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Northwoods League making its mark as 20th season opens

June 1, 2013

Clint Barmes just wanted to keep playing baseball.

Having completed his freshman season at Olney Central, a junior college in southeastern Illinois, Barmes intended to return home and play in a local summer league.

“It wasn’t a real strong summer league,” Barmes said. “But just to keep playing.”

Barmes’ teammate Shawn Garrett was set to play summer ball elsewhere, but later signed with the San Diego Padres, who had drafted Garrett a year earlier in the 1997 draft. That decision left the Kenosha Kroakers looking to fill an open spot on their roster.

Enter Barmes.

Olney Central baseball coach Dennis Conley contacted the team, giving them Barmes’ name. The Kroakers contacted the young shortstop, and Barmes set off for southeastern Wisconsin to play in the eight-team Northwoods League.

“That was when it all kind of turned around for me,” Barmes said. “You look at my numbers from my freshman year to my sophomore year in college, and there’s a pretty noticeable difference. Almost 100 points in my average.”

Barmes, now an 11-year veteran with the Pittsburgh Pirates, is the poster child for what the Northwoods League is all about.

Opening its 20th season this week, the 16-team league has more teams, more games and draws more fans than any other summer collegiate baseball league in North America. Talent-wise, the Northwoods League also is on par with other elite leagues like the Cape Cod and Alaska leagues.

“It was a really good league,” said Pirates reliever Mark Melancon, who played for the Duluth Huskies in 2004. “If you didn’t go to the Cape, this was probably the next best league.”

The Northwoods League opened in 1994 with five teams in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota: the Kenosha Kroakers, Wausau Woodchucks, Manitowoc Skunks, Dubuque Mud Puppies and Rochester Honkers.

It took five years before any alumnus of the league would reach baseball’s highest level, but there has been a steady stream since — now 102 total. Right-hander Jeff Weaver was the first to break through, making his debut on April 14, 1999, with the Detroit Tigers.

Other notable alumni include speedy outfielder Juan Pierre, Tom Gorzelanny, Josh Willingham, Andre Ethier, Ben Zobrist, Max Scherzer, Casey McGehee, Ryan Spilborghs, Jordan Zimmermann, Allen Craig and Chris Sale.

“One hundred guys, almost 20 years, so that’s like five a year,” said Willingham, a member of the 1998 and ’99 Austin Southern Minny Stars. “It says that they get good players to play in the league. It was a good league then, and I’m sure it’s only gotten better.”

In April, a pair of Milwaukee Brewers became the 99th and 100th alumni to make their major league debuts: 2008 Green Bay Bullfrogs shortstop Josh Prince and 2006 Brainerd Blue Thunder right-hander Hiram Burgos.

Prince played for the Bullfrogs following his sophomore season at Tulane, and was drafted by the Brewers in the third round a year later. He was the first Bullfrogs alumnus to make his MLB debut since the club joined the league as an expansion team in 2007.

Two other Green Bay alumni, catcher Rocky Gale and outfielder Daniel Robertson, have worked their way up to the Class AAA level in the San Diego Padres organization. Another, outfielder Mitch Haniger, recently was promoted within the Brewers’ minor league system from the low-Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers to the high-Class A Brevard County Manatees.

Following Prince’s call-up, Green Bay Bullfrogs owner and president Jeff Royle celebrated the day as a success for the entire organization, saying that it “speaks volumes to the level of baseball we have in Green Bay each summer.”

For many players, though, their future success is not directly attributable to the league like that of Barmes. But it certainly plays a part.

For hitters, it’s often the first chance they have to use a wood bat over an extended period of time. On the mound, pitchers get the feel for what it’s like to be in a five-man rotation.

Some, like Barmes 15 years ago, play because they just want to keep playing baseball.

“I took it more like just for experience, something that I wanted to do,” Burgos said. “It was a long year. I only threw like 20 innings my freshman year, so that’s why I decided to go play for Brainerd, to get some extra work in and prepare for my sophomore year.”

Likewise, the continued success and improvement of the league is not necessarily attributable to the now-proven success of its players at the big-league level. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to promote those on the current rosters as future major leaguers.

In that first season, the league drew a little less than 70,000 fans. Ten years later, that number was up to more than 625,000 fans. Last season, it hit a new high of 932,245.

That puts the average attendance at more than 1,700 fans per game, a number which is boosted by the popularity of the Madison Mallards. Nearly a quarter of the total Northwoods League attendance passes through the gates at Warner Park, better known as the “Duck Pond.”

Drawing more than 6,200 per game a season ago, the Mallards’ average attendance surpasses that of the Class A Timber Rattlers by nearly 2,000 fans.

“I went to Madison. I remember all of them were good places to play ball,” said Gorzelanny, who played for the St. Cloud River Bats in 2001. “It was a fun league. In college, it’s as close to minor league ball as you can get with the atmosphere, traveling and schedule.”

In the early years, Northwoods League teams played a 56-game schedule between June and August. Today the teams play 70 games over a 75-day stretch from late May to early August.

Typical series last two games, while homestands are kept short, increasing the amount of travel. Comparatively, the Timber Rattlers’ schedule features 140 games in 152 days.

“It prepares you to play at the minor-league level,” Willingham said. “You’re playing all summer, you’re playing in different cities, city-hopping basically. And you’re playing every night. That’s the main thing it does, it prepares you to play in the minor leagues.”

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