WILLMAR — On a June evening here, at a ballpark on the edge of town, the crack of wood bat on leather ball cuts through the still air. The ball shoots the gap, the fans jump to their feet, and soon the home team has a man on second.
It’s game night for the Willmar Stingers, the newest edition to the Northwoods League, a 16-team wood-bat amateur league with teams throughout the Midwest, including seven in Minnesota.
The league is composed of top college players embarked on an intense summer circuit of baseball that mimics the low-level professional ranks — the next step, hopefully, for many Northwoods players. For residents of rural Minnesota, it’s a welcome piece of summer entertainment.
“There aren’t a lot of family oriented things to do in Willmar, so this is good for the town,” said Darren Heimerl, a former Willmar resident who traveled to the game with his wife, Shurri, from their home in St. Cloud.
Something for everyone
Indeed, the game in Willmar on June 19 had the something-for-everyone feel of modern minor league baseball: free bat bags for kids, polka music, a kiddie car race on the base paths and — ouch! — a fan’s painful rendition of ACDC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
“I wish everybody was a die-hard baseball fan, but that’s not the case,” Stingers co-owner Marc Jerzak said, explaining the wide variety of entertainment at the game. “We promote it as a family night.”
So far, so good. In their inaugural season, the Stingers have been drawing about 1,000 fans per game to Bill Taunton Stadium, a renovated city ballpark on the southwest edge of town that features a grandstand with some individual seating, a gift shop, concessions and a party terrace along the left field line.
The league has found a winning formula by planting teams in Minnesota’s rural cities. Besides the Willmar team, the league’s eight-team north division includes clubs in Rochester, Mankato, St. Cloud, Alexandria, Brainerd, Duluth and Thunder Bay, Ontario. The south division consists of eight teams spread out through Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa.
As Jerzak puts it, the Willmar team is an extension of the “geographical footprint of the league,” which likes its franchises to draw fans from a 30-mile radius.
Midwest version of Cape Cod league
The Northwoods League is the Upper Midwest’s version of the storied Cape Cod Baseball League, a wood-bat amateur league in Massachusetts that dates to 1885. For decades, the Cape Cod league was the summer destination for many of the nation’s top college players.
That began to change in 1994, when the Northwoods League debuted with teams in Kenosha, Wis.; Wausau, Wis.; Manitowoc, Wis.; Dubuque, Iowa; and Rochester. It has gained in popularity ever since, with average attendance this season ranging from about 430 fans per game for the Brainerd Lakes Area Lunkers to about 5,500 fans for the Madison (Wis.) Mallards. The largest draw among Minnesota teams this season is in St. Cloud, where the River Bats are averaging about 1,700 fans.
Like the Cape Cod Baseball League, the Northwoods League features wood bats (college players use metal bats), dense schedules (Northwoods teams play 70 games in 75 days), and long bus rides. The schedule is similar to the one minor league clubs play at the Class A short-season level. Since the players aren’t paid, they retain their amateur status and may return to their college teams for the following season.
“The idea is for player to have a minor-league experience during the summertime without losing their college eligibility,” said Jerzak, who co-owns the Stingers with Ryan Voz and Gary Posch. “Players can come here and get 200 at-bats using wood. That’s valuable.”
Great weather, town-ball roots
Jerzak worked for the Alexandria and St. Cloud clubs before striking out on the Willmar venture with Voz and Posch. He chalks up the league’s success to great summer weather — “can you imagine playing summer ball in Texas?” he said with a chuckle — strong minor-league and town-ball roots throughout the Upper Midwest and a business model (no player salaries, for instance) that allows teams to thrive in small markets. Support is driven by local business advertising, Jerzak said.
To start a team, the franchise fee payable to the league is $1 million.
In recent years, the Northwoods League’s pedigree has risen along with the number of alumni who have reached the major leagues. Some notable alums now playing in the big leagues include Twins pitcher Pat Neshek, Dodgers pitcher Jeff Weaver and White Sox outfielder Juan Pierre.
Dean and Jane Stoks drove 90 miles from Porter, Minn., to Willmar to watch Nate Johnson, the Stingers’ catcher and the son of Jane’s cousin, play in the game against Thunder Bay, which the Stingers won 12-7. Johnson had recently finished his sophomore season at Pepperdine.
‘Some players that are very good’
“We’re kind of hooked,” said Dean Stoks, who found a seat directly behind home plate. “When we came to watch the first game, we didn’t expect the atmosphere that they have created. This is really great. You get to see some players that are very good, players that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise.”
Said Jerzak: “We love it. Ultimately, if (we) can own the team and make a living, that would be pretty cool. We’re not in it to make a million bucks. That’s not what the Northwoods League is all about.”
Gregg Aamot is a former newsman for The Associated Press and the author of “The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees.” He is a journalism and English instructor at Ridgewater College.