I always wondered about independent baseball teams. What does that even mean, independent? Who goes to these games? Who plays in these games? Is it sort of a league that you pay to join? It's always been a mystery to me. With the excuse of Jose Canseco coming to play for a team in Pittsburg that I never knew existed, I set to find out.
Aside from the occasional "plucked out of independent ball" or former MLB star trying to get his groove back, or Rickey Henderson hanging on to the game, we never, ever hear about independent baseball. For the billions of dollars that flow through the A's and other major league teams, there are scant pennies available to the other professional leagues. But if we bother to look beyond the bright lights, there's an entire world of baseball out there waiting with open arms.
I'll admit it. Jose Canseco is what drew me in. I don't live near Pittsburg. In fact I doubt I've ever been there. But I will wind up going there, at this point I'm sure of that. If you spend five minutes talking to Pittsburg Diamonds General Manager Tom Macari, you'll probably end up there at some point too.
All it takes is one crazy baseball fanatic
Macari, known to most of us as A's fanatic and longtime Athletics Nation member tjmacari, is a certified baseball addict. The very story of how he got into independent ball was fascinating. He was injured in his senior year of high school, and as a consequence wasn't recruited. Unlike most of us, he didn't transition to the beer league, or intramurals. The Fremont native kept playing, first at College of Marin and then Missouri Valley College. After college ball, the itch never left him. His baseball journey led him first to a team called the Fairfield Indians.
Unsatisfied with the experience, he and his friend decided to start their own semi-pro team, called the East Bay Lumberjacks. The name was inspired from a trip through the redwoods on their way to play the Humboldt Crabs, the nation's oldest continuously running semi-pro squad.
The Lumberjacks got good enough to become a full professional team as part of a local independent league, albeit without a home stadium, and with a pretty large caveat. "We were a travel team but sort of a minor league team for the league, and anyone could take our best players and trade for them," said Macari. This predictably led to a 1-24 record, but he was undaunted.
Like a mini-MLB team
The Lumberjacks stuck with it and last year became the Pittsburg Mettle. This year, under new ownership, they became the Pittsburg Diamonds. Ownership? Yes, like an MLB team, these pro teams have an owner, a GM, a manager, and base coaches. It might take just one baseball nut to start an indy ball outfit but it takes a few more to move it forward.
In this case, the team is co-owned by Khurram Shah and Aaron Miles. Shah is also a massive A's fan, and happens to own a successful towing company. Like a great baseball fan, he took money made from his sure, steady business and put it into about the least sure thing he could imagine.
You may remember Aaron Miles, a nine year major leaguer who won a World Series with the 2006 Cardinals. Miles is a graduate of Antioch High School and moved back in the area to Pittsburg after his playing days. Like Macari, he couldn't let baseball go. He bought into the Diamonds and hired himself as manager. He'll always have this moment:
I wondered what is the goal of independent ball. Macari's simple answer shocked me: "Our goal is not to develop players. Our goal is to entertain the fans. Obviously we're a business and we're trying to sell tickets and attract fans. Of course [through this] we want to reach out and bring the community together." Huh. This is just like a major league team, except you have to convince a bunch of people to come out and see a team and players they've never heard of, when there's, I don't know, about 10,000 options for things to do on a Friday night in the Bay Area. There must be easier ways to make money, right? Like maybe being a traveling minstrel, or perhaps selling ice to Eskimos?
Shah knows this is a tough road to hoe, but he can't let go of the game. As a child, he literally cried when Jose Canseco was traded. His boyhood idol, callously shipped off to Texas. He still vividly remembers that day. And now Shah gets to hire Canseco to play for his own team! Clearly, the motivation runs deeper than profit.
One more shot at the dream
For many ballplayers, Independent ball serves as a valuable opportunity, and perhaps a last-ditch chance of realizing their dream to one day set foot on a major league diamond. These are real players, and the Pittsburg Diamonds give them a real opportunity. "A lot of the players got released from affiliated ball ["affiliated" is the term of choice here, as the minor leagues are pro teams affiliated with MLB, and the Diamonds are independent]. Our shortstop Will Rodriguez played AAA with the Dodgers, one of our pitchers played AA with the Marlins, throws 96. Tim Battle, our center fielder, was a third round draft pick with the Yankees."
"Almost every one of our guys has either played affiliated ball and got released, or they're really young college stars trying to get into it," says Macari. "We've had scouts at every game this season."
Tom's job as GM is to scour the fringes of baseball and find these talented players, recruit them to Pittsburg, find host families willing to give these kids a rent-free chance to live out their dream, and oh yeah, run all the social media, website, graphic design, and help find team sponsors. In between he has to work a full-time day job as a graphic and web designer. You don't do this unless you love baseball more than anything else.
Bringing Jose back to the East Bay
Macari originally met Jose Canseco when he was competing in a home run derby in Las Vegas. By coincidence he got to hit directly before his childhood idol. He did not waste the opportunity. They stayed in touch, and combined with Shah's love of all things Jose, the deal was done.
Next week for three days, A's fans will have a chance to again see Jose Canseco in the East Bay as he dons the uniform of the Pittsburg Diamonds. But beyond the craziness of Canseco, they'll get to see a bunch of kids playing their hearts out, grizzled baseball men coaching for peanuts, families generously sharing their homes, and the heartbeat of a community pumping in the background.
A's fans can see Jose Canseco next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (June 23-25) suit up for the Pittsburg Diamonds. All games start at 7 pm, but Thursday's game is preceded by a home run derby featuring Canseco, start time 5:30. The games are at City Park field #1 in Pittsburg, Civic Avenue & Railroad Avenue. More information at pdbaseball.com