In its current state, no affiliated Minor League will award a franchise to the Maritimes, there are three main reasons why this is the case. Reason one, we are isolated from the rest of the teams in any league (as mentioned earlier, the Eastern & New York – Penn Leagues are the only ones even remotely close. Reason two, is the lack of professional baseball history in the region (the last such “official” league was the Cape Breton Colliery League which shut down because of World War Two). Reason three, is the lack of a suitable field in which to play.
This brings us to the question is it better to bring a collegiate summer league or an independent league to the region. I am in favor of collegiate summer league for the region, as discussed in a previous blog, and will talk more about that later in this post. But in the interest of equal time I will also discuss how an independent league could survive, if not thrive in the Maritimes.
The Independent leagues started to become popular about 20 years ago when the Northern League opened up shop in the upper Midwest in 1993. These leagues (as the name suggests) have no affiliation with the Major Leagues, meaning the teams are not farm clubs of a Major League club. This has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are the local management of a club recruits their own rosters and are not held mercy to the decisions of a parent club when it comes to rostering. Kinda like how QMJHL teams are run locally and not from afar (like the AHL). This leads to more roster stability as (with some exceptions when players sign contracts with MLB teams in midseason), the roster doesn’t change too much during the season and there’s some continuity with the rosters on a year to year basis. In the affiliated leagues, players tend to spend a season or two at each level before moving on. The biggest disadvantage to such a league is that most of the players are not working their way up the system like you see in affiliated and collegiate summer leagues. The rosters are a grab bag of players, some young undrafted guys, some former Minor League Baseball players who were released, some local talent and on occasion, former Major Leagues when attempting a comeback (Jose Canseco, Vladimir Guerrero, and others have used this option). Although, leagues try to focus development by limiting the amount of veterans each team has on its roster.
The one scenario where I can see an independent league working here is if it’s either the Can-Am League or some sort of Canadian offshoot of the Can-Am. The league already has teams in Quebec City (the league’s most successful team on and off the field), Trois-Rivieres and starting in 2015, Ottawa. With rumors for future teams in Montreal and possibly Sherbrooke. With the existing QMJHL rivalries, teams in the region would fit in this league’s footprint. Although, ballparks would have to be renovated/built to professional standards before any teams could play in the league.
Other independent leagues where the Maritimes could fit into their geographic footprint are the Atlantic League and the new Diamond League. The problem with the Atlantic League is it focuses on major urban centres with parks that seat 4500-7000 people and are to be maintained at AAA standards. That would be more costly than a Can-Am stadium. The Diamond League, being a new independent circuit has too many unknowns for a franchise to thrive. The league could be great (the next Northern or Frontier League) or could be a baseball version of the ABA/PBL (which Rainmen fans know all too well what it’s like to be in one of those leagues).
A collegiate summer league could be run in the Maritimes with only teams from the region competing. This will cut down on travel expenses and teams could piggyback on existing rivalries in the QMJHL/MHL/AUS/NBLC and former ones in the AHL. As I’ve mentioned before, if done right, a collegiate summer league is (by far) the best option to bring “minor league” baseball to the region. These types of leagues are run like an independent league, but with amateur players (paying them would cost them NCAA eligibility). This (obviously) saves the expense of having to pay the players.
I have mentioned before that a new league could start by having teams in Halifax, Sydney (Cape Breton), Charlottetown, Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton. The league (if successful) could then expand into other markets. Leading expansion candidates could be northern New Brunswick, smaller centres with a baseball history (think Kentville, St. Stephen, Stellerton, etc) or even Newfoundland or the Gaspe Peninsula. You look at the types of ballparks that are used in such leagues and current senior league parks could host such a league. Although, I envision a successful operation in the Maritimes so the parks would need more infrastructure to make them more appealing to players, fans and media. But this is something that can be done over a couple of years, not immediate as a true professional team would.
Some talking points about my proposed collegiate summer league:
1. I believe the market is there for such a product. Many baseball (Blue Jays & Red Sox in particular) fans are in the region but nothing exists above the local leagues in terms of having baseball as a spectator sport.
2. The season would run from late May / early June to mid August (like most other summer leagues) this does not compete with other major sporting events in the region, namely junior hockey.
3. Now, this is a big one. Teams can be run by (or at least work with) local QMJHL and MHL teams. The hockey teams game day stuff can be used to run promotions at the ballpark. The baseball team could even use the hockey team’s billet families for the players and the team’s bus as there would be little to no overlap with the seasons. If the teams were actually owned by the hockey teams, they could even save some money in other areas (insurance, perhaps).
4. An emphasis will be placed on recruiting Canadian players as those players would more likely to appeal in the local market. Perhaps, have a CFL style quota for Canadians per team. Could even recruit heavily in Louisiana as many people there have roots in the region and a player could “come home” so to speak during the summer. Players from elsewhere could be recruited on the basis of experiencing a new place and whatnot. If teams are successful at the gate, word would get out in the college baseball community this is a good place to play.
5. Market the product as “major junior” level of baseball. The players are working their way up the system hoping to be drafted by a Major League team. Some college players have already been drafted but choose to go to school instead of riding the buses of the minors right out of high school. Perhaps emphases this by calling the league the Atlantic Major Baseball League (taking a clue from the WMBL too).
6. In a related note, since there are no affiliations with the big leagues, nobody will not support the home team just because they don’t like the parent club. This is one problem people had with the AHL, that isn’t a problem with the QMJHL.
7. See what other teams at this level are doing and try to copy it. The Okotos Dawgs of the Western Major Baseball League drew over 2300 a game and the Victoria HarbourCats (West Coast League) drew over 1400/game to see this level of baseball. If you can hit 1000 a game at this level, you’re doing good. Well marketed teams in this market should hit that. Remember promotions sell! Many minor league teams have zany promos to help sell tickets.
8. Play inter league games (either it be regular season, exhibitions or tournaments) with other collegiate summer leagues. The closest Canadian team is in Thunder Bay (the Border Cats of the Northwoods League), so playing teams from the New England is probably the best bet. The New England Collegiate Baseball League and the Futures League both operate across the region. The leagues both have teams in Maine (Old Orchard Beach and Sanford respectively). Perhaps, something could be setup there, especially with the Maine-Yarmouth ferry being reinstated.
9. Broadcasts! Hopefully each team can at least get the games on radio, and maybe Eastlink could do a Friday Night Baseball broadcast during the summer, like they do in winter for the QMJHL. Aside from senior soccer, they aren’t showing any sports during the summer. Also invest money in webcasting the games. certainly the audio, and preferably video too. This would allow the families/friends of the players to follow the action back home. The Northwoods League, shows all the games (and archives! them) on YouTube.
10. Work with, not against, the local leagues. The Northwoods League, shares many parks with town ball (essentially the same as Senior) teams in the upper Midwest. Teams can work their schedules around one another so nobody is getting the short end of the stick. Such a league could actually benefit the local Senior leagues as the locals who gain experience in the AMBL, will improve their skills by playing against different competition and take those skills to the NSSBL and NBSBL, if they don’t turn professional.
There are probably are areas, that could be touched on, but I believe these are the most important ones.