While searching for recent articles about the collapse of the Florida Winter Baseball League, I came across an eerily similar tale of another independent circuit that quickly folded.
The South Coast League operated for one year in 2007. It had two teams in Florida, two teams in Georgia, and two teams in South Carolina.
Like the FWBL, the SCL had delusions of grandeur. Like the FWBL, it retained the Global Scouting Bureau to handle player acquisition. Like the FWBL, it was poorly managed. Like the FWBL, it quickly failed to pay its debts. Like the FWBL, its primary investor promised to recapitalize and return for a second year.
Unlike the FWBL, it managed to play one full season before it folded.
Witness to it all was documentarian John Fitzgerald. He signed an agreement with the SCL to produce an independent series called Playing for Peanuts. As with all documentarians, there was no way he’d know he’d be recording history.
I just finished watching Fitzgerald’s ten-episode series on DVD. You can order it through www.playingforpeanuts.com. The series is $25 plus $5 shipping. Each episode was intended to run a half-hour on commercial television, which means that without commercials each episode is 22 minutes. You can finish the series in four hours.
Playing for Peanuts was dramatic, it was funny, it was everything you’d want in a baseball documentary. I couldn’t wait to watch the next episode.
The center of the story is Wally Backman. You might remember he was hired to manage the Diamondbacks and fired four days later due to a domestic problem that hit the papers. Backman was desperate to get back into the game, so he agreed to manage the South Georgia Peanuts.
Wally was wired with a mic for the entire season. He was combustible, he was controversial, he got suspended, he got fired, he got rehired. But he passionately loved the game and defended his players.
The backdrop for all this was the absolutely horrid conditions in this indy league. It had six teams, and one of the six lost its stadium lease after a week so it had to play on the road for the rest of the year. There was a drug controversy — again, involving the Peanuts — and as the financial losses mounted the players wound up having to be their own grounds crew.
Despite all this, the Peanuts somehow won the pennant.
The documentary left me wondering how the FWBL’s investors could have possibly believed they could succeed where the SCL failed, especially since the SCL’s failure was so recent and the Global Scouting Bureau was involved with both. I don’t fault the GSB — to my knowledge, they were not responsible for league finances — but I have to wonder if GSB warned FWBL investors what happened with the SCL, and if their warnings were heard.
Playing for Peanuts is a great stocking stuffer for a baseball fan. I strongly recommend you order it now in time for the holidays.
Manatees General Manager Kyle Smith issued this press release yesterday:
Manatees Announce “For the Love of the Game” Promotion
Viera, FL – The Brevard County Manatees, advanced-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, announced Monday a special “For the Love of the Game” offer.
While the Manatees share your disappointment with the suspension of the Surge’s inaugural season, we want to assure that you can still see baseball right here on the Space Coast! Simply bring any unused Surge tickets for games dated November 27 and later to the Space Coast Stadium box office, and we’ll give you an equal amount of tickets good for any 2010 Manatees’ home game (excludes FSL All-Star Game)!
“We want to make sure that no baseball fan in Brevard is left out in the cold,” offered Kyle Smith, Manatees’ general manager. “By opening our doors to Surge ticket holders and sponsors, we hope to ease the blow of a shortened season.”
FWBL and Surge corporate sponsors are also invited to contact the Manatees to discuss sponsorship opportunities at exclusive discounted rates.
Opening Night for Manatees is April 8th at Space Coast Stadium. More information on the Brevard County Manatees is available at www.manateesbaseball.com or by phone at (321) 633-9200.
A very wise business decision by the Manatees. They might pick up some customers and advertisers they didn’t have before, and they show how a legitimate baseball business is run.
Two articles in the November 23rd Florida Today about the collapse of the Florida Winter Baseball League.
From what I’ve been able to find, Florida Today seems to be taking the lead on this story. Nothing in the Miami Herald or Orlando Sentinel, papers that are on top of this story geographically but so far seem to not know about it, or not care.
Space Coast Surge players at their October 23 workout. Less than a month later,
their league folded.
The breathtaking freefall of the Florida Winter Baseball League this week will go down as one of the more embarrassing chapters in independent baseball. It happened so fast, the league might not even get a chapter, just a footnote.
The record for indy league ineptitude appears to be the Golden State League, which folded one week after opening in June 1995.
The South Coast League operated in the southeastern United States for one year, folding after the 2007 season. It had two teams in Georgia, two teams in South Carolina, and two teams in Florida (Bradenton and Port Charlotte).
So in the annals of indy ball, the FWBL ranks right up there for ineptitude, if not worse.
FWBL President Mickey Filippucci insists his league hasn’t “folded.”
He told the Leesburg Daily Commercial yesterday that “We’re going to put this thing back together. We have not folded. We want to come back in a big way.”
Would you believe him?
Would you invest your money with him?
Would you show up to play or coach for one of his teams, knowing FWBL 1.0 couldn’t even meet its first payroll?
The Lake County Black Bears in Leesburg are becoming a melodramatic subplot in this mess.
Lake County General Manager John Harris was relieved of his duties on November 10 by FWBL Executive Director James Gamble, who is also president and founder of the Global Scouting Bureau. According to media reports, Harris was blamed for tensions between the Black Bears operation and the City of Leesburg, which owns the stadium leased by the team.
After the league suspended operations on Tuesday, a person claiming to be Harris posted a comment on a Daily Commercial news story stating “John Harris is back as the GM of the Lake County Black Bears.”
But in a story in today’s Daily Commercial, Filippucci said Harris “has nothing to do with the Black Bears. He’s not an employee of the Florida Winter Baseball League.”
The article continued, “By Friday evening, [Filippucci] had retracted his original statement. He said there was an oral agreement with Harris that he would continue on as the general manager of the team as the inaugural season wound down and possibly lead the team in a second season.”
After three inconclusive conversations with Filipucci and unsuccessfully trying to cash his first paycheck, Surge field manager Jim Gabella spent the day ensuring his players they could cash their checks and find their way home.
“They should never be allowed to do anything with the game of baseball again because they tarnished its beautiful reputation,” Gabella said referring to league officials.
A Surge staffer told me that some players received two checks that bounced, while others managed to get one check to cash by heading straight to Walmart which apparently has a more liberal check cashing policy than banks. Other employees took cash on hand rather than risk a worthless piece of paper.
A news crew from Central Florida News 13 asked me to come by Cocoa Expo on Thursday to film a standup interview, since pretty much everyone else had left. They also used some of the video I’ve shot of the league. I recorded four segments that aired that night. Click here to watch the news reports. You need Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection to watch.
I doubt we’ve heard the last of this. Horror stories are sure to start emerging in the papers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some enterprising lawyer organizes a class action lawsuit against Filippucci and his fellow investors.
Independent ball always has to survive in the shadow of “organized baseball,” a term that refers to minor league teams affiliated with major league parent clubs. The FWBL’s fiscal flop will only embellish the existing stereotype that indy leagues are untrustworthy. Some leagues, such as the American Association, are quite stable and financially successful. But those leagues don’t make headlines.
Failures like the FWBL do.
Florida Today just posted a story by Mark DeCotis reporting that the Florida Winter Baseball League has suspended operations.
DeCotis cites statements by Global Scouting Bureau staff claiming “non and delinquent payments dating back to November 1st, 2009.”
The article states that the Surge team bus cancelled its trip today to Miami, but manager Jim Gabella was told they should be ready to depart tomorrow at 11:30 AM EST.
It also says that management at Cocoa Expo, which leases their stadium to the Surge, has heard nothing about the league suspension.
I reported earlier that several league web sites were parked or partially inactive. They’re all working again, but who knows if that will last.
“Due to a series of failed commitments by the Florida Winter Baseball League (FWBL) to the Global Scouting Bureau (GSB), we have chosen to announce a formal separation from the client,” the GSB press release states.
Web sites for the Miami Diamantes and Lake County Black Bears are still operating, although they also feature the press release. The web sites for the Seminole County Naturals and Space Coast Surge have been parked with GoDaddy.com, meaning they’re shut down for now.
The FWBL.com web site is still active, but some photos are missing. (Many appear to be photos provided by SpaceCoastBaseball.com.)
“GSB was hired as the management company to oversee formation, staff hiring, and eventual daily operations of the FWBL,” the press release states.
Nothing official has been announced yet about whether the league will continue operations.
If the plug’s been pulled, you may want to click here to access the league’s final stats. Lake County at 11-4 would be the league champion, I guess. The Surge finished 2-13.
League officials stated before the season began that their economic model assumed an average attendance of 750 per game. Many observers privately thought that number was wildly optimistic. The current average is 367, about half of that assumption, but it seems awfully early to be giving up. By January, when the league would be entering the final days of the pennant race, high school and college football would be over, the operations would be established, so perhaps they’d get more coverage in local papers that might result in increased attendance.
The GSB press release doesn’t say anything about not being paid, so we don’t know if that was one of the “failed commitments.” If it was, though, that suggests the investors failed to adequately capitalize the league to survive even a poor early return.
UPDATE November 16, 2009 9:30 AM EST — Click Here to watch Stantrel Smith’s three-run homer. You need Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection to watch.
Meet new Surge first baseman Ernie Banks — no relation to that other guy. He’ll fill the roster slot vacated by Derrick McPhearson’s release.
The Space Coast Surge fell to 2-13 Sunday with a 4-3 loss at Seminole County.
The Surge lost yet again despite adding Ernie Banks to the lineup.
Okay, let’s move past all the obvious jokes. He’s no relation to the Hall of Famer, even though he’s a Junior. He’s just not a Junior to THAT guy.
The Surge roster has changed a bit in recent days. 3B-OF Derrick McPhearson was released. RHP Johnny Dillard is disabled with a shoulder injury, and C Gerard Haran is out two weeks with a broken finger. Banks took McPhearson’s slot on the Surge roster.
Banks was 0 for 4, striking out all four times at bat, but at least he had the excuse that he hasn’t played in a while. That excuse can’t be used by the rest of the Surge lineup, which struck out a team total of 15 times in this game. Naturals starter Steve McFarland struck out 12 in 6 1/3 innings, with reliever Anthony Moreno striking out three in 1 2/3 innings.
Center fielder Stantrel Smith got the Surge within 4-3 with a three-run shot off Moreno in the top of the 7th. I’ll have video of Stantrel’s dinger online shortly, and will post the link when available.
Naturals first baseman Chris Garcia homers in the sixth off Baron Short.
Surge starting pitcher Baron Short gave up four runs in six innings, including a solo shot to Naturals first baseman Chris Garcia. Short and Garcia were once teammates in the Angels minor leagues.
The win moved Seminole County (9-6) into second place, two games behind Lake County (11-4) which beat Miami (8-7) by a score of 7-5. The two teams with the best record at season’s end meet in a best-of-three series for the FWBL title. That means the Surge are at least seven games out from playoff contention, but with 45 games left they have plenty time to make up for lost ground if they can find some pride and go on a winning streak.
Speaking of former Angels teammates, Miami outfielder Trevor Pippin is undergoing an unusual transformation. Once an outfielder in the Angels system, he still plays the outfield for the Diamantes but he’s also pitched in relief. Today he pitched for the third time, and did it in a way that would convolute the inventors of the designated hitter (a pox upon them …) Pippin entered the game as a pinch-hitter for the DH, which automatically makes him the DH. Then he took the field in the 8th as a relief pitcher. If the DH takes the field defensively, then the DH is eliminated and the pitcher must bat. But if the DH becomes the pitcher, the pitcher is already batting anyway, right?! Of course, any pitcher who comes after him would have to bat, but I can’t recall any other time since the DH began in the American League in 1973 that the DH became the pitcher.
The Space Coast Surge take the field for the first time, on October 30, 2009.
Well, that could have gone better.
I’m not referring to the fan experience during the opening homestand of the Space Coast Surge. Sure, anything can be improved, and we’ll get to that in a moment.
No, I’m referring to the team losing all three games to Lake County — 8-0, 6-4 and 6-0.
The Surge committed ten errors in the series, six of them in Game #1. Five of the 20 runs given up in the series were unearned. Lake County committed five errors.
The team hit .135 for the series, with a .210 on-base percentage and .198 slugging percentage. They scored no runs until the bottom of the 8th in Game #2.
The pitching staff’s ERA is 5.00. If you’re looking for any cheery news, the pitchers have struck out 32 batters in 27 innings, which leads the league, although they’ve walked 14, which also leads the league.
The word you’re searching for is “pathetic.”
Still, it’s only three games into a 60-game season. They can take this embarrassment as motivation to go on a tear.
The level of talent in the league seems to be roughly equivalent in affiliated baseball to Advanced Class-A. (By “affiliated” we mean a minor league team affiliated with a major league organization. “Independent” teams sign and trade their own players.) The Brevard County Manatees are an example of Advanced Class-A.
The main difference, though, is that the teams lack any legit top prospects. Most of the players once worked for a major league organization, were released, and then signed with independent teams. Some of them have only played indy ball. With most Advanced Class-A teams, you’ll usually see at least one or two major league prospects.
Baseball America did a study years ago which concluded that only one of ten players in the affiliated minors will make it some day to the big leagues. The other nine fill out a roster so those prospects have someone to play with. You can consider the FWBL as being comprised of those other nine.
That’s not to say that none of these guys will ever play in the big leagues. Some indy players do make it back into affiliated baseball, and once in a while they’ll make it to the majors.
The FWBL’s goal is to prepare these indy players for an opportunity to win a job in affiliated ball, which will put them back on track for a big league career.
Viewed from the cynic’s perspective, it’s also the last chance before returning home to a life outside of baseball.
That’s on the field. The fan experience in the first three games went better than I expected.
Cocoa Expo Stadium, built in 1964, has been generally neglected by its current owners. The Surge lease the facility, so don’t blame them for the dirty bathrooms or folding chairs substituting for box seats. Cocoa Expo also handles the concessions.
Stadium management did put a lot of effort into some basic improvements in the last few days before Opening Night. The grandstands were pressure-washed. The pitcher’s mound was rebuilt and the infield dirt smoothed out.
The Surge provided some clever and innovative entertainment between innings to go beyond the typical minor league staples. The Surge Dancers boost the energy level performing routines from hip-hop to swing. Take Me Out to the Ballgame has been jettisoned during the 7th Inning Stretch in favor of a dance gag featuring fans dressed in straw hula skirts. An impromptu foot race was held Saturday night between two fans. After the game, the players remain on the field for 15 minutes so fans can come down for autographs and mingling.
Attenance was predictably sparse — 385 for Opening Night on Friday, 178 for Halloween Saturday and and 150 for the Sunday late afternoon game. Management didn’t do a Halloween promotion, which was a bit surprising, but for those who wanted to get away from the kiddie chaos it was a welcome respite.
It was also an opportunity for management to test-drive their product and make adjustments before the team returns in late November. The Space Coast State Fair has Cocoa Expo booked for most of the month, so the next Surge home game is Friday November 27. Staff describe that as “our second Opening Night.”
Five bucks for general admission is a pretty good deal, especially in a recessionary economy. The stadium has seen better days, you’re unlikely to see a future major league star, but it’s cheaper than a night at the movies and it’s easy to mingle with the ballplayers if that’s your thing. You’ll get your five dollars’ worth just from watching the dancers and other between-innings entertainment. Hopefully the team starts winning and that’ll be the bonus.
Below are photos from the opening weekend.
Surge players check out the game program on Opening Night.
Baron Short and Anthony Sullivan, once teammates in the Angels’ minor leagues, look at nothing.
Third baseman Derrick MacPhearson during the Opening Night roster introduction.
Surge players during the national anthem.
Surge manager Jim Gabella and Lake County manager George Foster exchange lineup cards.
Surge catcher Gerard Haran blocks the plate Saturday night to keep a Lake County runner from scoring.
Haran consults with reliever Anthony Sullivan.
Derrick MacPhearson hangs from the dugout roof while catcher Hank Lanto watches. Don’t try this at home.
Leadoff hitter Stantrel Smith waits for Sunday’s game to start.
Sunday’s starting pitcher Chris Bodishbaugh.
Cocoa Expo Stadium last saw professional baseball in 1993. Will the fans return for independent winter league baseball?
Let’s be frank — Cocoa Expo has seen better days.
The facility was built in 1964 by the City of Cocoa for the Houston Colt .45s, who soon became the Astros, as their spring training facility. The Astros left for Kissimmee in 1985. According to a June 13, 2008 Florida Today article, the Astros moved after a dispute with Cocoa over who would pay for facility renovations.
After the Astros left, the City of Cocoa sold the complex to private investors. Major league baseball returned when the newly born Florida Marlins held their first spring training there in 1993, which is why the stadium has teal paint. The Marlins moved into Space Coast Stadium in 1994.
A former official at Cocoa Expo loaned me a 2005 Official Events Program & Visitors Guide, which has photos of the complex and its history. Click Here to view the Guide. You need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the Guide. Page 18 has a photo of the stadium in better days.
Little has been done to keep the stadium in a condition suitable for professional baseball, because there hasn’t been a demand. It’s used for amateur college, high school and other youth tournaments.
Complicating matters will be the Space Coast State Fair which runs November 5-15. The fair will occupy the stadium and practice fields. A 2008 fair map shows the stadium field was used for concerts and bull riding, while the practice fields were used for parking.
The Surge open with three home games October 30 – November 1, then the fair forces them to play road games for three weeks. Their next home game won’t be until November 27, after Thanksgiving. Not only will the condition of the fields be a question mark, but any fan base momentum from the opening homestand could be lost with the team gone so long.
The Surge are tenants, not owners, so any customer dissatisfaction may be directed unfairly at them. I’m sure Surge management will do everything they can to make a night at the ballpark as enjoyable as possible for the fans, but for the players the conditions might not be pleasant.
For those of you who love baseball history, for those Space Coast residents who grew up going to games at Cocoa Expo, you’ll enjoy exploring the facility. If you’ve been over to the Nationals’ complex in Viera, you’ll notice many similarities — a stadium for the parent club, surrounded by practice fields and batting cages. Some of the Surge players who’ve worked for major league organizations have told me the complex has a certain familiarity, as they were in “complex” facilities with their former parent clubs.
Be sure to look for the “Ryan Ramp”:
Nolan Ryan kept his leg strength by running serpentine up and down this ramp on the back of the batting cage.
Former major league catcher Jack Hiatt, who was an Astros minor league manager in the early 1980s, remembers Ryan running on the ramp. “The ramp was covered with Astro Turf,” he said. “After a full day of normal spring training work, Nolan would end up at the ramp for extra conditioning. He would run sideways up and down the ramp. I would watch him and think that’s what it takes to be a Hall of Famer.”
As you can see from the photo, the Astro Turf is long gone and the ramp has rotted through in places.
Here are some other photos I shot recently at Cocoa Expo. See you Friday night for the season opener.
Looking from the batting cage south to the stadium.
The left field fence looking from the foul pole towards center field.
Behind the left field fence. Watch your speed.
The third base dugout. Note that the players’ restroom is lacking a door.