The Indie Scene

Homer: You know, boy, some of the players you see tonight may make it to the big leagues someday.
Bart: What? Aren’t we going to see any washed-up major-leaguers?
Homer: Sure! We get a nice mix here.
From The Simpsons

The Springfield Isotopes—as any Simpsons obsessive knows—are connected to the traditional Major League Baseball system, serving as a farm club for the team in Capitol City. But while Springfield may have a team connected to the larger baseball world, not every place is so blessed. That void is filled by the independent leagues.

We’ll save the history of indy leagues for another column, but today there are eight leagues of varying prominence spread around the country. A couple have been around for a decade or so, but more are relatively recent innovations, looking to fill the hole in places overlooked by “organized baseball” for one reason or another.

One such is the somewhat awkwardly named Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, which has eight teams scattered around the northeast, as far south as Maryland and as far north as Connecticut. This past weekend I attended a game between the Bridgeport Bluefish and the hometown Long Island Ducks. The Ducks are traditionally one of the strongest draws in independent league baseball; they claim to hold the single-season attendance record for the indies, and have drawn more than 3 million fans.

(Indeed, the night I attended saw an announced attendance of more than 6,200. This is an especially, perhaps even dangerously, high total as stated capacity at Suffolk County Sports Park—no points for brevity there—is barely over 6,000.)

To the Ducks’ credit, they provide the fans a good time at the ballpark. In addition to a usually strong team on the field, they have finished in first place four out of their six full years in existence; they also provide an assortment of other entertainment. Longtime Met Bud Harrelson is a part-owner of the team, and after a token inning coaching first base, spent much of the game signing the baseballs that were the giveaway.

Quackerjack, cheering the Ducks to victory

The Ducks also embrace their outsider status, occasionally to the point of parody. The team’s mascot, Quackerjack—you groan, I’ll wait—rouses fans by holding up matching garbage can lids with LET’S and GO written on them, trusting the duties of holding the lid marked DUCKS to a rotating cast of young fans. A future promotion at the ballpark is sponsored by “Pointless Products.” One of the between inning activities was a game of horseshoes played with toilet seats, the action narrated by an “on-field host” wearing a Ducks orange—which is to say, very, very orange—blazer. You get the idea.

On the whole, the Ducks’ brand of silliness is no better and no worse than that at most non-majors parks. (I suppose the purist in me would call it a necessary evil but I must admit I enjoyed toilet seat horseshoes.) Nonetheless, the Ducks deserve credit for not attempting, as some minor league teams do, to pretend they are simultaneously hosting a Very Serious Athletic Event while also hosting a competition to throw tennis balls past Quakerjack’s sworn enemy, The Human Backstop. (Don’t even ask.)

The players are also, as Homer and Bart so nicely illustrated, an interesting mix. Those on the rosters of the two teams included former major leaguers of some prominence like Kip Wells, Josh Phelps, Antonio Alfonseca—the best 12-fingered pitcher in Atlantic League history—and Wily Mo Pena.

Pena, to his credit, reminded everyone in the ballpark what he can do when presented with the kind of fastballs Kip Wells throws, hitting an absolute shot of a home run to center field. That was one of few blemishes for the former Pirate, who went six innings to get the win in an easy 10-3 Ducks’ victory.

The majority of the rosters, however, are composed of players who had either a cup of coffee or less, some never making it higher than the low minors. I sometimes wonder about these kinds of players. Bridgeport’s second baseman, Joe Jiannetti, for example, spent four years in the Mets’ system, playing just five games in Double-A and never above. He has been plying his trade in the indies—Atlantic City, Newark, Edmonton, etc.—since 2005. Now 28, he seems unlikely to have the kind of rags-to-riches story that players like Kevin Millar and Jeff Zimmerman did, rising from independent league obscurity to major league glory.

For me, this makes Jiannetti and those like him an incredibly sad figure. He has extraordinary physical gifts and has no doubt spent endless hours refining them. I am—at least I like to think I am—a pretty good writer, but I am also, at most, a bit better than the average person. When it comes to playing baseball, Jiannetti is much, much better than the average person. He is in the 99th percentile at his chosen profession and yet, paradoxically, not good enough.

I know that to be a professional athlete, one cannot think about these things; an almost fanatical level of self-confidence is a necessity. But such confidence in others—especially strangers—is much harder to produce and players like Jiannetti end up producing a rather strong feeling of ennui if I think about them too much.

Of course, luckily I do not have to spend too much thinking about such players, as there always Bart’s “washed-up majors leaguers” to provide some measure of comic relief. A common, if not quite universal, quality among these players is a less than total commitment to their fitness. Or, as my father puts it, they’ve given up on the ab work. That is true; some of the bellies sported by the average major league veteran now playing in the Atlantic League would not look entirely out of place in your local beer league.

Having only attended those Atlantic League games, I cannot speak to the overall enjoyment of independent league baseball everywhere. But I have to believe that like the Atlantic League, others work hard to provide an enjoyable day at the ballpark, and succeed in doing so. It may never replace a day at a major league ballpark, but the indy scene is one worth checking out.

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  1. MikeS said...

    I think whether or not Jiannetti is a “Sad figure” depends on his attitude.  If he still thinks he’s going to make it big if he could just get someone to notice him then, yes, he’s probably deluding himself and should move on.  If he just loves to play baseball and is taking advantage of this opportunity, willing to take an offer from an affiliated team but not expecting one then he’s not sad at all.  He’s incredibly lucky to be able to play organized baseball in an environment like this.

    Your point about how even these players are elite is well taken.  When you are booing some middle reliever as a bum for coughing up a lead it’s easy to forget that even though he may not be one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball, he’s still one of the top 500 out of 6,000,000,000 humans.  The guy booing him is probably not in that class in his profession.

  2. Jason S. said...

    Jiannetti is probably not making a lot of money.  And continuing to play independent league baseball is wasting time that could possibly be better spent in trying to get a career going.  So yes, I think that a guy who is 28 and only played 5 games at AA level who is still playing baseball is indeed a sad figure.  In 7 years the people who went to high school with him will have 7 more years on their jobs and where exactly will Jiannetti be?  Still playing indie league ball?  What is he going to do when he finally gives up?  Yes, he is “living the dream” I guess, but maybe it’s time to give up that dream and face the reality that he just wasn’t good enough for MLB.  Is Jianetti still going to be praised when he has to work at minimum wage because he has no real job skills and he pissed way his 20s because he refused to face reality?

  3. cg said...

    Jason, you sound bitter that you can’t play indy ball. No need to be pompous. 

    Some of these guys make decent enough money, more than they would for an affiliated minor league team.

  4. GML said...

    Author and especially Jason S.:  You know so little about about this person’s life and his choices that your judgments have zero value.  Go ahead and and ponder how spectating baseball makes you feel in the context of your own lives, but don’t pretend to some sort of understanding of him. 

    Maybe he loves waking up and playing baseball all day.  Maybe it makes him feel even happier than anonymous internet commenting makes you feel.  Why publicly knock him for going out every day and doing something that people are perfectly willing to pay him to do?

  5. Richard Barbieri said...

    I agree with GML, and it wasn’t my intention to knock Jianetti for playing baseball. I don’t know anything about his situation and I don’t mean to imply that he is foolish for continuing to play.

    But I do think it is sad—and cruel—that he is so incredibly great at something while simultaneously not being good enough to make a career out of it.

  6. Thom S said...

    What is sad about getting to play baseball every day?  Agree that it seems injust to be so close but yet so far away from using those skills for the true glory of MLB, but it sure beats sitting in an office all day!

  7. johonny said...

    perhaps I missed something but isn’t the guy making a career out of it already.  He’s still making $ and playing ball.  In this economy a jobs a job.  Who knows what his career future will be.  For all we know he ends up managing sometime in the future.

  8. Thom S. said...

    Well said Brian.  They are all following their dream and I hope they all can hold on as long as humanly possible! 

    Take in many Short Season A games in Auburn NY and AAA games in Syracuse and have similar reaction each time.

  9. Brian Cartwright said...

    My wife and I were at a Double-A game in Altoona earlier this year. Domonic Brown hit a HR off Rudy Owens, both guys likely to spend their share of time in the majors.

    But there was a point in the game where I commented to my wife about the pitcher from Australia, the batter from Venezuela, the shortstop from Taiwan, none of whom I expect to ever make it to The Show (and likely neither do they), but here they were, from the ends of the globe, all gathered in Altoona Pa, playing the game they love, all while getting paid less than I make.

  10. abe said...

    Having gone to a number of Pensacola Pelicans games I still can’t comment on the motivations of the guys playing in these leagues but I think it is a bit of both ends of the spectrum. Some undoubtedly think they may make it. Some are just playing for the fun of it and picking ua a few (and it is just a few) bucks for doing something they love. And I am aware of a least one former Pelican who just used the fact that he played minor league ball on his resume when he applied for a teaching position. He’s helping to coach high school ball and hopes to stay involved in some way. Who knows where life will take these guys or what benefits they may gain down they road from chasing their dream.

    I’m just glad they do it and happy we have a local team. I lived in Atlanta for 20 years and attended a couple hundred Braves games from 1973-1994. It was a blast. But last time I drove up to see the big boys play 2 years ago I paid more for one ticket 30 rows off the field than I spent on my wife and I at the last Pels game I attended about a month ago for 3 rows back.Total. Tickets, cokes, hot dogs. And after the game all the Pelicans players remain on the field and the fans can come down and chat, get autographs, or just mill around. My grand kids love to go. They have little interest in going to Atlanta because they are too far from the action.

    I love baseball and especially the major leagues of course. But for a family night at the ballpark the minors have got it hands down. Thanks for the article on the Independents. There is a beauty in the minors that captures the spirit of baseball.

  11. Barry said...

    For a site that makes its living on data, i’m surprised you didn’t do a little more research on the ALPB -far and away the best independent league.
    Its “AAAA” baseball – a re-development league not a development league, and affordable fun. If you talk to any number of MLB scouting directors they’ll tell you the league plays an important role in keeping player acquisition costs down.  Sure its a mixed bag – But here’s a short history some of the 700 MLB experienced players who made it back to MLB teams.

    Reuben Sierra   OF   Texas Rangers   Atlantic City, ‘99
    Milt Cuyler   OF   Texas Rangers   Nashua, ‘99, ‘00, ‘02
    Joe Grahe   RHP   Philadelphia Phillies   Nashua, ‘98
    Felix Jose   OF   New York Yankees   Nashua, ‘98 & ‘99
    Jose Canseco   OF   Chicago White Sox   Newark, ‘01
    David Lundquist   LHP   San Diego/Chicago AL   Aberdeen, ‘00
    Curtis Pride   OF   Bos/Mont/NYY/Angels   Nashua, ‘99, ‘00, ‘03, ‘04
    * James Lofton   INF   Boston Red Sox   Nashua, ‘00
    Tim Raines   OF   Montreal/Baltimore/Marlins   Somerset, ‘00
    Joe Borowski   RHP   Cubs, Marlins, Rays,Indians   Newark, ‘00
    Carlos Baerga   INF   Bos/DBacks, Nationals   Long Island, ‘01
    * Brandon Puffer   RHP   Astros, Padres, Giants   Somerset, ‘01
    * Andy Shibilo   RHP   San Diego Padres   Lehigh Valley, ‘00
    * Bobby Hill   INF   Chicago Cubs, Pirates   Newark, ‘01
    Brendan Donnelly   RHP   Angels,R/sox,Indians   Nashua, ‘99
    Jose Lima   RHP   Royals, Dodgers, Mets   Newark, ‘03
    Rickey Henderson   OF   Los Angeles Dodgers   Newark, ‘03
    Pedro Borbon Jr.  LHP   St. Louis Cardinals   Long Island, ‘03
    Brady Raggio   RHP   Arizona Diamondbacks   Bridgeport, ‘03
    Mitch Melusky   C   Houston Astros, Rays   Somerset, ‘03
    Mike Glavine   1B   New York Mets   Somerset, ‘02
    Kirk Bullinger   RHP   Houston Astros   Somerset, ‘01
    Carlos Juan Pulido   LHP   Minnesota Twins   Somerset, ‘01
    Jose Offerman   INF   Twins, Phillies, Mets   Bridgeport, ‘03
    Bill Pulsipher   LHP   St. Louis Cardinals   Long Island, ‘03, ‘04
    Chris Widger   C   White Sox, O’s   Camden, ‘04
    Julio Mosquero   C   Milwaukee Brewers   Newark, ‘04
    Kane Davis   RHP   Brewers, Phillies   Camden, ‘04
    Joe Winkelsas   RHP   Milwaukee Brewers   Somerset, ‘04
    Ken Ray   RHP   Atlanta Braves   Long Island, ‘02
    Mike Rivera   C   Milwaukee Brewers   Atlantic City, ‘05
    *Stephen Drew   INF   Arizona Diamondbacks   Camden, ‘05
    Tomas DeLaRosa   INF   SF Giants   Nashua, ‘05
    *Jared Weaver   RHP   Cal Angeles   Camden ’05 (dnp)
    Jason Schiell   RHP   Atlanta Braves     Somerset, ‘06
    Chris Tremie       C   Houston Astros   Newark, ‘00
    Terry Pearson   RHP     Detroit Tigers   Nashua, ‘04
    Tike Redman   OF   Baltimore Orioles   York, ‘07
    *Mel Stocker   OF   Milwaukee Brewers   RW,Long Island, ‘07
    Nelson Figueroa   RHP   New York Mets   Long Island, ‘06
    Jason Simontachi   RHP   Washington Nats, ST Louis   Bridgeport, ‘06
    Scott Patterson   RHP   New York Yankees   Lancaster, ‘05
    Robinson Cancel   C   New York Mets   RW’03, Som,‘03,‘04
    Mark DeFelice   RHP   Milwaukee Brewers   So,‘05 Cam,‘06
    RJ Swindle   LHP   Philadelphia Phillies   Ne, ‘07
    Brandon Knight   RHP   New York Mets   Som, ‘07
    Alberto Castillo   LHP   Baltimore Orioles   RW, Cam, ‘07,New ‘05
    Michele Hernandez   C   Tampa Bay Rays   Somerset,’ 07
    Jason Perry   OF   Atlanta Braves   Lancaster, ‘08 (dnp)
    Greg Burke   RHP   San Diego Padres   Atlantic City, ‘05
    * Drew, Lofton, Hill, Shibilo Stocker, Puffer and Weaver are only players to MLB without prior ML experience.
    Below is a list of former Atlantic League players who played in the Major Leagues in 2009:

    Jared Weaver   RHP   Camden   Angels
    Steven Drew   SS   Camden   D’backs
    RJ Swindle   LHP   Newark   Brewers
    Nelson Figueroa   SS   Long Island   Mets
    Michel Hernandez   C   Somerset   Rays
    Mike DeFelice   RHP   Somerset, Camden   Brewers
    Michael Rivera   C   Atl City   Brewers
    Greg Burke   RHP   Atl City   Padres
    Alberto Castillo   LHP   R/W,New, Cam.  Orioles
    Brendan Donnelly   RHP   Somerset   Marlins
    Robinson Cancel   C   Somerset/ RW   Mets

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