Author’s Note: One year ago, I had the opportunity to speak with three prominent organizations within the independent Frontier League. After a year of incredible feedback on my first piece and many changes within independent baseball, I decided to write a follow-up in the hopes of continuing to inform and spread the word of independent baseball. Once again, thank you to every single organization that has taken time out of the day to assist in this piece.
There is something quite special about independent baseball. The small-town aesthetic with the aroma of popcorn and hamburgers. The ball making an electric connection to a bat in the first inning. The pop of a 2-seam fastball hitting a catcher’s glove on the third strike. Heckling from the visiting crowd. Children’s laughter as they are greeted by the home team’s mascot.
This is what makes independent baseball special. And this is why I love it.
Established in 1993, the Frontier League remains the oldest independent baseball league to exist in 2021. The league started for the love of the game when the founders believed they could bring professional baseball to areas that would never have a chance of affiliated professional baseball coming to their communities. Almost 30 years later, the league now boasts 16-teams and a legacy that continues to grow with each talent-filled season.
Big changes for a brighter future
In the last year, there have been big changes to the Frontier League. The league, alongside the American Association and Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, became Partner Leagues with Major League Baseball in September 2020. While many were left surprised and worried about how this would change each league entirely, organizations look at it as an opportunity for growth in marketing and the prospect of players have a fairer chance of being signed to an affiliated club.
The benefits of the partnership signify a moment in history for all three clubs. From the founding of the defunct Northern League and highly active Frontier League, independent baseball has always been looked at as a little brother, kept at an arm’s length from affiliated clubs and Major League Baseball. But with this partnership heading into the 2021 season, it seems as if a little brother has a shot at making the varsity squad or at least getting more publicity and notice by those who might not have batted an eye toward the independent leagues prior.
What a few organizations had to say about the partnership
“The announcement of the Frontier League becoming an MLB Partner League is great news. I know the details are still being discussed and worked out, so people will probably see more of its results and outcomes in the coming years,” Evansville Otters Director of Communications Preston Leinenbach stated. “From what I’ve been told from our executives, the partnership will mean more opportunities in the sense of marketing, promotions, and community relations, which has been an area of huge emphasis from the Frontier League the last couple of years to continue to raise the branding awareness of the league.”
The Evansville Otters have been a part of the Frontier League since 1995 and continue to be a prestigious organization, winning the Frontier League Organization of the Year Award in 1997, and the Commissioner’s Award of Excellence in 2004.
“One example is that MLB is looking to use their partner leagues and the markets within those leagues to grow their community outreach in areas not served directly by MiLB or MLB organizations, including youth programs to help grow the game of baseball. As you well know, growing the game of baseball and brand awareness for baseball organizations is a popular subject in recent years,” Leinenbach added. “Later down the road, there is hope that the partnership will also help in the area of scouting and player analysis, and the case of our league getting more players signed to affiliated organizations. As this develops, I believe it will draw more fans to our games, especially as the details, focus, and resources available become more clear.”
Johnny Sole, who serves as Community Relations Director for the Windy City ThunderBolts also feels positive toward the partnership. “I think it is a great thing to have that MLB name connected to us. There is a lot that can do on the marketing level that fans will see, along with the opportunity to continue bringing in some top talent on the field as well.”
Like the Otters, the ThunderBolts were founded in 1995 – but unlike the Otters, the Windy City team had a few hoops to jump through before joining the Frontier League in 1999 as the Cook County Cheetahs. It wouldn’t be until 2004 when the ThunderBolt name became official.
“I heard a lot of my friends and colleagues mention this news when they heard about it, so there is already a good sense of excitement over the idea,” Sole added. “There is still some more to be determined as far as all it will bring, but that is also an exciting part of it to see what happens next. We are going to continue to work with the MLB partners on this, and I know more will come for the better and fans will see that too.”
For the Washington Wild Things, President/General Manager Tony Buccilli is looking at the bigger picture with the partnership. “The biggest benefit, looking at it as validation of a product, it’s about who we are, what we do and why we ultimately do it,” Buccilli said. “I always get asked, what’s the most challenging thing about your job. And I always reflect on just the validation of the product and explaining that we belong and why we belong.”
The Wild Things have been a force to be reckoned with since their beginnings in the Frontier League. As the Canton Crocodiles, they won the 1997 Frontier League Championship and as time went on, they continued to rise with six division titles and nine playoff appearances.
Buccilli continued, “The misconception of what the independent league is or was. The level of players that we had, why guys were playing, what the business was genuinely there – it has always been difficult. With this partnership, it kind of answers where we are in the grand scheme of baseball. I believe our players and players across the partner leagues will have a greater opportunity to sign affiliated deals.”
Around the Frontier League
After a year without baseball, fans of the league are anxiously awaiting Opening Day which is set for Thursday, May 27. The league announced the 2021 regular season schedule in a press release from Steve Tahsler on February 17, 2021.
With the addition of the Ottawa Titans and Tri-City ValleyCats, the league will be playing in two conferences of two divisions – each with the four division winners advancing to the playoffs:
- Atlantic: Quebec, Trois-Rivieres, New York, Tri-City.
- Northeast: Ottawa, Washington, Sussex County, New Jersey.
- Central: Lake Erie, Windy City, Joliet, Schaumburg.
- West: Evansville, Florence, Gateway, Southern Illinois.
As fans, the league and the organizations are excited to return to the field for the first time since September of 2019. The sights and sounds of the ballpark will be coming back to life and for the teams, I have spoken with, it cannot come soon enough.
“There are so many great athletes, coaches, seasonal staff members, season ticket holders, group leaders, and families along the way that come through this ballpark,” Sole said. “We missed having them and look forward to seeing those faces again and bring some baseball fun again to our communities here in the south suburbs of Chicago.”
For Buccilli, he awaits the green light from the state of Pennsylvania. “There needs to be some clarity from our state government and our governor. And that will dictate kind of what style and path our in-game entertainment take. But certainly, we’ll make it as engaging entertaining as possible and allow the team to do to play their part to make it enjoyable for fans.”
The Southern Illinois Miners Chief Operating Officer/Manager Mike Pinto is also thrilled at the thought of fans returning to his park in Marion, IL. “I’m looking for the Opening Day. I think our fans will be getting an experience they have never had before.”
And for the Otters, there will be new and exciting additions to Bosse Field. “From an Otters’ standpoint, we are excited about truly showing off the new additions at the ballpark from last year’s renovations including the LED video board, the LED lights with color and flashing capabilities, and another step forward with our Otters Digital Network streaming production,” Leinenbach said.
He also teased Otters fans and those looking to become fans, “We are also excited about something else we have planned in the coming months at the Otters, but we will have to keep that a secret for now.”
Other notable changes include Commissioner Bill Lee retiring on March 1, 2021. Commissioner Lee began serving the Frontier League in 1994 and has left a lasting legacy behind him. While he will be Commissioner Emeritus, he will still attend league-based functions as a consultant for the league.
For more information on the Frontier League
If you are interested in learning more about the organizations within the league, you can visit their official website. Team schedules, host family information, and much more can be found there as well. You can also follow along with the league on Twitter for up-to-date information.
Debuting in 1993, the Frontier League is the largest of the Major League Baseball Partner Leagues and features teams stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and from the Ohio River to the St. Lawrence Seaway.