Will There Be New Independent Leagues playing in 2015?

There has been some talk around independent baseball of new leagues looking to start up for the 2015 season.  The two that seemed to have garnered the most attention so far are The Mount Rainier Professional Baseball League (MRPBL) and The East Coast Baseball League (ECBL).  Recently, I have had players ask me about both, so I decided to do a little research and dig deeper into the proposed leagues myself.

First, let’s take a look at The Mount Rainier Professional Baseball League.  The MRPBL is looking to play in the Pacific Northwest region with six franchises in Washington and Oregon.  These franchises are listed as:  the Ellensburg Bulls, Vancouver Mud Turtles, Grays Harbor Gulls, Oregon City Sasquatch, Moses Lake Rattlesnakes, and the Skagit Valley Steelheads.  The only team that has a home stadium currently on the website is the Steelheads, with the Skagit Field of Dreams listed as their home field.

The structure of the league seems as if they are taking an improved Pecos League approach.  The teams will play 70 games, and the players’ salaries are $100-$150 a week.  They are also given a host family, breakfast and dinner on the road and post-game meals at home.

Mike Greene, a coach for over 25 years (most recently in the Pecos league) and an author of a book entitled Touching All the Bases”, is the owner and commissioner of the league. Reading his bio on the website, it looks as if he truly loves the game and is trying hard to make the MRPBL a reality.  However, looking at the website is a bit of an eyesore.  While it is easy to navigate, it seems very amateur.  There is a misspelling in the very first sentence and incorrect placement of objects and texts throughout. Seeing “Click here to edit text” doesn’t make the site appear very professional.

In addition, Greene and the MRPBL have some controversy and questions surrounding them already.  Brandon Sparks, a writer with olysports.com, wrote his concerns with the financial status of the league.  He states that there seems to be an agreement between the Gray Harbor Gulls and the City of Hoquiam where the league will rent a field for $300 a game for each home game (35 in total).  That comes to over $10,000, and that is money just for ONE team on game days alone.  With six franchises trying to run, plus paying salaries to players and staff… that is A LOT of money for one man and a start up organization.

Another blog, ballparkbiz.com, has also questioned the legitimacy of the league. Besides the financial questions, they state that the logos are “horrendously amateur” and are even just copied from various amateur leagues around the country. They also point out that the MRPBL has announced on their Facebook page “supposed” stadiums for their teams, yet it appears that no leases and agreements have been officially released (except for perhaps the Skagit Field of Dreams since it is the only one listed on the website.)  The Mud Turtles Facebook page was also using a photo of a drawn stadium plan which was proposed and rejected in 2011.

However, Greene did have a rebuttal to these comments.  He wrote a Facebook post on the league’s page expressing his displeasure, and Sparks from olysports.com gave him a chance to tell his side of the story.  He claims that he has a very large backer that completely believes in him and what he is doing.  There is minimal start up costs since the cost doesn’t really rise until the season starts and players must be paid.  Greene stated that he believes the break even point would be averaging only over 200 fans in three stadiums each night. (I’m not sure how that would be anywhere close to the break-even point no matter how small the league is supposed to be.) He also says that he plans on having four staffs for six teams, and he will be running between all of the teams to ensure everything is running smoothly.  When asked about the team names,  graphics and logos, Greene admitted that he “jumped the gun” when he named teams and cities that weren’t completely finalized and when he then posted their logos. He does go on to say that he is in talks with a logo company to create permanent logos.  He closes out the interview by saying that he knows it may not go smoothly, but he will be working hard to make it work.

Next, let’s take a look at the East Coast Baseball League (ECBL). This league appears to be in the northeast and not really along the east coast like the name may suggest.  It also has teams in Canada as well as the United States.  There are currently only three franchises officially listed: Waterloo, Ontario; Welland, Ontario (Niagara Wild), and Newburgh, New York (Newburgh Newts).  According to their website, the ECBL is looking to have two divisions of four teams, so they still have some ways to go in obtaining franchises.  There is even a form to fill out on the website if you would like to have a franchise.

The ECBL model is taken from the Frontier League.  They have taken the age requirements and roster eligibility rules from the Frontier League and tweaked them a bit.  The maximum age is 29, and there must be at least 11 rookies and no more than 13 players with unlimited professional experience.  Each team is permitted to have one player listed as a “Veteran” who can be up to age 30. In addition, every Canadian team must have a minimum of six Canadian players on the roster at all times. Players’ salaries range from $500-$850 a month and are provided host families and meal money on the road.

Shawn Whiteley is the league commissioner, and Colin Cummins is the league director.  Cummins who had previously ran his own sports management agency, Red Eye Sports, was once deceived by a man who claimed to be a professional baseball player for the Toronto Blue Jays.  He admitted that it was an eye opening experience and learned that he needed to look further into details about who he was representing.

The ECBL hasn’t posted any updates on their official pages for over a month when they posted tryout schedules and announced Waterloo as the third franchise.  Tryouts appear to be scheduled to take place around the country, but one tryout has already been postponed to a later date and another had to have the location changed at the last minute. Not much else (good or bad) has been posted about the league online.  There is little buzz about this league even among independent blogs.

In the past, it has been very hard to keep an independent league running.  In the last 10 years, there have been only eight new franchises to actually hold any games. Of those eight, four leagues have already stopped playing with a fifth (Independent Baseball League in Ohio) on the verge of not returning.  Only the United Baseball League, Pecos League, and the Pacific Association will still be playing in 2015.  It is very hard for independent franchises to make a profit and stay afloat for a long time.  It takes more than just knowing the sport and claiming to be business savvy in this industry.

If history is any indication, it will be hard for both the Mount Rainier Professional Baseball League and the East Coast Baseball League to stay in business for many seasons.  The risk of folding is very high.  There’s even a chance that neither of these leagues will get off the ground and hold a game at all.  It is an uphill battle to start, develop, and maintain an independent baseball league in this day and age.  It appears both leagues are off to a pretty poor start, and I would be surprised if even one of these leagues are here in the years to come.

Advertisements

Braves Prospect Used Indy Ball to Earn His Second Chance at Majors

At the age of 21, pitcher Brandon Cunniff was drafted by the (then) Florida Marlins in the 27th round of the 2010 MLB draft.  He appeared in 17 games for their Gulf Coast League rookie affiliate and 1 game for their short season New York Penn League affiliate in 2010.  In 34.2 total innings, he accumulated 36 strikeouts and 5 saves en route to a respectable 2.34 ERA in his first taste of professional baseball.  However, Cunniff was released before the 2011 season began.

Not wanting to give up, Cunniff turned to independent ball to keep his baseball dreams alive.

In 2011, he signed with the River City Rascals of the Frontier League. He became a dominant closer for the Rascals during the season. In 44 appearances (46.2 IP), he had 53 strikeouts with 9 saves and a 1.54 ERA all while finishing with a 4-0 record.

In 2012, he returned to his role in the Rascals bullpen. After appearing in 28 games, striking out 55 and earning 4 saves, he was traded to the Southern Illinois Miners. Here he finished out the regular season with another nine appearances and 4 saves, striking out 10 hitters in 10 innings.

Cunniff was a great late season addition to the Southern Illinois bullpen as they made their playoff push.  In the post season, he appeared in five games, recorded 4 saves and struck out 9 in only  5.2 innings of work.  His great work closing out games helped propel the Miners to the 2012 Frontier League Championship.

He began the 2013 season back in Southern Illinois.  After 12 innings in as many appearances, Cunniff recorded 8 saves and 23 strikeouts.  He was second in the league in saves when he finally got the news… He was getting a second chance in affiliated ball. After spending two and a half seasons improving his pitching (including increasing his velocity), dominating hitters, and proving himself in the Frontier League, his hard work and perseverance finally paid off.  Cunniff ended his time in the Frontier League with impressive stats;  Overall, he went 7-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 25 saves in 93 appearances.

The Atlanta Braves purchased Cunniff’s contract on June 21, 2013 and sent him to the team’s High-A affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats.  He appeared in 20 games for the Hillcats, striking out 39 in 31.2 innings on his way to a 1.99 ERA to finish the season.

Cunniff started the 2014 season in Lynchburg, but quickly pitched himself to a promotion.  In 9 appearances, he pitched 15.2 scoreless innings only allowing 5 total hits while striking out 21.  He then brought his 0.00 ERA to the Double A Mississippi Braves, where he continued his impressive scoreless streak into his first two appearances with the MBraves. The higher level of competition didn’t phase Cunniff.  He finished the 2014 Double A season with a 3-0 record and 52.2 innings pitched in 33 appearances.  He also recorded 50 strikeouts and had a 2.05 ERA.

His great performance recently earned him an invite to play among the top prospects in baseball in the Arizona Fall League. Currently with the Peoria Javelinas, he has pitched 6.2 innings in 5 appearances with 6 strikeouts.

His rise through the Braves organization is impressive and an interesting story to follow, but what’s more interesting is how a player like Cunniff was stuck on Indy Ball Island for so long. Players of his caliber are not often hidden in independent ball for over two years.  The Braves got a steal of a deal when they found this hard throwing pitcher in Southern Illinois.

The Miners have a motto: “Miner For Life.” You’ll always be a Miner even after you’re gone from the team. No matter where you go or what you do, you will always be a part of something special in Southern Illinois. For Cunniff, I think he’ll always fondly remember the team and the Frontier League championship that helped him earn his second chance.

Writing and sharing stories about Independent Baseball.

Advertisements