Independent Minor League baseball has a rich history in America since 1902 - a history of quick start-ups and a history of quick foreclosures. Just ask Tiffin University alumnus Brett Myers, the ballpark operations manager for the AAA Omaha Storm Chasers, affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.
Myers had a brief stint as an assistant general manager for the Bradenton Juice which folded after one season and was part of the Amarillo Dillas which averaged 3,500 fans a game, but still folded along with the entire league midway into a third season.
The start-up Saints semi-professional baseball team in Tiffin is hoping to beat the odds by sustaining itself as an organization for the long haul. The Saints are owned by Brian Dutton, a 1978 alumus of Tiffin University who also owned the Marion (OH) Shovel City Crawlers which disbanded in June after a number of players jumped shipped. Seems a few boys claimed they hadn't been paid which is always a struggle for a fledgling league trying to start up in small communities.
The Saints are in the Independent Baseball League (IBL), the lowest tier of the minor league system. Only two other teams currently comprise the entire league - the Adrian (Mich.) Pioneers and the Ohio Travelers.
The IBL commissioner, Eric Spitaleri, co-founded the Continental Indoor Football League (CIFL). Despite a few legal challenges from an investor over non-payment issues, the CIFL is the longest continuously-running indoor football league in the United States. Spitaleri has to believe his success in semi-pro football will payoff for the Saints and his dream to expand the IBL to eight teams in 2015. Thus far, Spitaleri isn't charging a franchise fee and is keeping league dues at a minimum.
Minor league baseball is chock full of nicknames that can challenge the best sports trivia experts. The LA Dodgers are affiliated with the Isotopes and the Loons. Kansas City also has the Blue Rocks and the Chuckars (what's a Chuckar?).
From coast to coast, America can follow an Osprey, a Rubber Duck (right nearby in Akron, in fact!), a Zephyer, a Muckdog, a Chihuahua, a Biscuit, a Stone Crab, a Crawdad, a Lugnut, or an Iron Pig. Tiffin can now follow the Saints, for as long as they're in town.
Truth be told, semi-professional baseball in Tiffin, Ohio, has a long way to go to achieve any sustainable benefits in terms of profitability or brand image. In year one, it appears the Saints are definitely part of a fledgling league struggling to stay afloat. The Advertiser-Tribune provided almost daily coverage of the Saints and the team did its best to develop a local fan base, but there were plenty of hurdles. Four teams, down to three. A marketing director (Joe Tuttamore) and a general manager (Ryan Parent) who both jumped ship in the first month. A team beat by a talented pitcher with a prosthetic leg. A team managed by a local high school coach. A team falling short of projected revenue.
Tiffin University made a carefully scrutinized business decision to decline an arrangement for the Saints to practice and play at Paradiso athletic complex, which is why the team competed at Heidelberg's Peaceful Valley.
Dutton had a similar situation with his now defunct Crawlers team, which moved from Lincoln Community Park in Marion to a local high school for its home games. It's a tough road for semi-pro teams to survive on shoe string budgets in relatively small markets, but it's not impossible.
Myers advocates that sustainability for an independent baseball team relies on the strength of the community and the ownership. He would love to see Tiffin support a facilities project similar to Frost-Kalnow where the local colleges, high schools and Saints share a community baseball stadium. The dream has to start somewhere, and who knows, one day the Saints, the Dragons, the Student Princes, the Tornadoes, and the Senecas may all be playing in a state of the art ball diamond covered in stadium signage showcasing Ballreich Chips, Reineke Dealerships, Webster Industries, Laminate Technology, Mercy Hospital, Sarka Conveyers, CF Professionals, National Machinery, Napoli Pizza, Fort Ball, Madison Street Tavern, the Clover Club, and a host of other community-minded businesses and corporations.
Perhaps a dream ballpark would lure Myers back to his roots in northwest Ohio. The better bet is that Myers will continue marching his way up the big leagues and the Saints (along with the two other Independent Baseball League teams) will wind up being forced to march out of town. Tiffin can only hope the odds shift for the underdog start-up. The Saints are a great option for good, clean, inexpensive, family-friendly entertainment which communities like Tiffin need more to keep the population growing instead of declining.
Stay tuned next month for more interesting and entertaining views on sports from around the globe to our local corner of the world here in northwest Ohio.
Bonnie Tiell is an associate professor of sports management at Tiffin University.