Expanded Northwoods League experienced growing pains
Growth and expansion are generally positive adjectives in the world of business, and by that measure the Northwoods League has been an unqualified success.
The summer baseball league for college players which Dick Raddatz Jr. helped hatch right here in Rochester in 1994 has added teams six times in 17 seasons, from five small-market clubs to a strapping 16-team league with two divisions.
New franchises in Willmar and Wisconsin Rapids this summer helped the league set a new attendance record with over 857,000 fans, playoffs included, and with two or three championship series games left to add.
But with growth can come growing pains, and the teams remaining in the playoffs — or what's left of them — are now dealing with it. Each year that the league has added teams, it has also increased the number of games in the regular season.
Now it seems that the 70-game season has literally become difficult to manage.
"It's too long in my opinion," said St. Cloud River Bats manager Gabe Boruff on Wednesday night at Joe Faber Stadium in St. Cloud, after his bare-bones team was swept by the similarly-thinned Rochester Honkers in the North Division playoff series.
Boruff's River Bats were running on fumes due to player departures and bore little resemblance to the team that won a franchise record 40 games in the regular season. St. Cloud had only eight position players and 11 pitchers, seven short of a full roster.
Several players left in the last week, despite St. Cloud's playoff chase, because college classes were starting back up.
"I did the best job I could do with the players I had left," said Boruff, who lost his only remaining catcher to an injury Wednesday and faced the prospect of taking his team into the league championship series with a pitcher or outfielder behind the plate. "The playoffs should start by the second week of August and be done by the time we started (Aug. 17) this year," said Boruff, a first-year manager in the league who is an assistant coach at Washington State.
"For one thing, players need a little break before they go back to school. And if your team is fortunate to get this (in the playoffs) you're going to lose some big players. That's what happened to us."
Rochester Honkers manager Ryan Ruizagreed with Boruff.
The Honkers have also lost a couple of players who had to get back to school, and a couple of others still with the team are missing their school starts. "If we're trying to do what's best for the kids I think the season should be shortened by a week," said Ruiz, Rochester's first-year manager from Central Arizona College. "First and foremost these are college kids and the start of their school year needs to be a priority," he said.
"Secondly, a shorter season would help us put a quality team on the field in the playoffs." Boruff said a 60-game regular season would be better. Ruiz suggested the number of games remain the same, but with more doubleheaders to shorten the schedule. "The second thing that would help would be to expand the roster from 26 to 28 players," Ruiz added. "Play more doubleheaders and increase the roster size, that's how I'd conquer this issue."
PLAYOFF ATTENDANCE SLIDE: Maybe the longer season is testing fans' attention span for summer college baseball, or maybe August just brings too many other things to do. Whatever the cause, all four playoff teams saw their attendance numbers drop in the two division series.
Rochester drew a season-low crowd of 451 for Tuesday night's North Division opener against St. Cloud, more than 700 below its season average. St. Cloud fared worse, pulling in only 373 on Wednesday night for game two.
The River Bats averaged 1,752 during the season, fourth-best in the league. The South Division teams drew better, although down by their own numbers. Eau Claire averaged 1,500 for two playoff games, after averaging 2,132 during the season.
Wisconsin, which plays in Wausau, got 1,062 for its playoff game, down from a season average of 1,766.