America Needs (More) Independent Baseball
Over the course of that last year, the entire developmental levels of professional baseball has been restructured. Under the control of MLB, forty three minor league teams were eliminated prior to the 2021 season. Some of those franchises joined “independent” MLB Partner Leagues. Others formed collegiate (wood bat) summer leagues like the Appalachian League and MLB Draft League. While these leagues may not be considered part of affiliated Minor League Baseball, their partnership with MLB places them at risk of controlling their own destiny.
MLB Partner League
The development of the MLB Partner Leagues has actually shrunk the number of independent baseball leagues. Prior to this season, the Atlantic League, American Association of Professional Baseball, Frontier League and Pioneer League were fully independent. Now, as part of the MLB Partner League, Major League Baseball has influence in their decision making. The result is mostly that MLB will impose experimental rule changes on their partners.
For example, the Atlantic League will have computers, not umpires, call balls and strikes. The Pioneer League will incorporate a home run derby rather than extra innings to settle games tied after nine innings. These ideas may be worth exploring, but MLB could have easily used their MiLB affiliate leagues to test run their ideas. That’s what they have been doing the last few seasons. Instead, MLB seems to be on a quest for more control over all American baseball.
While there are certainly benefits to partnerships with MLB, there’s a considerable positive value in seeing fully independent baseball league succeed. In fact, independent, unaffiliated professional baseball may play a critical role in the future of the game. The restructuring of Minor League Baseball actually increased the control MLB has over affiliated baseball and even many independent leagues.
The True Independents
Empire Professional Baseball League
Empire Professional Baseball League is a six team league (founded in 2015) with franchises in upstate New York, New Hampshire, Georgia and. Puerto Rico. Similar to USPBL, they focus on attracting un-drafted college players and giving them an opportunity to continue to play and improve. Due to COVID restrictions, the 2020 season took place entirely in Washington, Pennsylvania. Opening Day in the Empire League is scheduled for June 12. It also appears this season will only include the teams in the Northeast and exclude Georgia and Puerto Rico.
Pecos League is a fourteen team league that spans across the Great Planes, Rocky Mountains and West Coast. Founded in 2011, the league has more than doubled it’s size and expanded it’s geography. Pecos League has two divisions, Mountain Division (8 teams) and Pacific Division (6 teams). The Mountain Division includes franchises in Alpine (TX), Colorado Springs (C), Garden City (KS), Roswell (NM), Salina (KS), Santa Fe (NM), Trinidad (CO) and Tucson (AZ). The Pacific Division franchises all fall within the state of California (Bakersfield, Martinez, Monterey, San Rafael, Santa Cruz and Wasco). The season runs early June until early August. Opening Day in the Pecos League is June 2.
USBPL is a four team league (established in 2016) located in Utica, Michigan (northern suburbs of Detroit). This is a unique concept among independent leagues, but one worth considering. USPBL plays all it’s games at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica, Michigan. It eliminates travel between cities and all players live in the area during the season. The Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers, Eastside Diamond Hoppers, Utica Unicorns and Westside Woolly Mammoths play largely a long weekend schedule (Thursday-Sunday). Their season runs late May to early September. Opening Day in the USPBL is May 28.
It remains unclear if the three team Pacific League, located in northern California, will play a season in 2021. Their entire 2020 season was cancelled due to COVID and no indication has been made yet for this season.
An Independent Future?
The realignment and restructuring of MiLB may have both weakened and strengthened independent leagues all at the same time. The co-opting of several independent leagues by MLB, under the MLB Partners banner, has weakened independent baseball. At the same time, it offers an opportunity for leagues like the Empire, Pecos and USBPL to stand out as alternatives to the MLB monopoly on the game.
These independent leagues can serve as developmental alternatives to the highly controlled farm systems of MLB. Independent baseball has the opportunity to create a regional and local appeal, unique to the towns and cities they represent. They can offer players and fans an old-time baseball experience, reminiscent of the blue collar origins of America’s forgotten pastime.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared in the May 22 edition of the IBWAA’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter. Picture is courtesy of USPBL.com.