Independent League baseball is like the Island of Misfit Ballplayers, full of unheralded prospects and vets desperate for one last shot at the dance.
Independent League baseball, best known these days as where Jose Canseco has gone to keep busy (when aliens aren’t hacking his Twitter account), and where Jose Offerman once went to try to decapitate pitchers with a bat, is like the Island of Misfit Ballplayers, full of unheralded prospects trying to jump-start careers and old vets desperate for one last shot at the dance.
Indy ball, the catch-all term for baseball leagues not affiliated with MLB or its minor leagues, provides dozens of small towns (your Bridgeports, your Joliets, your Sioux Cities) with an affordable way to see live, professional baseball. By most measures, it’s going stronger than ever: Attendance was up in 2011 in two of the biggest unaffiliated circuits, the American Association and the Atlantic League. In Central Islip, New York, an average of 5,537 fans filed into Bethpage Ballpark (next to a sprawling criminal-court complex) 60-plus nights this past summer to see the Long Island Ducks battle teams from Camden and Somerset, New Jersey, and York, Pennsylvania.
Clubs as far-flung as the Normal CornBelters, Taverse City Beach Bums, and Maui Na Koa Ikaika bring in fans in droves, but these quirky independent leagues can fail as well, and fail spectacularly. That’s just what happened to the short-lived South Coast League, a well-intentioned but ill-fated unaffiliated league that took off like a (poorly built) rocket five years ago this May. The SCL, with clubs in micropoli like Macon, Georgia, (pop. 91,351 in ’07); Bradenton, Florida, (53,471); and Aiken, South Carolina, (29,494) launched in 2007 and lasted one exactly season.
It was run by a guy named Jaime Toole, a former Pittsburgh Pirates executive who promised to bring hardball to communities underserved by pro sports. Of course, places like Anderson, South Carolina, and Albany, Georgia, are underserved by practically everything—for example, Albany doesn’t have a Panera Bread. But the SCL’s brief run did provide memorable moments, largely lost to history except by the few who attended games.
The league had six teams—the South Georgia Peanuts, Bradenton Juice, Charlotte County Redfish, Aiken Foxhounds, Anderson Joes, and Macon Music—and an 80-plus-game season. The Juice was an obvious drug reference during the height of revelations about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball; Macon Music was just a groan-inducing pun, albeit the second worst in the city’s history (after Macon Whoopee, the defunct minor-league hockey team).
The teams played in charming old baseball relics, such as Macon’s 1929-built Luther Williams Field, and also in shopworn cookie-cutter parks like Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. The league hired Cecil Fielder as a roving hitting instructor—as in, he worked for all the teams—before the season, and Big Daddy was ready, telling Florida reporters he was “looking forward to the challenge of helping these young men.” It was time to play ball.
Then the games—and the problems—started. The Charlotte Redfish, whose park has since become the spring-training home of the Tampa Bay Rays, drew an impressive 3,850 fans to their first game, where tickets topped out at $6—$1.25 less than the cost of a pint of Narragansett Lager at Fenway Park. The plan was for a guy to parachute into the stadium and deliver the first pitch before a pumped-up crowd. But, in what you might regard as a bad omen, he missed the field entirely.
The parachutist “failed to clear the right-field wall and landed in a palm tree outside the stadium,” wrote Dennis Maffezzoli in the next day’s Sarasota Herald-Tribune. There were other screw-ups, like the tiki bar band whose songs drowned out the PA announcer and paint cans in the press box left over from very-last-minute touch-ups to the ballpark, which had sat unused for several years before the SCL’s arrival.
The league’s biggest attraction, former Mets sparkplug Wally Backman, who had signed on to manage the visiting South Georgia Peanuts, was curiously absent from his team’s first game. Backman would later show up for work, and make his mark on the SCL with one of the more profane on-field tirades in baseball history. But his conspicuous absence was one of a battery of missteps that marked the beginning of the SCL era. (Backman’s ’nuts would be chronicled later in the ten-episode Playing for Peanuts documentary series, which is almost as long as the team’s history.)
Backman’s Peanuts, whose logo was an anthropomorphic peanut in a backwards cap, dominated the SCL. They played at a torrid 33-11 pace in the first half, finishing 59-28, and went on to win the first and only South Coast League Championship. Other former major-leaguers didn’t work out as managers—70s Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jackie Hernandez hasn’t since helmed a Major League team, or an affiliated one, since he led the Redfish to a 22-64 record that was good for last place. Aiken, meanwhile was skippered by Chris Bando, the former big-league catcher whose biggest claim to fame is being related to Sal Bando. The Anderson Joes were managed not by Joe, but Kash Beauchamp, the long-time minor leaguer drafted ahead of Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett.
Shockingly, these “famous” managers did not put asses in the seats, and neither did the bad baseball. The SCL also had to deal with the oppressive summer heat in states like Florida and Georgia that usually keeps fans from sitting in shade-free ballparks and sweating through three-hour games.
Toole and the rest of the league brass floated a motto for the 2008 season that read “The boys are back in town.” Trouble is, they weren’t coming back. Georgia’s Albany Herald reported in November 2007 that the league lost a cool million bucks in each market. Backman fled for another gig in another unaffiliated league a month later. The league was even cited for owing Albany $38,000 for an unpaid utility bill.
A nadir was reached in March 2008 when the Macon Music announced plans to hold “Eliot Spitzer Night,” a riff on the prostitution scandal surrounding the then-New York governor. The Music’s press release stated any fan who had “resigned their position” would get a buck off admission, and anyone named Eliot, Spitzer, or Kristen (the fake name of Spitzer’s special lady) would get in free. Fans and media did not take kindly to the cheeky promotion—“No person's life is so tragic that somebody else can't make money off of it,” wrote Reid Cherner in USA Today—and league CEO Toole resigned less than two weeks later. (But at least he’d get a buck off admission in Macon, right?)
Shortly after Toole’s resignation, the league, already in contraction mode, folded, and Toole went on to work for something called “Super Independent Baseball.” The SIB website doesn’t appear to have been updated in a couple years, so that probably died as well. Oh well. As long as at least one of these leagues exists, Jose Canseco will always have a place to try to come back.