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Rochester could do more rooting for home teams

One thing I've never been able to figure out about Rochester is why the community doesn't do a better job of supporting sports franchises.

On paper, the community would appear to have the population and per capita income to support multiple minor league pro franchises. For example, if much smaller and less wealthy cities such as Beloit, Wis., Clinton, Iowa, and Lansing, Mich., can support pro franchises, why not Rochester?

One minor league basketball, baseball and volleyball team after another has come here to die. Only one franchise has been continually successful, the Rochester Honkers baseball team, which has lasted 17 years in the community.

Although the team operates in most of the same ways as minor league pro baseball organizations — beer sales, sponsorships, on-field promotions and a nifty team mascot — it differs from pro franchises in one significant way. The players are all college students who don't get paid.

I'd like to commend Honkers owners Kim Archer and Dan Litzinger and the Honkers organization for another successful season on and off the field. The Honkers provide great family entertainment for Rochester area residents in June, July and August. And the team is nearly always competitive.


Despite a 2010 campaign in which more than half of the roster turned over during the course of the season because of injuries, pro contract signings and departures for other reasons, the Honkers came just one game short of winning a second consecutive league championship. The team has won a record five league titles.

I couldn't help but be disappointed by the crowd at Tuesday's first playoff game between the Honkers and the St. Cloud River Bats, which was listed at about 450. (Mayo Field has a capacity of about 2,600.) The crowd at Mayo Field for Saturday night's championship series game with Eau Claire was announced just under 1,000. I'd estimate that at least 200 of those fans were clad in rust colored T-shirts with Eau Claire Express logos on them.

Contrast that with the scene at Newman Outdoor Field in Fargo on Friday night, where my son and I attended a game between the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks and the Winnipeg Goldeyes while we were in town to move my daughter back into a house on the campus of Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Although the game meant nothing (the Redhawks had already clinched a playoff spot,) the stadium was filled to capacity and the mood in the ballpark was decidedly more boisterous than it had been at Mayo Field on Tuesday.

Some history: The Fargo and Winnipeg teams play in the independent Northern League, which was formed in 1993 with pro minor league franchises throughout the Upper Midwest, including Rochester.

The Rochester Aces, a team managed by a beefy former minor league catcher named Doug Siminuc, lasted just one year. The league pulled the plug on the Aces because of low attendance and moved the team to Winnipeg, where Simunic continued as manager.

In 1996, Simunic took over as  manager of a new Northern League franchise in Fargo-Moorhead. He's been managing that team ever since.

The collegiate Northwoods League came into being in 1994; Rochester was one of the founding franchises.

Although the team has maintained steady attendance throughout its history, it has slipped behind other teams in the league over the past few years. This year, its per-game average ranked 11th in the 16-team league, behind teams in communities half Rochester's size, including St. Cloud, Mankato, La Crosse, Wis., and Eau Claire, Wis.


I can't help but think that one of the reasons Rochester is beginning to lag behind some of the other franchises is that the Honkers play in one of the more decrepit ballparks in the league. Although some improvements have been made to city-owned Mayo Field over the years, most of them paid for by the Honkers, the park is nearly 60 years old and in dire need of a major rebuild or complete overhaul.

Beyond that, though, I just don't know why the Rochester area doesn't do  a better job of supporting the sports franchises, despite steady population growth. It's a mystery to me.


After writing this column, I learned of the death of Honkers pitcher Mitch Caster in a car accident in Iowa early Monday morning while he was returning to college in Kansas. It was a terrible blow to the team after such a successful season. I offer my condolences and prayers to Mitch's family, friends and his teammates with the Honkers and at Wichita State University, where he would have been a senior this year.

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