Fun While It Lasted

The Untold Stories of Forgotten Teams

Posts Tagged ‘Independent Baseball

#44 Rocky Mount Pines

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Minor league baseball’s Rocky Mount (NC) Pines were a one-year wonder in the single-A Carolina League in the summer of 1980.  The team has attracted a minor cult following among baseball people due to its 24-114 record (.174 winning percentage), one of the worst in the history of the game.

The Pines were independent – no Major League parent club – which was one of the reasons for their epic futility.  Of the 136 minor league teams active in the summer of 1980, the Pines were the only one to make a go of it without Major League affiliation.

The Pines owner, a 63-year old former minor league ballplayer named Lou Haneles, operated a handful of low-level minor league teams over the years, typically running them as independents and stocking the rosters with wanna-be pro ballplayers from his chain of instructional baseball schools.  During the summer of 1979, Haneles owned the independent Newark Co-Pilots of the short-season New York-Penn League.

Carolina League President Jim Mills approached Haneles’ Co-Pilots manager Mal Fichman about moving up a competitive notch in 1980 by fielding a team in his Carolina League, which was expanding from six to eight teams.  Rocky Mount, North Carolina’s Municipal Stadium sat empty and available after hosting Carolina League ball from 1962-1975.  Fichman cobbled together the 1980 Pines roster from a handful of ex-Co-Pilots, some training camp cuts from Major League organizations and a group of dreamers that paid $220 apiece to attend instructional camps/tryouts run by Fichman and Haneles in Florida.

There’s little reason for me to write much here the season itself, because it would all be redundant to E.M. Swift’s rollicking September 1980 profile of the Pines for Sports Illustrated, which provides the definitive account.

The citizens of Rocky Mount took little interest in the Pines.  The club reported attendance of 26,702 for the season, of which nearly half the tickets were given away for free.  The tight-fisted Haneles lost $80,000 by his own estimation to The Los Angeles Times.

By Swift’s account, Haneles never attended a single game to see his team play.  He considered folding the club in midseason in June 1980 and after the season attempted to move the club to Hagerstown, Maryland.  The Carolina League revoked the franchise and sold it to Lou Eliopoulos in December 1980, who promptly relocated it…to Hagerstown, Maryland.  Haneles responded by suing everyone in sight – the Carolina League, Mills, the governing body of minor league baseball and its President, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.  Haneles sought $5 million in damages for restraint of trade and violation of anti-trust laws.

According to The Los Angeles Times, a U.S. District Court judge in Tampa, Florida named George Carr gave a gloomy assessment of Haneles’ legal prospects during court proceedings in late 1980:

“(Haneles) likelihood of prevailing on the merits is somewhat less than the likelihood of the Rocky Mount Pines prevailing over their opposition during the past season.”

##

Pro baseball never returned to Rocky Mount, NC after the Pines’ lone season in 1980.  But the Carolina League franchise itself still exists today.  The team played in Hagerstown as the Hagerstown Suns from 1981 to 1988.  In 1989, the franchise shifted to Frederick, Maryland as the Frederick Keys, who continue to play to this day.

Former Pines catcher David Littlefield, who appeared in 11 games for Rocky Mount in 1980, later became General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates (2001-2007).

Lou Haneles briefly invested in the Miami Tropics of the low-level United States Basketball League in the late 1980’s.  He spent his later years on a quixotic quest to get a Major League team to offer a contact to a 59-year Cuban gas station owner named Raul Hernandez.  He passed away in 2006 at the age of 90.

In 1980, it was exceptionally unusual to find an independent team active in minor league baseball.  By the mid-1990’s entire independent leagues had sprung up around the country.  Mal Fichman managed in several, winning three championships in the Midwest-based Frontier League.  Fichman later became a scout specializing in the independent leagues for the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies.   Through his efforts, more than 160 independent league players gained contracts in organized baseball and 17 ultimately reached the Major Leagues with the Padres.  Fichman declined an interview request for this post.

Sources:

“It’s Been Some Rocky Year”, E.M. Swift, Sports Illustrated, September 1, 1980
“Rocky Mount Team Gets A New Owner”, The Associated Press, December 25, 1980
“Team’s Misfortunes Blamed on Broken Promises”, Barry Siegel, The Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1981
“Lou’s Last Pitch”, Robert Andrew Powell, The Miami New Times, October 22, 1998
“167 Signings on Mal Fichman’s Resume in Eight Seasons of Independent Scouting”, Bob Wirz, Independent Baseball Insider, Vol. 5 No. 38, 2007

Written by andycrossley

October 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm

#35 Nashua Pride / American Defenders of New Hampshire

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“Nashua’s a funny town.  I think the first sign of trouble was at a Chamber of Commerce meeting and <our General Manager> Billy Johnson was talking about how we would hire all these fan-friendly, smiling staff to welcome fans and somebody said ‘Where are you going to find them?'” – Nashua Pride owner Chris English (1998-2004).

Nashua, New Hampshire has a fascinating but unsteady history with postwar baseball.  In 1946, Branch Rickey placed a Class B Brooklyn Dodgers farm club in the city’s Holman Stadium.  Rickey chose Nashua after his Danville, Iowa farm team refused to take on two promising African-American players, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella.  The Nashua Dodgers would be the first racially integrated team of the modern era, one summer before Jackie Robinson arrived in Brooklyn.  Nashua also featured a 34-year old first baseman named Walter Alston winding down an unremarkable minor league career.  As player-manager, Alston led the Nashua Dodgers to the New England League title in 1946.  He later won four World Series crowns as manager of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers and joined Roy Campanella in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.  For all that remarkable legacy, the Dodgers lasted only four seasons in Nashua, folding in 1949.

Baseball did not return until 1983, when George Como, Jerry Mileur and Ben Surner bought the Holyoke (MA) Millers double-A Eastern League club and moved it to town.  After one season as a California Angels affiliate, Como and Surner signed on with the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates.  During the Pirates three-year run in Nashua from 1984 to 1986, Pittsburgh finished dead last in the National League East three years straight, posted the worst record in baseball in 1985 and became the focal point of an infamous FBI cocaine sting that ultimately ensnared the Parrot Pirate mascot.  In May 1986 Nashua fans purchased only 150 advance tickets for an exhibition against the big club from Pittsburgh.  Nashua officials cancelled the game due to lack of interest, piling on more national embarassment for their parent club.  Como and Mileur moved the club to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that winter.

By the early 1990’s, Holman Stadium no longer met the improved standards required by the Professional Baseball Agreement, the set of commandments governing the partnership between Major League Baseball and its farm clubs.  Like many small communities with charming but outmoded Works Progress Administration ballparks, Nashua had been shut out of affiliated ball.  What arrived next were independent leagues, beginning with Ed Broidy’s fly-by-night North Atlantic League, whose Broidy-owned Nashua Hawks took roost in Holman in 1995.  A year later they were evicted midseason, with City officials padlocking the gates against the deadbeat club.

In late 1997, Chris English, a hedge fund manager from suburban Boston arrived in town representing the Atlantic League, a reputable independent start-up whose investors were involved in major ballpark construction projects in Bridgeport, Long Island, Atlantic City, Newark and Bridgewater, New Jersey.  The Nashua Pride would be an anomaly within the Atlantic League in many ways.  The team was distant from the league’s New York-Philadelphia axis and there would be no $30 million stadium project in Nashua.  Instead, English and his General Manager Billy Johnson embarked on a renovation of Holman Stadium, which included the installation of 2,800 box seats salvaged from the recently demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to replace the flat concrete slabs of Holman’s old grandstand.

The Pride averaged 1,581 fans over 57 home games on sales of approximately 250 season tickets during that first season in 1998.  Former Major Leaguer Milt Cuyler began the 1998 season in Nashua before earning a September call-up to the Texas Rangers, helping to legitimize the Atlantic League as a worthy destination for ex-Big Leaguers.

Butch Hobson

The Nashua Pride hit their peak in the summer of 2000.  English and Johnson hired former Red Sox star Butch Hobson as the club’s new field manager.  Hobson was something of a cult figure in New England.  The Alabama boy played football for Bear Bryant before coming up with the Sox in 1976.  The next season, Hobson hit 30 home runs batting primarily out of the #8 spot in the line-up, a virtually unheard of feat in the pre-steroid era.  Sox fans tended to forgive Hobson’s erratic fielding (43 errors in 1978), knowing that he suffered from loose bone chips floating in his right elbow. He was known to manually adjust the chips between plays.  Hobson only played three full seasons in the majors due to his injury problems, which added to the mystique of what might have been for the handsome cornerman.

Hobson later managed the Red Sox through three fallow seasons from 1992 to 1994.  In 1996, Hobson, an admitted partier during his playing days turned born again Christian, was arrested in a cocaine sting while managing the Philadelphia Phillies triple-A farm club.  Hobson refuted the charges, ultimately pleading no contest and performing community service.  Although the incident may have derailed his opportunity to return to the Majors as a Manager, Red Sox Nation never seemed to hold it against him and he was greeted as a returning hero in Nashua during the summer of 2000.

Buoyed by a veteran roster stocked with former Major Leaguers such as Casey Candaele, Milt Cuyler, Sam Horn, Glenn Murray, John Roper, Ken Ryan, and others, the Pride won the 2000 Atlantic League Championship, sweeping the Somerset Patriots in four games.  At the box office, the Pride drew 140,000 fans – an average of nearly 2,000 per game and an increase of 50,000 fans over the inaugural season two summers earlier.

In addition to a beloved manager and a winning team, the Pride also benefitted from the ever-growing notoriety of The World Famous Monkey Boy, a mischievous dancing mascot portrayed by the Pride’s ticket manager Chris Ames.  Monkey Boy arguably rivaled Hobson in local popularity during the 2000 season and Ames would ultimately take the character with him as a national touring act that continued for many years after he left the Pride.

English commissioned a documentary film crew to chronicle his ball club during the 2000 season.  81-year old Curt Gowdy provided the voiceover narration.  After negotiations to sell the documentary to pay cable and Japanese broadcasting interests fell through, a (somewhat) family-friendly 58-minute edit was released on VHS format in the spring of 2001 under the title Stolen Bases.  The film owed its title to a central scene where Hobson, upon being ejected, ripped a base out of the ground, autographed it and handed it to a kid in the Holman Stadium grandstand on his way off the field.  Stolen Bases had two private screenings in Nashua and was briefly offered for mail order purchase through Baseball America paired with a Butch Hobson Bobble Head doll.

In 2001, with Pride attendance on the upswing, the City of Nashua approved $4.5 million in upgrades to Holman Stadium.  The improvements included a new steel second level with luxury suites and expanded press box, 2,800 new chairback seats, and new administrative, retail and box office space.  The renovations were completed in time for the 2002 season, but the season seemed cursed from the outset.  Manager Butch Hobson missed time in June for an angioplasty.  On July 4th, 2002 the Pride embarked on a 21-game losing streak, the third longest in minor league history.  Attendance declined for the second straight year to 120,960, from the 2000 peak of 140,000.

In early 2003, the Toronto Blue Jays double-A affiliate in New Haven, Connecticut announced plans to relocate to Manchester, New Hampshire for the 2004 season.  The Pride would now face competition from Major League-subsidized farm clubs located both 15 minutes to the north (Manchester) and fifteen minutes to the south (Lowell Spinners) along the Route 3 corridor.  At the end of the 2004 season, Chris English threw in the towel after seven seasons of operating in the red.

“After they announced Manchester, it became clear we needed to move,” English recalled in 2011.  “The 2000 ALPB Championship was one of the most entertaining years of my life.  But no one could save Nashua.”

English handed the reigns to BKK Nashua, LLC, a consortium of fellow Atlantic League owners including league founder Frank Boulton (the “B” in BKK), Peter Kirk (“K”) and Steve Kalafer (“K”).   With English’s departure, the BKK trio effectively controlled seven of the eight Atlantic League clubs, excluding only Mickey Herbert’s Bridgeport Bluefish franchise.  League founder and CEO Boulton owned the immensely profitable Long Island Ducks and also controlled the poorly attended Atlantic City Surf.  Kalafer, like Boulton, owned one wildly successful club (the Somerset Patriots) and one albatross (the Newark Bears).  Kirk, a highly respected operator with a long track record in affiliated ball, had two Pennsylvania-based Atlanic League expansion teams preparing to debut in gleaming new stadiums under construction in Lancaster (2005) and York (2006).  And collectively, the BKK trio had stepped in to purchase the Camden Riversharks club earlier in 2004 after its founder died suddenly .

In 2005, the Nashua Pride returned to the Atlantic League Championship Series for the third time in Hobson six years at the helm.  And for the third time, they would face their arch rivals, Sparky Lyle’s Somerset Patriots.  The Patriots swept the Pride this time around, 3 games to zero.  Off the field, the 2005 season was grim, as the opening of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats new stadium in nearby Manchester and budget cuts imposed by the BKK investors combined to reduce the Pride’s announced attendance to an all-time low of just 1,270 per game.

In the fall of 2005, Frank Boulton arranged a sale of the Pride to local real estate developer John Stabile and engineered the Pride’s transfer to the Can-Am League.  The Can-Am League was another Northeast-based independent loop,  which played a shorter schedule than the Atlantic League in cities stretching from New Jersey to Quebec City.  Nashua became the first of several struggling Atlantic League franchises to be relegated to the lower cost Can-Am League.  Atlantic City and Newark would follow in subsequent years.

With the jump to the Can-Am League in 2006, the era of recognizable stars in Nashua essentially came to an end.  Between 1998 and 2005, former Major League All-Stars Dante Bichette, Pete Incaviglia, Lance Johnson, Felix Jose suited up for the Pride as did 1989 National League Rookie-of-the Year Jerome Walton and closer Mel Rojas who signed a $13.75 million dollar contract with the Chicago Cubs in 1996, but earned only $3,000/month to pitch for the Pride in 2002.  The Pride also sent several players to the Major Leagues, most notably the future Anaheim Angels All-Star Brendan Donnelly who pitched for the Pride in 1999 and made his Major League debut with the Angels at the age of 30 in 2002.e

The Pride lasted three years in the Can-Am League, winning a league title in 2007.  Community enthusiasm and attendance rebounded somewhat under the Stabile family’s ownership, but the team continued to run deficits of several hundred thousands dollars annually.  Hobson departed after the 2007 season to return to the Atlantic League with Peter Kirk’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, but not before trotting out the base stealing trick one more time for Can-Am League fans in Lynn, Massachusetts.

The Pride lasted one final summer without him.  In September 2008, after losing another half million dollars, an exhausted John Stabile sold out to Boston Baseball All Stars, LLC.  Boston Baseball All Stars CEO Lt. Commander (ret.) Terry Allvord had toured the country for years with his U.S. Military All-Stars teams.  Now in control of Nashua’s Can-Am League franchise, Allvord and his partners re-branded the team as the American Defenders of New Hampshire.  The club would also play in uniforms modeled after desert camouflage fatigues.

Allvord’s military-themed promotions quickly crossed the line from patriotic to tone-deaf and morbid.  The team’s mascot, a plush soldier in fatigues and war paint was named “Ground Zero” and sported the uniform number 9-11.  The management attempted to stop play each night at 9:11 PM to play Lee Greenwood’s three-minute long God Bless the USA, even if the game was between pitches of an at bat.  Can-Am League officials quickly put the kibosh on that one.

The gimmick didn’t play in Nashua.  The team traded or released its best players in midseason to dump payroll.  General Manager Chris Hall, the final holdover from the Stabile regime, was let go in favor of Boston Baseball All-Stars investor Dan Duquette, the former Boston Red Sox GM who fired Butch Hobson in 1994.  Crowds often numbered less than 100 fans.  In August 2009, the City of Nashua evicted the American Defenders from Holman Stadium, parking a tractor on home plate to prevent the team from finishing its home schedule.  Ironically for an organization that wrapped itself in the flag, the team’s list of unpaid creditors included the Nashua police and fire departments that assigned first responder details for the games.

In 2011, stable ownership returned when Lowell Spinners owner Drew Weber formed the Nashua Silver Knights, a collegiate wooden bat league team.  In a nod to the Pride’s glory day, the Silver Knights booked a return engagement from the World Famous Monkey Boy, which ended abruptly and bizarrely when Chris Ames was assaulted by a member of the opposing Martha’s Vineyard Sharks.

Downloads:

2011 Interview with original Pride Owner Chris English

2011 Interview with Chris Ames, AKA The World Famous Monkey Boy

Additional Sources:

“Bucs Flop – Even in N.H.”, The Associated Press, May 1, 1986

Written by andycrossley

August 9, 2011 at 11:44 pm

#4 Ottawa Rapids/Rapidz/Voyageurs

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In the summer of 2007, the worst kept secret in Ottawa was the impending loss of minor league baseball.  The Ottawa Lynx, triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, were lame ducks set to move to a new stadium already under construction in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  The Lynx’ departure was contentious – the team had two years to run on its lease at Lynx Stadium.  Lynx owner Ray Pecor and the City of Ottawa traded multi-million dollar lawsuits  while the Lynx played out their 15th and final season.

Enter Miles Wolff and his independent Can-Am League.  The former Baseball America publisher is best known as the man who purchased the Durham (NC) Bulls for $2,417 in 1979 and helped turn the team – and with it, minor league baseball itself – into a cultural phenomenom thanks to the 1988 Kevin Costner-Susan Sarandon film Bull Durham.  In the 1990’s Wolff  sold the Bulls and played a pivotal role in reviving the long-dormant industry of independent baseball – modestly budgeted leagues and teams which operate without subsidy or oversight from Major League parent clubs.

Wolff secured permission from the Ottawa City Council to take over the two remaining years on the Lynx’ lease in November 2007.  The move marked the second time in recent years that the Can-Am League had entered a market immediately following the departure of a long-time affiliated baseball club.  The league swooped into New Haven, Connecticut in early 2004, immediately after the city lost its Toronto Blue Jays farm club.  The Can-Am’s New Haven County Cutters failed in 2007 after four seasons of red ink and community apathy.  By contrast, the Can-Am League established strong followings in virgin markets like Brockton, Massachusetts or in places like Quebec City (owned by Wolff himself) where fans had waited decades for the return of professional baseball.

Wayne Scanlan of The Ottawa Citizen provided an apt description of the adjustment that Ottawa baseball fans were in for with the arrival  of independent ball:

If the International League, to which the Lynx belonged from 1993 to 2007, was one level below the major leagues, the new Can-Am League is one level above oblivion, which is not to say that the baseball is awful.

Original Rapids branding by Mike Eby

In a nod to the area’s bilingual heritage, Wolff gave the club a dual English/French identity: the Ottawa Rapids/Rapides.  Local designer Mike Eby designed a sharp set of primary and alternate logos in a blue/black/grey/white scheme.  But these designs were mothballed when new ownership materialized just weeks before opening day.

In late April of 2008, Rob Hall and Rick Anderson and of Canadian online DVD rental house Zip.Ca purchased the Rapids.  In an nod to Zip.ca’s corporate identity, Hall and Anderson changed the club’s name to the “Ottawa Rapidz” complete with a new logo that incorporated the Canadian maple leaf.

Opening Day 2008 - photo courtesy Nicolas Rouleau

The Rapidz  debuted in Ottawa on May 22nd, 2008.  The club struggled mightily to compete on the field, finishing the first half of the season with a last-place record of 13-34.  In late July, 68-year old Manager Ed Nottle returned briefly to Evansville, Indiana to be with his wife Patty, who was awaiting cancer test results.  While Nottle was gone, the Rapidz reeled off a five-game winning streak.  When Nottle returned to Ottawa a few days later, Hall dismissed him, attracting negative attention from fans and media due to the circumstances.  Despite the shake-up, the Rapidz finished with a league worst 31-63 record.

Off the field, the Rapidz finished fifth in the eight-team Can-Am League with announced average attendance of 2,197 per game.  Rob Hall later told The Ottawa Sun that actual turnstile figures for the Rapidz in 2008 were 1,256 fans per game, with attendance boosted by aggressive distribution of comp tickets.

Shortly after the conclusion of the Rapidz first season in September 2008, Hall announced he was shutting the team down.  Hall claimed an eye-popping $1.4 million in operating losses for just over four months of ownership.  The figure was stunning given the extremely lean (less than $100K) player payrolls in the Can-Am League and the team’s moderate $108,000 annual rental fee for Ottawa Baseball Stadium.  Hall cited those lease terms as the straw the broke the camel’s back.  With the original Lynx lease set to expire after the 2009 season, Rapidz ownership met with city leaders in September to negotiate a long-term extension.  Hall chose to interpret the city’s negotiating position – later characterized by Ottawa officials as offhand remarks – as a demand to increase the team’s annual rent burden from $108,000 to $1 million dollars per year starting in 2010.  He subsequently cited this “demand” on the Rapidz website and in press interviews as the primary justification for shuttering the franchise.  The Ottawa Citizen accused Hall of using the City as a “scapegoat” and both Wolff and City officials denied that the City imposed such terms.

At the end of September 2008, Can-Am League owners voted to revoke Hall’s membership and draw down his $200,000 letter of credit as a result of his failure to enter a team for the 2009 season.  Just like the Lynx a year earlier, the Rapidz would now leave Ottawa under a cloud of lawsuits.  See our downloads section below for .PDFs of several court records from these cases.

In November 2008, Wolff announced that the remaining Can-Am League members would provide $50,000 each to operate a team in Ottawa for the 2009 season, tentatively to be named the “Rapids” with the original pre-Zip.ca artwork.  Wolff later scrapped that idea and held a name the team contest, with “Ottawa Voyageurs” announced as the winning entry in February 2009.  In late March 2009, less than two months before opening day, the Can-Am League’s Atlantic City Surf folded.  Without the Surf – and with no new local ownership for Ottawa on the horizon – the rationale for operating Ottawa as a ward of the league evaporated.  Ottawa was no longer needed to ensure an even number of teams for scheduling purposes and the Voyageurs operating expenses would now have to be split among a smaller pool of owners.  Can-Am League officials therefore announced that the Voyageurs would fold along with the Surf, thus ending the brief and chaotic tenure of independent baseball in Ottawa.

Downloads

Wolff vs. Zip.ca (6/10/2009)
Can-Am League vs. Ottawa Rapidz (6/11/2009)

Can-Am League vs. Ottawa Rapidz (2/18/10)

Sources:

Rebuild it and they will come.  Wayne Scanlan.  The Ottawa Citizen, May 23, 2008
Ottawa’s Can-Am “run” not over yet.  Don Campbell.  The Ottawa Citizen, November 14, 2008.
The Ottawa Sun, November 26th, 2008

Written by andycrossley

March 25, 2011 at 9:11 am

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