Low budget + low stakes + low minors = high drama!

By mid-August, major league teams pretty well know if they have a realistic shot at the postseason or if it’s time to abandon ship, jettison the veterans, and launch a youth movement. In the low-rent United League, however, the postseason has already come and gone. And you missed it!

If you don’t follow the United League, that is understandable. If you have never heard of it, that too is understandable. The season is less than half as long as the major league season, and the rosters are largely composed of independent league vets and undrafted college players. If there is a recognizable name on the squad, it is likely the manager (e.g., Doc Edwards in San Angelo, Von Hayes in Alexandria, Jim Essian in Fort Worth, and Ozzie Canseco in Edinburg).

In the big leagues, they only talk about contraction. In the independent minor leagues, they actually do it from time to time. This year the United League started out with six teams and finished with four:

The final standings for the 2013 season were:

Fort Worth Cats				            49-30		   ---		
Edinburg Roadrunners			            41-39           8.5
Alexandria Aces				            24-24	    9.5
San Angelo Colts				    39-40	    10
Rio Grande Valley Whitewings	    	            36-4	    12.5
McAllen Thunder				            18-30	    15.5

The Alexandria (Louisiana) Aces, the only non-Texas team in the league, did not finish the season, but as the above shows, they were playing .500 ball at the time of their demise. Their home park, Bringhurst Field (built in 1933), is an antiquated bandbox that would warm the heart of any true seamhead. Unfortunately, it is no longer structurally sound. Last year, the Aces (then a collegiate summer league team) had to end their season early because of safety issues. This season, the ballpark reopened, but the stigma persisted and the fans stayed away, creating a severe cash flow problem.

So the Aces went belly up. That left the league with an odd number of teams. No problem, as the McAllen Thunder was a travel team and could be disbanded easily. So the schedule was hastily juggled, the best players on the defunct teams found new homes, and the season continued with four teams. The Aces’ web site says they will be back in 2014, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Well, one good thing about a league with four teams is you don’t suffer from playoff overload. The top two teams meet in a best-of-five format and that’s it. In fact, it’s a rematch of the two teams who fought for the championship last year. The top team, the Fort Worth Cats, has the ultimate home field advantage: all games will be played at their home park, LaGrave Field. No word on how the defending champion Edinburg Roadrunners felt about having no home games, but at least that eliminated the 500-mile bus trip.

It almost seems as if the league just wanted to get the postseason over with as quickly as possible. The first game started the day after the regular season ended and the one-venue setup eliminated travel days. Nevertheless, the two teams went the distance and then some. Here’s a recap of the five games:

Game One (Thursday, Aug. 15) went to the Fort Worth Cats. It was really no contest. The Cats scored early and often while the Roadrunners couldn’t score off Cats starter Cole Stephens till the ninth inning. Stephens pitched a complete game, giving up seven hits, no walks, and two runs. The Cats’ offensive onslaught was led by Cody Bishop, who went 5-for-5 (four singles, one double, one walk), scored three runs and knocked in six. End result: Cats 13, Roadrunners 2.

Game two (Friday, Aug. 16) was a very different affair as the Roadrunners shut out the Cats 3-0. It was all goose eggs for the first four innings, but Tom Battle and Carlton Salters put the Roadrunners on the board with solo homers in the fifth inning. The Cats, not only scoreless but hitless through five, made it interesting in the ninth, loading the bases with one out before David Bergin grounded sharply into a game-ending double-play.

In game three (Saturday, Aug. 17) The Cats took a 2-1 lead in the series. They were leading 6-5 by the seventh inning stretch, and so it remained to the end as the Cats’ bullpen held the line in the eighth and ninth innings.

Game four (Sunday, Aug. 18) resulted in a 9-3 Edinburg victory, thus knotting the series at two games apiece. The game was tied 1-1 through four innings, but the Roadrunners scored in every inning after that and pulled away. Despite the lopsided score, the Cats had their chances to compete. They collected 10 hits and nine walks, and put the ball in play 26 times out of 27 outs. They left 15 men on base, running their total in that regard to 47 for the series. Not a good omen.

In game five (Monday, Aug. 19), the Cats led 6-2 after five innings, but the Roadrunners chipped away, adding a run in the sixth and one in the seventh. Nevertheless, their season appeared over when they were down 6-4 and down to their last out in the top of the ninth. But after two singles, a stolen base, and a killer error by Cats shortstop Logan Brumley, the score was even at 6. The Cats did not score in the ninth, but Edinburg tallied four in the 10th and the Cats did not come back. Final score: Roadrunners 10, Cats 6. Game over. Series over.

So against all odds, the Edinburg Roadrunners repeated as United League champions, spoiling the Cats’ season, which they had billed as their 125th anniversary. In a sense, the season had come full circle. The Roadrunners started the season in Fort Worth just before Memorial Day Weekend. With Jose Canseco opening the season on the Cats’ roster and brother Ozzie managing the Roadrunners, the league actually drew some big media attention over the holiday weekend.

The United League championship series is just the sort of tussle the network suits hope to see in October when the major league postseason begins. No better way to boost ratings than a series that goes the distance. Of course, there were no TV cameras for the Cats-Roadrunners showdown. Maybe 1,000 or so fans were on hand for each game. Those folks are indeed hard-core.

This brings up one important distinction between the minor leagues (affiliated and unaffiliated) and the major leagues. In the minors, attendance at postseason games is often less than at regular season games. There are a variety of reasons for that.

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First, the average minor league park is an open-air day care center. All the fireworks and giveaways that draw families with small children during the regular season require planning, and that’s hard to do in the postseason. Many teams don’t know if they’re going to be in the postseason till the end of the regular season, and even then, they don’t know how many games they will play in their home park.

Teams that win the first half of a split-season format have a big advantage in that regard, as they will have plenty of time to figure out what to do with their allotted home games in the first round, and if they’re lucky, they will be assigned weekend games.

The United League wrapped on Aug. 19, but most minor leagues will play their postseason games in September, when school nights become a factor and many sports fans have turned their attention to football.

Perhaps the main reason for the lack of interest in postseason minor league ball is that the stakes are low. If the World Series is the counterpart of the heavyweight championship in boxing, then the Triple-A championship game (this year being played on Sept. 17 in Allentown, Pa.) is like the light heavyweight championship. And the United League? Probably somewhere between flyweight and bantamweight.

To be sure, the baseball being played is nowhere near major league quality, and the same is often true of the amenities. For example, when you buy a mini-helmet full of candy at the concession stand at LaGrave Field, you can’t help but note that the helmet is red. Nothing wrong with red, but the Cats’ color is blue. A closer look reveals that the original team logo, whatever it was, has been scratched off. Of course, the helmet still serves its purpose, but aesthetically speaking, it leaves something to be desired.

The scoreboard alone offers many examples of shortcomings. For one thing, the video screen is long past its prime. The “at bat” section of the scoreboard has been frozen on one number, I think, all season, and the clock on top of the scoreboard never tells the right time. This is an improvement over last year, however, when the clock had no hands at all! (And if you can name the American writer who wrote a novel called “Clock Without Hands,” give yourself a gold star.)

There are compensating factors, however. A local craft beer, Rahr & Sons, is available for $5 a pint. As ballpark concession prices go, that’s hardly outrageous, but the savvy fans wait to see if the designated beer batter strikes out. If he does, then fans have a 10-minute window to purchase two beers for the price of one. The offer holds true every time the guy comes up to bat, so if he’s having a really bad night, fans can get a bargain beer buzz. I daresay your local major league facility has no such feature! On the contrary, you’re likely to get a lecture on responsible drinking to go along with the overpriced beer.

To some extent, I sympathize with the problem of alcohol abuse. In fact, if I were running a minor league team, I would try to work up a deal with the local IHOP franchises whereby every fan would receive a free short stack of pancakes whenever the designated batter strikes out. He would, of course, be known as the designated pancake batter. That would probably mollify the folks who attend the church of latter day teetotalers but would horrify the low carb crowd.

But there will be no more designated batters of any kind and no more baseball at LaGrave Field till 2014. In the meantime, there’s still the possibility of more postseason baseball in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The Rangers have a good shot at their fourth straight appearance in the postseason. More importantly, the Grand Prairie Air Hogs have a shot to win their division and qualify for the American Association postseason.

Why do I say more importantly? The Air Hogs also feature a designated beer batter! What better way to get a head start on Oktoberfest?

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Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 47 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Dennis Bedard
Dennis Bedard

For a super duper promotion, why not have Double Designated Beer Batter night.  Bring back Reggie Jackson and Dave Kingman.  Bat them in the 3-4 order.  If they each strike out, it’s 2/1.  But if they strike out consecutively, offer an 8/1.  But you can only redeem the coupons at the next four games and are limited to two beers per game.  Sort of a baseball version of the daily double!

Paul Blocklyn
Paul Blocklyn

“Clock Without Hands” is a 1961 novel by Carson McCullers.

In lieu of a gold star, can I get a pint of Rahr & Sons?