"And now some updated scores of tonight's major league baseball action."
Now that the players and owners of big league baseball have officially picked up their marbles and gone home, they are fair game for sardonic P.A. announcers in every minor league town. And so it was that the fourth inning of a recent Northern League game between the St. Paul Saints and the hometown Sioux Falls (S.Dak.) Canaries began with the above announcement and the smug guffaws that followed from the 2,486 in attendance. They may have pulled the plug on the Show, but baseball in the bush is doing just fine, thank you, particularly in the spirited Northern League, which is deep into the second year of its whirlwind romance with the national pastime.
The Northern League has roots all the way back to 1903, and during the 1950s and '60s it helped to groom some of the top talent in the game, including Hank Aaron, Willie Stargell, Roger Maris and Steve Carlton. By 1971, however, the league had gotten lost in the minor league shuffle and went belly-up. It remained dormant until last year, when Miles Wolff, the former owner of the high-profile Class A Durham Bulls and current president of Baseball America, the bible of minor league baseball, revived it as a six-team independent league with a short season of 80 games that runs from June to early September. In no time the Northern League has turned into a runaway success, thanks to its swashbuckling atmosphere, savvy owners and the presence of a few big-name ex-major leaguers such as Pedro Guerrero and Leon (Bull) Durham.
In addition to the Canaries and the Saints, the league consists of the Winnipeg Goldeyes (a fish indigenous to Manitoba), the Thunder Bay (Ont.) Whiskey Jacks (a native bird), the Duluth-Superior (Minn.) Dukes and, from the home office in Sioux City, Iowa, the Explorers. St. Paul, last year's league champ, has sold 99% of the 6,305 seats at its stadium; Winnipeg is drawing about 5,700 fans a game; and Sioux City is averaging nearly 3,500 a night at its shiny new Lewis & Clark Park, which, incidentally, was not named for Darren and Will.
The Northern League can trace much of its success to a cornball charm that could only come from the Midwest. The big moment at every Sioux Falls home game arrives at the end of the seventh inning, when the Village People's classic song Y-M-C-A sends the crowd into a dizzying attempt to spell out the song's title, limb by limb. In Sioux City the players entertain the crowd with jelly-doughnut-eating contests. At St. Paul games a top attraction is Sister Rosalind, a Roman Catholic nun/masseuse who is stationed in the stands to give massages to fans. The unlikely anthem that the Saint faithful has adopted is a Sammy Davis Jr. cover of Isaac Hayes's theme from Shaft.
All six of the stadiums in the Northern League have ticket prices that hover around $5 and concession prices that are deliciously low. But the best feature of the games is the 20-second "pitch clock," an innovation of the Northern League that penalizes a dawdling pitcher with a ball should he exceed the time limit and dings a hitter with a strike should he spend too much time adjusting himself. The average time of a game in the league is a tidy 2:36.
The bane of this year's major league season, the salary cap, has not been a problem for the Northern League. Each team has a cap of $72,000—that's for the entire team—which makes the players among the lowest-paid laborers around but certainly endears them to the fans. "What this league has done so well is get back to the grass roots of baseball," says Harry Stavrenos, owner of the Canaries. "The fans, especially families, are our focus in everything we do. This is still a great game, and despite the best attempts of some of the other people in baseball, coming to the park is still a special experience. We want to preserve that."
Even with an average salary of just $1,000 a month, the players seem to be enjoying themselves too. The Northern League is a little like the giant nets hanging below the observation deck of the Empire State Building, there to catch discarded objects before they crash to the ground. Most Northern Leaguers have either been released by a major league farm system or were never considered good enough to sign in the first place. It is a league for dreamers, hangers-on and guys mustering one last hurrah. Some players do see their star rise in the North—40 players to date have moved on to big league farm systems—but others have no illusions about reaching the next level.
Two old warriors still in the grip of the game are Durham and Guerrero. Both came to the Northern League last year hoping to work their way back to the bigs, and both have lost that resolve in the face of major league apathy and the creakiness of age. At week's end Durham, 37, was nursing a .243 batting average and a sore left hamstring as DH and first baseman for St. Paul, and he is now focusing most of his attention on his role as the team's hitting instructor. He says this will be his last go-around as a player, and then he hopes to work his way up the ranks as a coach. "It's not my time anymore, brother," Durham says. "My thrill now is helping these kids chase their dreams."
Guerrero, 38, can still get indignant that no major league team has picked him up despite his .338 average, but he is now content merely to pretend he is a big leaguer, even if it is Sioux Falls all around him. He leads the league in cellular phone calls from the locker room, and he steadfastly refuses to take those 12-hour bus rides, instead paying for his own plane tickets. "I am the only man in the history of professional baseball who is paying money to play," he says with a belly laugh. And still Guerrero seems as carefree and playful as a kid on a sandlot, happily doing the lambada against the batting cage during BP or comically playing up his limp for the adoring hometown fans.
He says he will keep playing as long as it's fun, which, by the looks of things, could be a very long time. "I could retire and play golf every day," he says, "but I would rather play baseball. This game is inside of me. It's as big a thrill now to put on a uniform as it was 15 or 20 years ago."
Says his boss, Stavrenos, "To me, Pedro reflects everything that is slowly disappearing from the game. And that is just a pure love of playing baseball." The love of the game. This is the daddy of all clichès, one that seems especially hollow in baseball these days. But the Northern League is proof that such a pie-in-the-sky concept truly does exist, somewhere.