The United League Folds – What Does That Mean For Indy Ball?

United League Baseball: “Where Dreams Come True.”

Those dreams have now turned into a nightmare.

Yesterday, according to the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings Facebook, the United League Baseball (ULB) announced that they would be folding after seven seasons.  

This comes as no surprise to people within the baseball world as there has always been financial struggles and obstacles with the ULB.

The league started in 2006 with six teams.  This lasted five seasons until they became the North American League in 2011 (merging with the Golden Baseball League and the Northern League to create ten teams.) After two seasons, the North American League folded due to traveling and financial issues.

In 2013, the ULB was once again reestablished with six teams originally competing in the league; However, two teams (McAllen Thunder and the Alexandria Aces) had been forced to cease operations during the season. For the start of the 2014 season, the Edinburg Roadrunners could not put a team together in time and had to be replaced by the Brownsville Charros. This was only the beginning of their problems.

Over the last few months, the league has been in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons.

In addition to the growing complaints from players of poor conditions, treatment, and lack of pay (much like reports from players within the Pecos League), the United League also landed in the news for much bigger issues.

In July, the San Angelo Colts filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, and moved their final eight home games to other ULB stadiums in August.  That did not matter as much since the entire league’s schedule ended nine days earlier than originally planned. The season finished completely with a best of five Championship Series between the Fort Worth Cats and the Rio Grande Valley White Wings. The White Wings would ultimately go on to sweep the Cats in three games to become the last ULB champions.

The problems continued to grow during the off season. In November, the Fort Worth Cats were asked to leave their ballpark, LaGrave Field, by the City of Fort Worth.

In December, the Colts bankruptcy saga continued.  A motion was filed in Dallas to either dismiss their original Chapter 11 Bankruptcy filing or change it to Chapter 7. This also brought the news that the Colts had $714,034 in unsecured debt and that the IRS also had a secured claim against the club of $28,000.

The main reason for all of the financial problems within the ULB could be due to (the lack of) attendance.  The league as a whole averaged only 734 fans per game. The best team in terms of attendance, The Fort Worth Cats, managed an average of 1,160 fans per game, and the worst, the San Angelo Colts, only had an average of 383 fans attend each game. The White Wings and Charros also had to share the same stadium. While the White Wings official average attendance is listed at 608, there is no actual attendance data listed for the Charros..

All of these cities have large populations, but fan support for the ULB teams was practically non-existent. On paper, Fort Worth, San Angelo, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas all look like nice markets to tap into, but it was just too difficult to bring fans to the ballparks.

What does all of this mean for independent baseball?

Well, it now means that roughly 100 players (average of 25 players for each of the 4 teams) as well as many coaches are now free agents and looking for a place to call home for the 2015 season. Some of these players may come to the realization that their dreams of playing baseball are over. But on the other hand, it forces the good players from the ULB to essentially try out for better independent teams and move up the indy ball ranks. The American Association, Atlantic League, Can-Am, and Frontier League are all still going strong.

One good thing for these players could be the creation of the Mt. Rainier Professional Baseball League (MRPBL) and the East Coast Baseball League (ECBL). Both independent leagues hope to be operating for the 2015 season.  While the MRPBL rosters are filling out nicely, there are still many open roster spots available. The ECBL is still forming teams and adding players every day. (I talked about these leagues here: New Leagues in 2015, but I hope to have updated posts about both in the upcoming weeks.)

The folding of the United League can also serve as a lesson for other independent leagues, especially for the Pecos League and the two new leagues looking to break in.  If you don’t have the fan support to back your teams, no matter how large the market you are playing in, you stand to lose a lot financially. No league can continue to operate and pay their players adequately with minimal attendance.

Players were also growing increasingly fed up with the ULB and how the league was being ran. The Pecos League may want to watch what they are doing closely if they don’t want more players to speak out and leave their league for leagues who treat their players better. (You can read Pecos League horror stories here: The Pecos League Exposed)

There will always be guys who want to continue to play baseball and keep their dreams alive, but without better conditions and more support, there won’t always be an endless supply of money to keep these lower independent leagues running. Historically, it is really difficult for independent leagues to stay in operation.

Only time will tell if the Pecos League will continue to operate through all of its issues, or if the Mt. Rainier Professional Baseball League and East Coast Baseball League will get off the ground and stick around the indy ball scene for years to come. But with the added coverage and increasing player signings from the independent league ranks, there’s never been a better time to follow indy ball.

The Portland Mavericks – “The Battered Bastards of Baseball”

In the 1970’s, independent baseball leagues as we know them today were non-existent.  In 1973, there were no independent baseball teams in America, except for one: the newly formed Portland Mavericks.

When Portland, Oregon lost their MLB affiliated team, actor and former professional baseball player, Bing Russell, wanted to create a team of independent players that were capable of playing against the single-A affiliated teams in the Northwest League. These players were all guys who had something to prove. The majority of them had all been rejected or released from a team at some point in their playing careers. Others were just never given a shot in professional baseball. Guys came from all across the country to the open tryouts just for one more shot of living the dream.

The team was full of characters and known as one of the “nuttiest” teams in all of professional baseball, but somehow it all worked.  These “Battered Bastards of Baseball” (taken from a term used in pitcher Jim Bouton’s book “Ball Four”) were a wild and wacky bunch who, in their five year existence, had a winning record in each season while taking the division title four out of five times (1973, 1975, 1976, 1977).

In a phone interview with the Seattle Times, Bouton described the team:  “Guys on the Mavericks were there for the right reasons. We wanted to play ball. We were at the end of the line, trying to scramble, put something together and get on the field, against all odds. That’s how badly the game of baseball grips you.”

The documentary, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball”, was released last year and is currently streaming on Netflix.  It features original footage filmed during the team’s five seasons as well as interviews with former players, employees, and Bing Russell’s son, actor and former Mavericks player Kurt Russell.

It’s just a feel good documentary that gives you an inside look at a truly great group of guys in baseball. The footage shows a team that just wanted to have fun playing ball and the city that welcomes them with open arms.  They were regular guys, and the fans flocked to the stadium in record numbers to watch these personable players. If you were a fan of the Portland Mavericks, you KNEW these guys.  There were no barriers between the players and fans.

This documentary highlights exactly what independent baseball is all about.

These players didn’t have the financial backing, young talent or support of a major league organization, but it never showed.   Even without “big league” money, the players still received $500 a month (more than some independent league players today) and had accommodations in every city until, as legend has it, they were banned from staying everywhere in visiting cities due to different indiscretions.

They were often known for their barroom brawls and reckless behavior because, as one player put it, they “didn’t give a (bleep). We wanted to kick your ass. Other teams tried to intimidate us sometimes, and we’d just laugh at them. We played as hard as we could between the lines. And we played harder outside the lines afterward.”

These “misfits” took their carefree attitudes, their bright red bus with mattresses and “Portland’s Maverick Baseball Team” mistakenly written on the side (note the apostrophe placement), their black Labrador “bat dog”, P.L. Maverick, and ultimately held their own in a competitive league.

Although they started out as the only independent team in the Northwest League in 1973, there were two other teams in the new Independent Division of the league during their last season. Even when the Mavericks were dissolved after 1977, the independent trend continued with four indy teams in place during the 1978 season.

Not only did the Portland Mavericks re-create the idea of independent baseball, they also created a lot of other interesting stories along the way.

Keeping with the independent theme, owner Bing Russell kept all corporate sponsorships outside the gates; something that was never done with affiliated teams and stadiums.

They hired the first female general manager in professional baseball, as well as the first Asian American general manager.

They also invented Big League Chew bubblegum.  One night in the bullpen, relief pitcher Rob Nelson came up with the idea for bubblegum in a pouch that resembled chewing tobacco.  Jim Bouton took the idea to Wrigley, and Big League Chew was born.

The Mavericks also had one of the rarest players in baseball, the left handed catcher.  During tryouts Jim Swanson, a southpaw outfielder, noticed that the other catchers were terrible. He caught growing up, but knew there were little opportunities for left handed catchers to shine in professional baseball. He grabbed his catcher’s glove, continued the tryout as a catcher, and won the starting job.

In 1978, affiliated baseball made its way back to Portland.  After the encouraging fan support for the Mavericks, Portland decided to bring AAA baseball back to the town.  When all was said and done, Bing Russell was paid $206,000 (a record breaking sum) to hand over the territorial rights.

If you have Netflix, I highly recommend checking out this documentary. It’s a baseball story that is much deeper than it appears.  Fall in love with the Mavericks like the citizens of Portland in the 70’s.

“The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is a story about baseball misfits and rejects who did things their own way and did it well.

Bing Russell’s quote sums it up best: “I love the game dearly and wanted it to go back to the straw hat and beer days when 250 towns had minor league teams and most of them were not supported by a major league franchise.”

Writing and sharing stories about Independent Baseball.