In 1994 a new league was born. It flew under the RADAR of many outside of the American Midwest. It was a time when independent leagues came and went, the Major League was plagued by drug and steroid controversy, and many of the big names in the game today were just starting out in their careers, in some cases still tagging along to ballgames with their moms and pops. Today the League has topped over 900,000 attendees in a single season, a claim that can be made by no other summer collegiate baseball league.
As it comes to the end of its season, before the players head back to their studies or join up with one of the better known Minor League teams and baseball fans in the Midwest devote their entire attention to the pennant races of MLB, let’s take a short look at the Northwoods League.
The Northwoods League was created to provide university students, the next generation of ball players, a chance to experience life on the circuit without major disruption to their studies. Players must have NCAA eligibility; in other words cannot be paid, must attend a specified number of classes, and must perform to a certain academic level to be part of the team.
Unlike most MLB-affiliated Minor Leagues and Independent Leagues, the Northwoods chose to use wooden bats, allowing players to practice with the sort of equipment that would be used in the bigs.
The League is named for the famed woods of the upper Midwest and lower Canada, where the teams are based (7 in Minnesota, 6 in Wisconsin, 1 each in Michigan, Iowa and Ontario, Canada.) It is split into North Division and South Division. Although, as with many league division splits, the geographical location of some teams seems to play little part in whether they are in the North or South.
The North and South divisions meet for an All Star game once a year, in much the same fashion as in Major League Baseball. And just like MLB it is the winning team of each Division pennant who meet in the final.
At least 54 Major League players once graced the Northwoods League. Some of the teams even play in older stadiums which once belonged to other Minor or Independent teams from the golden years.
For example: last year’s Northwoods League winners, the Eau Claire Express, play at Carson Park, Wisconsin. Carson Park was once home to the Eau Claire Bears of the Northern League, for whom Hank Aaron, Billy Bruton, Wes Covington, Joe Torre, Bob Uecker (famous current Milwaukee Brewers funnyman commentator) and others have filled its roster. There’s even a bust of Hammerin’ Hank outside the stadium entrance.
As an aside; it’s a beautiful stadium. Built between several curving lakes with an American Football field one side, Baseball diamond the other, and tennis courts surrounding.
Which is the thing really. The Northwoods League is beautiful. It’s about the community and students coming together in college towns. It’s about silly competitions for the kids between innings and crowd involvement. It’s about lakeside vistas and woodland spirit. It’s about hotdogs and beer, funny mascots and the Ballboy being the kid who knocked your door the other weekend to retrieve his frizbee from your back yard. When you’re at a game it feels like the Bullpen Manager could almost be the guy who packs your Mom’s groceries at the local Save-U-Mart. It is, essentially, what baseball was always supposed to be about.
If there’s a rain delay we’ll just grab some popcorn and another local beer, and watch the groundskeepers scuttle about with the tarps or the players perform the crazy dance they choreographed on Friday night at the student bar.
This is the Northwoods League, may it continue another 17 years and more!
North Division W L PCT GB STREAK LAST 10
Alexandria Beetles 44 25 0.638 – 1L 7-3
Mankato MoonDogs 42 28 0.600 2.5 1L 3-7
Willmar Stingers 39 31 0.557 5.5 2W 6-4
Brainerd Lakes Area Lunkers 35 34 0.507 9 3L 5-5
St. Cloud River Bats 33 37 0.471 11.5 1W 5-5
Duluth Huskies 30 37 0.448 13 1L 4-6
Thunder Bay Border Cats 29 40 0.420 15 1W 7-3
Rochester Honkers 25 45 0.357 19.5 1W 3-7
Battle Creek Bombers 43 26 0.623 – 7W 8-2
Green Bay Bullfrogs 42 27 0.609 1 2W 7-3
La Crosse Loggers 38 31 0.551 5 4W 7-3
Madison Mallards 37 32 0.536 6 3L 3-7
Eau Claire Express 36 34 0.514 7.5 3L 5-5
Waterloo Bucks 34 36 0.486 9.5 2W 4-6
Wisconsin Woodchucks 24 46 0.343 19.5 2L 1-9
Wisconsin Rapids Rafters 24 46 0.343 19.5 2L 5-5