I have long maintained that minor league baseball is one of the best entertainment values around. At reasonable prices you can see talent that is headed toward the major leagues in parks that are very fan-friendly. Generally the games are filled with fan involvement between innings. So, with the ballpark only fifteen minutes from the home of my daughter, we put a Lincoln Saltdogs game on the agenda of our Nebraska trip this summer.
I have seen the Travelers play in Little Rock, the Naturals in Springdale, and the Tulsa Drillers. Each of those is a “farm team” for its respective major league organization. However, this was my first time to see an independent minor league team - “independent” as opposed to “affiliated.” The Naturals, for instance, are affiliated with the Kansas City Royals as part of their farm system, and the players were signed by the Royals.
In contrast, the Saltdogs must identify and sign their own roster, and bear the full brunt of the payroll cost. That is the bad news. The good news is that if a player is having a good season, he cannot be moved abruptly elsewhere within the system by the parent club.
The Saltdogs are in the 12-team American Association, which used to be affiliated with the big leagues, but which was absorbed by other leagues in 1997. It was re-organized in 2005 as an independent league. The teams fall in a fairly narrow column through mid-America. They run north-south from Winnipeg to the DFW area, and east-west from Gary, Indiana, to the Dakotas.
The colorful mascot names in the league immediately catch your eye. In addition to the Saltdogs, they include the Gary RailCats, the Milwaukee Milkmen, the Winnipeg Goldeyes, the Cleburne Railroaders, the Kansas City T-Bones, the Sioux Falls Canaries and the Texas AirHogs. (Players from UAFS and Little Rock recently signed with the Milkmen.)
Charles Meyer, General Manager of the Saltdogs, was kind enough to visit with me during the game about the unique features of independent baseball. They have 23 players on the roster, and one allowed on injured reserve. I asked him what happened if they had two or more players injured. Since they are not in a big league farm system, they cannot “call up” a player from a lower-level team.
He replied that he and the manager keep an extensive list of unsigned players. He pointed out that the major leagues draft 1500 players each season, which means that 1500 players in turn fall out of the major league system and are then available to be signed by independent teams.
I asked Mr. Meyer if he would change to an affiliated status if the opportunity arose, and he said probably not. The Saltdogs share Haymarket Park with the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and their schedules would clash if they changed status. As it is, they are basically “the only game in town” after the close of the college season.
Meyer said he thought the Saltdogs would win a large majority of their games if they played the Huskers. He compared the level of play in the American Association to the AA teams in big league farm systems.
Each team in the league operates under a $125,000 salary cap, so these guys are not getting rich playing independent ball. They do it because they love baseball, and in hope that they will get noticed by a major league club. Over the history of the franchise, 55 players have been signed by big league organizations.
The Saltdogs lost by one run this particular night, but we enjoyed the game anyway. The home team manager got tossed out of the game in the first inning. Elsie, Ian and Lillie (grandchildren) got to be in one of the between-innings contests, and Claire was Fan of the Game. They got three baseballs from players who walked by the stands. It was a typical minor league experience – a ton of fun at a beautiful ballpark.
If you are ever near Lincoln in the summertime, I highly recommend the Saltdogs. By the way, they use real bats – the wooden kind. (And yes, I did buy a Saltdogs T-shirt.)