Calgary and Edmonton currently remain.

Behind the scenes, Indy League commissions must be scrambling to get new markets in place and ready for the 2011 season if this mega-league will become a reality. I'd be rooting for them to succeed despite having seen ill-conceived franchises (*cough* Tijuana *cough*) falter before only to hinder the remaining teams as a result. If they do get a merged mega-league up and running, I hope the ducks are in a row and not still waiting to be hatched.

Just thinking/typing out loud here, if the league will have 16-17 (let's go with 16 for now) teams in four divisions, you'd think hope they would create four 4-team divisions, already projected by the WREX article to be in Canada, the Midwest, Texas and on the west coast.

This seems fairly obvious, but the four remaining Northern League clubs would fit nicely into this area, and teams from outside the division would, I assume, fly to Chicago and bus to the first market for a 3-4 team road trip within that division before bussing back to Chicago and flying home. The four teams would ostensibly be Rockford, Schaumburg, Joliet and Lake County.

One can only assume, barring four brand new teams in four brand new markets coming out of nowhere, that this league would come from the current six-team United League, featuring franchises in Amarillo, Edinburg, Laredo, Rio Grande Valley, San Angelo and Coastal Bend. Maybe all six join the new league. Maybe two are struggling and only four remain. Who knows.

Two of those are easy: Calgary and Edmonton out of the GBL. Unless Victoria all of the sudden reopens its doors, which isn't very likely or else they would have just kept them open, there need to be two new markets that show up in this division. Maybe they aren't in Canada proper but are close enough to the border for bus trips to be feasible. As it was last year, Calgary to Edmonton was the shortest bus trip in the GBL (Tijuana was in Yuma by the time those teams played, which was 3.5 to 4 hours away from Orange County).

One interesting note here regarding Victoria. Perhaps this franchise is relocating to a new Canadian market. The only thing I'm basing that on is the language in their press release, sub-headlined with "Franchise leaves Capital Region after two years of operation." If a franchise leaves one place, by definition it would have to show up somewhere else, wouldn't it? Why not just say the team shuts down. One of the biggest challenges for this team was the lease at Royal Athletic Park that drove the price of doing business up. But if there is a suitable market for the folks in charge of this franchise to relocate to, you better believe they have the ability to make it happen. The folks running Victoria (or who ran Victoria, I guess?) have their stuff together.

West Coast
Hmm... now this is the tricky part. More importantly, this is the true heart of the Golden Baseball League. Without those West Coast markets, the "GBL" isn't part of the equation anymore. Quick recap of what's left after 2010. Chico is in need of a new lease and last I checked from the Chico Enterprise Record (the local newspaper), the Outlaws still have to fulfill obligations from their past lease before Chico State will begin negotiating a new one (translation: there is most likely still money owed). Tucson is going dark for at least a year with Triple-A returning to the city.

St. George, Tijuana and Yuma all were absorbed by the league during the 2010 season. Of the three, only Yuma has a realistic chance to make it to 2011. The Scorpions had a new owner, Jim McDermott, join the party late last season, and his goal was to become the team's outright owner (or him and other Yuma-area businessmen) for 2011.

The last two teams from 2010 left to be mentioned are Maui and Orange County. The Flyers are still pressing for a deal with the city of Fullerton to move forward with plans to build a new stadium at Amerige Park. I've seen the designs, and they're not half bad. Prior to last season, one of the Flyers' managing partners announced at a team kickoff party that they hope to have the new facility built by 2013, allowing the team to own its own ballpark and not have to suffer through what has to be the worst lease in independent baseball at Goodwin Field. Maybe the City will cooperate, and if so, maybe enough slapdash changes can be made for the Flyers to take the field at Amerige (pre-construction) for 2011. If not, they could return to Cal State Fullerton's Goodwin Field if they at least have the knowledge going forward that Amerige Park will become a reality in the near future.

Maui. Ah, Maui. What has become of you? Frankly, here is one shot-in-the-dark guess at what could come of this "West Coast" division if this mega-league is formed.

Orange County, Maui, Hilo (or some secondary Hawaiian team), and Palm Springs.

Yes, that's right. Let's not forget that it was almost a year ago that the GBL announced plans to have a team in Palm Springs by 2010 or 2011. The easiest way for this West Coast division to function would be for teams to be able to fly into LAX, play Orange County and/or Palm Springs, then fly out to Hawaii for a week against two teams on the islands, then fly back to LAX and either play another series against a SoCal team or fly back to your division's home-area (Chicago/Texas/Canada).

Maybe that's how it will play out. Maybe not. The GBL says the announcement is coming before the month is out, just in time for Baseball's Winter Meetings the first week of December. However it shakes down, it's nice to know that what looked like a smoldering pile of what was once a baseball league just days ago may be on the verge of becoming one of the largest leagues, in terms of teams and geography, we've ever seen.


Rabbit's Dad said...

Any chance that Long Beach returns under this type of scenario? Yuma, LB, OC and Palm Springs could be quite attractive. It may be wishful thinking, but I am hopeful for anything that keeps the Flyers viable.

Anonymous said...

Hey Josh -- you are pretty good with that crystal ball of yours! We should have the initial announcement out by the middle of this coming week with additions through the end of the month as they finalize.

Kevin Outcalt

Josh said...

@Rabbit unfortunately LB isn't going to happen. I've heard from folks close to the situation, and unless things drastically change, the Armada won't be back. At least not at Blair or in 2011.

@Commish.... Coming from you, I'm glad to hear things are working out. Looked bleak when I heard the news about VIC, but I'm glad to see it's coming together. As I said earlier, of you're looking for a leaguewide media guy to handle press releases, daily/weekly league stat packs, and all that other stuff (Facebook, twitter, feature videos on YouTube, etc), let me know. I'll meet ya in San Ramon... seriously. I do have some cool ideas for what you could do with a "super-league" media-wise if you'd like to hear them.

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