Minor League Baseball is about development and growing maturity. It’s about raw young kids working their way up the ladder toward Major League dreams with either the blazing ascendance of Billy Hamilton or the patient momentum of Jackie Bradley, becoming men in the process.
Independent Baseball is about the unmatched combination of absurdity and magnificence. It’s about Roger Clemens, newest member of the Sugar Land Skeeters.
When the news broke about Clemens’ signing, analysts and pundits rushed to get inside Clemens’ head, blathering about the potential reasons he could have for making joining the Skeeters and wondering whether there could be a return trip to the Major Leagues a little bit farther down the road for the Rocket. But no one wondered about the Skeeters’ motivation for signing the seven-time Cy Young Award winner. It was obvious. Independent League teams care about winning, selling tickets and grabbing headlines – and not necessarily in that order.
Your average Minor League Baseball team has its fireworks nights, kids’ days, top prospects and Major League rehabbers.
Your average Independent League Baseball team is nonexistent. There is nothing average about playing in the Indy Leagues.
There are the magnificent teams, successful and newsworthy, from the Long Island Ducks to the Gateway Grizzlies to the St. Paul Saints, noted for their creative promotions, powerful teams, and consistent attendances.
And there are the embarrassing outfits, like the London Rippers, who failed to secure an alcohol license for their stadium, watched their owner shoot himself in the foot on occasion, and shut down midway through the Frontier League season, yielding to a travel team; or the Worcester Tornadoes, who didn’t pay their cleaning service.
Independent League teams share one inherent negative – they are not partnered with Major League teams, thereby lacking the draw of a nearby Minor League team that may boast “the Dodgers of tomorrow” – but that lack of affiliation offers freedom.
Indy League teams can host “Atheist Night” or call games early in order to shoot off fireworks without needing to contact any Major League parent club to get an official sign-off. Ila Borders can pitch in Indy ball, while 94-year-old Buck O’Neil can take a couple of at-bats.
I spent 2005 with the Can-Am League’s Brockton Rox, a team that boasted 45-year-old “Oil Can” Boyd in the starting rotation and “Singing” Ed Nottle as manager. Capitalizing on the Red Sox’ World Series win the previous October, the Rox released a Curt Schilling bobble-ankle doll (complete with bloody sock, no less). We held a “You Be the Official Scorer” Night, handing out hit/error signs and giving the fans the power to score the game. That was an uproarious success, unlike our night for recognizing vision impairment.
It was a fine idea on paper to pipe the radio play-by-play through the P.A. system and encourage fans to close their eyes and listen to the sounds of the game. There were, unfortunately, two things we had not taken into account: Players do not like hearing their every movement (and their poor batting statistics) described vividly. And, yes, it turns out that it can be quite dangerous for fans to close their eyes when they are in foul ball range.
But that’s the backbone of Indy League marketing, tightrope-walking the line between glory and disaster.
In a sense, Sugar Land’s marketing crew has already succeeded, drawing national attention and selling thousands of tickets for Roger Clemens’ scheduled Saturday start. Based on how the Rocket pitches, there could be greater fortune in store… or the whole thing may just fizzle. (Heck, why stop at Roger Clemens if you’re the Skeeters? Why not add Barry Bonds to the starting lineup and go for the gusto? Why not create an entire team of alleged enhancers and conquer the Atlantic League? It’s Independent League baseball. If you’re not being a renegade, you’re not trying.)
When asked why he was coming back with Sugar Land, Clemens’ response was straightforward: “I’m 50 years old. We’re just going to go out and have fun with this and make it fun for the fans.”
Taking those words (and Clemens’ ulterior motives) at face value or not, there’s still an element of truth to be found. The circus is coming to Constellation Field on Saturday, presenting a main attraction worthy of the center ring. Whether Clemens turns out to be a showstopper or merely a clown, the fans – and media – will have their fun.
No maturity needed.