Sunday, August 12, 2012

How Low Can You Go?

Varying degrees of effort in the Frontier League
We've often tried to make it plain that as far as our neverending quest goes, there are baseball teams and then there are baseball teams. The latter are those that are affiliated with MLB teams, from the short-season single-A Casper Ghosts (RIP) up to the Triple-A Toledo Mudhens. The former are everyone else, from your local high school team on up to and including the teams in Japan and Korea and throughout Latin America. We just have to draw the line somewhere.

Really the only confusion comes up with nearly professional leagues like the North American League and the Frontier League. These are teams that occasionally feature once and future major leaguers, but the odds are deeply, deeply against these players, some of whom are already washouts from affiliated minor leagues. The Frontier League keeps a list of "alumni" who have made it to the majors. In had taken 18 years for the list to become 23 guys long, and the most well known of the bunch is, um, Brendan Donnelly maybe? Jason Simontacchi? Dylan Axelrod? You see the problem.

There are cases—pretty entertaining at times—where former Somebodies take a turn in the unaffiliated leagues. I don't think I'll ever forget seeing the Canseco Brothers honing their skills for the Newark Bears in 2001. But even these cases have a whiff of desperation and an air of the circus around them. Some teams, perhaps most conspicuously the St. Paul Saints, stress the jokiness and refuse to take the game seriously—thus more or less ensuring that everyone has a good time and that their players will be dismissed as some sort of sideshow act. Sometimes you can see the pain on visiting teams' faces as the Saints hijinks get cranked up. I love seeing a pig deliver baseballs to an ump as much as the next fan, but it's no way to make a professional career (unless, maybe, you're the pig). Incidentally, the other night was Atheism Night in St. Paul, and the team thoughtfully changed its name to the Mr. Paul Ain'ts for the occasion. I wonder what Mrs. Paul made of it.

I've seen a few North American League teams and a few Frontier League teams, including a doubleheader at the Washington Wild Things in 2007, the Kalamazoo Kings in 2003 (in which our old friend Red danced the Dirty Dog dance on the field), and of course the famous monkey/dog/sheep game at the Gary Railcats in 2010. It's not that the level of play at the Kane County Cougars is so much higher—it's just that some of those players arguably have a future.

So anyway, cynicism aside and fortified by delicious goat tacos at Birrieria Zaragosa, Watson and I drove with some friends (who, not grasping the distinction between teams and teams, suggested the outing in the first place) to southwestern Cook County to catch the Windy City Thunderbolts hosting the Evansville Otters. On our recent trip to the northwestern South (or was in the southern Midwest?), we had said that there's room for a team in the Evansville, Indiana / Owensboro, Kentucky, part of the world—and, lo, here one is.

Padres and Orioles castoff Wynn Pelzer, pitching for the Evansville Otters
The stadium is located on some unloved land surrounding by high-tension power lines and not far from the industrial excesses of the Cal-Sag Channel. It's a small place, but there is an upper deck down the left-field line. Interestingly, this was another racially mixed crowd—something we have found to be a rarity along America's byways.

The game itself was slow—so many pitchers, so few really good curveballs—but pleasant. The Thunderbolts hero of the night was shortstop Chris Wade, who went two for three and smacked his first home run of the year, after which volunteers went through the stands with a giant bucket, soliciting donations for him. (At least, that's what they said it was for....) Evansville's starter Wynn Pelzer did a creditable job through six innings, striking out six, but unfortunately for him was not removed until the seventh. (Box score)

Also, it was Elvis night, but since he didn't show up to sing the seventh-inning stretch, I can only conclude that he is, in fact, dead.

Elvis glasses and a Salt Lake Bees shirt—I'm in love!

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