ELKHART — On June 7, the Elkhart County Miracle was the first franchise announced for the revived Northern League of Professional Baseball.
The independent minor league circuit, defunct since the end of 2010, is scheduled to begin play in 2014.
Craig Wallin, founder and owner of the Miracle, announced Friday, June 21, that the stadium would be built at the former American Countryside property at S.R. 19 and C.R. 26. Groundbreaking is scheduled for Friday, June 28.
Nick Derosiers, managing member and chairman of the Northern League, gives some background on the league and the culture of independent baseball.
Organizers of the league acquired the Northern League name in January and the recognition that goes with it. The Northern League, in its original incarnation, began in 1902 and operated through 1971.
“It’s a name factor,” said Derosiers. “From 1993 on, the Northern League set the bar for everybody else (in independent baseball). We’re hoping to re-establish that.”
In 1993, the Northern League came back as an independent league and had more than 600 players sign contracts with affiliated baseball and more than two dozen players go on to Major League Baseball, including J.D. Drew and Kevin Millar. Many other former big leaguers wore Northern League uniforms, Jack Morris and Darryl Strawberry among them.
Derosiers said the average capacity of Northern League ballparks will be 4,200. While there will be 1,625 fixed seats at the Elkhart County facility, the number exceeds 4,000 with the addition of picnic areas and berm seating.
The chairman said Northern League teams typically have part of their front office staff in place immediately after groundbreaking with a full staff in place by September.
League rules require that coaching staffs need to be assigned and announced by Oct. 1.
In independent ball, teams are in charge of gameday and baseball operations.
In affiliated ball, the baseball operations — including developing and acquiring players — fall to the parent organization.
Derosiers said the Northern League would like to have 10 to 12 teams in 2014, all playing a 96-game regular season (48 home and 48 away) spanning from the third week of May to the second week of September. Playoffs would follow that.
Derosiers said franchises, located in the Midwest, on the East Coast and in southern Canada, will be rolled out one at a time through July.
To be considered for a Northern League franchise, a group must have an existing stadium or a guarantee of new development plus the financial wherewithal to operate up to league standards.
All franchises are given marketing guidelines which they can tailor to their individual markets.
“The biggest difference between independent and affiliated baseball is community involvement,” said Derosiers. “I’m expecting (the Elkhart County Miracle) to be extremely community-based.”
To further connect a team with its region, it is not uncommon for independent teams to have players and/or coaches with area ties.
To cut down on travel expenses, the plan is for 85 percent of games to be intra-division with 15 percent against the opposite division.
A travel partner will also help offset costs. For instance, two Midwest teams may go to the East Coast and share travel and hotel costs in a central location and then splinter off for their respective series.
Derosiers said the Northern League will have no age cap or classification restrictions, but will probably have talent equal with Double-A or Triple-A with some former major leaguers.
“(Fans) will definitely see some familiar names,” said Derosiers.
League officials are considering setting a standard for the number of rookies or players with three years of professional experience.
“We want a certain degree of turnover,” said Derosiers. “Independent baseball is all about opportunities.”
That may be a young player trying to make their way in professional ball or a veteran attempting to get back to the big leagues.
Derosiers said housing will be up to each franchise. It usually depends on the age and experience of the player. The younger ones may stay with host families with veterans staying in hotels.