I am asked fairly often why I enjoy watching independent league baseball as much as I do. The simple answer is that I just love baseball, but the answer is actually a lot more complex than that. The indy ball ranks are where you find guys who truly love the sport. These guys play for the love of the game and the off-chance that they may be found by a big league organization to further their careers and dreams away from “Indy Ball Island.”
They sure don’t do it for the money or fame. Most players live with host families and can make a minimum of $600 a month. Games are rarely televised anywhere and are often played in front of crowds in the low thousands or even hundreds. A lot of the players are guys who never got drafted out of college or, for one reason or another, didn’t make it in affiliated ball after being signed. For most, “Indy Ball Island” is their last stop in the baseball world, and they never manage to get off the island. For others, it catapults them into affiliated ball with a new chance to prove themselves on the diamond.
THIS is why I love independent baseball. These guys show true heart and dedication to the game. I love the fact that the crowds are so small. The ballpark is intimate, and you can have a real connection with the players. Connections that, for me, have lasted well after the players leave the diamond for the last time.
As a season ticket holder for the Washington WildThings, an independent club in the Frontier League, I have seen many players come through Consol Energy Park. Some have stayed for a few weeks, and others have stayed for a few years, but all have had some impact on my life. I’ve seen losing seasons and winning seasons, playoff games and games where we fought to get out of last place. I’ve witnessed my first perfect game and Frontier League record-breaking nights. I’ve watched careers come to an end and careers take off, first professional hits and last professional hits. Independent baseball is truly unique.
I’ve helped cook them breakfast before road trips and dinner after games, brought candy for bus rides and good luck gum before each home start. In need of high socks? We’ve got those for the boys too. Want a stuffed animal to bring with you on road trips? Just show up at “the jungle”, and we’ll hook you up with one of those. Section 101 in Washington, PA is not just a group of ordinary fans… we truly care about these boys and their careers. We support them as much as possible because we know it’s not easy being away from your family while trying to live out your dream. We are there for every win and every loss. We ride this roller coaster of a season with them every step of the way.
While the Frontier League isn’t the lowest of the low in independent baseball, it is pretty darn close. For an eye-opening look of something a little bit lower, I suggest a look at “The Pecos League” which is also a reality show that was shown on Fox Sports (and the subject of many posts on this site). It gives a pretty good insight into what these guys go through just to live out their dream.
Even through all the ups and downs, one of the coolest things about indy ball is seeing your boys succeed and realize that dream become a reality. In 2014, Washington had a few guys who we had to say “happy goodbye” to. Getting picked up by an affiliated team is always the goal, and as fans we are always prepared for it to happen. You want it to happen, but it’s still hard.
During the 2014 season, we said goodbye to two of my closest friends in the WildThings Organization. Outfielder Stewart Ijames (undrafted after his senior year in college) was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks (and went on to play for the Missoula Osprey and Hillsboro Hops where he won a Championship Ring.) Another outfielder, CJ Beatty (former St. Louis Cardinals prospect), was signed by the Chicago White Sox organization (where he played for his hometown Winston-Salem Dash.)
During that off-season, pitchers Al Yevoli (who spent time in Spring Training with the Braves and played in the Cubs organization) and Troy Marks (who spent spring training with the Phillies) were also signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks… Looks like there will be a WildThings reunion in AZ during Spring Training!!
Al and Troy were the 41st and 42nd players to be signed out of the Frontier League in 2014, setting a new record for the league. Stories like this are all over independent baseball leagues around the country.
If you were to write-up a script to explain what the independent leagues are all about, you would tell the story of Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher John Holdzkom. Here is a guy who was drafted in the 4th round by the New York Mets, had a rough 4 seasons in their organization (mixed with a Tommy John surgery that took 2 years to recover from), returned to college for a semester, had a brief stint with the Cincinnati Reds organization, played baseball internationally with the New Zealand team and in Australia, before landing back in the US to play independent ball for two years.
One night, a scout who was actually about to leave the game watched him pitch and was impressed with what he saw. He called the Pirates who signed him and added him to their AA roster in June. After just 4 games, he was moved up to AAA. The Pirates selected his contract, put him on the 40 man roster, and called him up with September call-ups. He pitched in 9 regular season games and in the NL Wild Card game. Going from a top prospect, to a struggling minor leaguer, to an independent ball player is a story that is often told. But Holdzkom’s story is special. With just a few small adjustments in indy ball, he propelled himself to the major leagues in just a couple of months. He was rescued from indy ball island and never looked back.
It’s all about first, second or even third chances. It’s about teaching everyone to never give up. It’s all about heart and dedicating your life to live out a dream. Stories like these are exactly why I love independent ball as much as I do.