I have been to hundreds of minor league baseball games in my life and I often hear fans inquiring about the level of independent league teams. For example, many people think that the independent leagues are equivalent to a specific minor league level, such as Single A, Double A, or Triple A. In addition, I have also heard fans think that independent teams are playing at a level below Single A. So, if I was at a Newark Bears game and someone asked me if the Bears were Single A, Double A, or Triple A, the answer would be “none of the above”.
Independent league teams are not affiliated with a Major League team so therefore they are not given a classfication of Single A, Double A, or Triple A. Independent league teams are primarily comprised of former Major League Baseball players, players who made it part of the way through a Major League Team’s farm system, or undrafted college players.
The advantage that independent league teams have is that they are not subject to the territorial restrictions that Major League team’s place upon affiliated minor league team’s. For example, if the New York Yankees wanted to place a Single A level team in Hoboken, NJ, they would have to have that approved by the New York Mets who have territorial rights to parts of New Jersey. But if an independent league team wanted to call Hoboken it’s home, they wouldn’t be restricted.
Even though independent league players are not part of a Major League team’s farm system, there is still a chance they might get signed by an MLB team. One of the most recent independent league players to play in a MLB game was Boston’s Daniel Nava. Nava had played for the Chico Outlaws (Golden Baseball League) and was signed by the Boston Red Sox in 2007. He then went on to be the second player in MLB history to hit a grand slam on the first pitch he ever saw in the Majors. Of course prospective professional baseball players have a better chance of making it to the Majors if they are drafted by a Major League team and play in their farm system, but players that aren’t drafted still have a little hope of making it to the “big show”.
Independent league games are great places to catch some former Major Leaguer’s upclose. Former New York Yankees pitching star, Sparky Lyle has been the manager of the Somerset Patriots (Atlantic League) since 1998. Former MLB All-Star Tim Raines managed the Newark Bears (Can. Am. League) until 2011. Former Toronto Blue Jays star, Willie Upshaw is the current manager of the Bridgeport Bluefish (Atlantic League). Former New York Yankee pitcher, Dave LaPoint is the current manager of the Rockland Boulders (Can. Am. League). Butch Hobson is the manager of the Lancaster Barnstormers (Atlantic League). Former Minnesota Twins All-Star Gary Gaetti is the manager of the first year team, the Sugarland Skeeters (Atlantic League).
Some notable former Major League players that played for independent league teams after their career in the Majors were:
Independent league baseball’s attendance is on the rise over the last few years as new ballparks are built. The average attendance for a game in the Atlantic League in 2011 was 4,085. That’s pretty impressive considering many affiliated teams don’t even draw that well. Many of the ballparks of the independent leagues are some of the best designed ballparks in the minor leagues. So, next time you have a chance to catch an independent league game, don’t miss out on the opportunity.