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.