When Major League Baseball Dec. 9 released its list of 120 minor league teams chosen to become full-season affiliates of 30 MLB teams, it affirmed what the Clinton LumberKings management have known for the past 13 months.
The LumberKings – the only remaining charter member of the Class A Midwest League – are not on the list and must find a new league to play in.
“It’s final,” LumberKings General Manager Ted Tornow said after the announcement was released. “There’s no more ifs, ands or buts about it. This is the way that Major League Baseball is going to restructure the landscape of baseball in their ‘One Baseball’ concept. We’ll just be going down another tier, another level.”
MLB’s “One Baseball” concept was formed in 2015 to unify all levels of baseball under the MLB banner.
Now the club, community-owned and governed by a board of directors, must make a decision on the LumberKings’ future. Tornow said he expects the team will have a definitive decision made in “the next couple days, maybe a week.”
Tornow has been in contact with the commissioners of various leagues, including the Frontier and Prospect Leagues.
“Looking at some of their other teams in their leagues and their facilities, we would have one of the better ones in both leagues,” Tornow said. “It’d be interesting going from the little fish in the big pond to the big fish in the little pond.
“We’re just going to do what’s best for the organization and for our fans. Our fans are disappointed, I’m disappointed, but it’s not like we fell off the face of the Earth. We are going to have something here. It’s going to be fun.”
Clinton Mayor Scott Maddasion said Wednesday’s announcement does not change the city’s relationship with the LumberKings.
“We support the Clinton baseball club,” Maddasion said. “We know they’re going to have baseball here. It’s obviously going to look a little different than it has in the past, but they have our support 100% and we’ll have a good relationship going forward just like we have for the past many years.”
He said the city would support the LumberKings’ decision on whichever league the team ends up joining.
“Obviously, everyone wants to have a Major League affiliate like we’ve had for so many years here in town, but ultimately, we want to have baseball,” Maddasion said. “We want to make sure our stadium is used because it’s one of the nicest stadiums probably in the country for this level of baseball. We support the ball club 100 percent on their decision on which league they would like to be a part of.”
Tornow said everybody needs to be heading in the same direction to keep things moving forward. The LumberKings have been in a dispute with the city over a $9,000 bill, and are currently at a standstill over the issue. Maddasion said he expects the issue to be resolved soon after a meeting with LumberKings Baseball Club President Craig Iben.
“We found some common ground and we’re going to continue to work through this,” Maddasion said. “It’s not as big a deal as some people put it out to be, but we’re going to continue to work with them and get everything shored up here hopefully soon.”
“We’ve got to move forward,” Tornow said. “If they’re sincere about baseball staying in this community, then this is just a progression toward that. I want to tell the community we’re going to have baseball.”
Now that the Lumberkings have to find a new league, several possiblities are on the table.
The Frontier League would move Clinton to independent baseball and could make Clinton a travel destination. The nearest teams affiliated would include the Joliet Slammers, Windy City Thunderbolts and Schaumburg Boomers. Evansville, Southern Illinois and north Kentucky also feature teams in the Frontier League.
The caveat? Frontier League clubs pay players themselves. That would put a new obstacle in the way of the success of the front office.
“It adds a lot of economic stress” Tornow said. “With our model here, that really adds a large, six-figure line item to our budget. Depending on how things fall, I don’t know if that will be the best model for us.”
Frontier League plays just over 90 games starting in late May.
The Prospect League would throw Clinton into the college wood bat league, a league that plays right around 70 games. It’s one of two wood bat leagues that could be a good option for the LumberKings, Tornow said
“Envision where our 2019 team members were in their baseball career right before they came to us,” Tornow said. The 2019 LumberKings were the first group in Clinton from the Miami Marlins MLB team and finished as league runners-up. “These would be college-aged kids. These would be kids that would be drafted and did not sign, or ones that were not drafted at all yet. The Prospect League may be a partner league that will have some influence from Major League Baseball. We just will not be affiliated with a specific major league organization.”
The league includes the Normal CornBelters and the Quincy Gems, making Clinton and Burlington northwest destinations.
The Northwoods League is another college wood bat league. With a season right around 70 games, Tornow knows they would need to supplement with other events — concerts, high school games and community events, among them.
MLB players like Max Scherzer and Ben Zobrist played in the Northwoods League at some point in their careers.
The biggest obstacle with the Northwoods League would be travel. There’s just one more Iowa team (Waterloo) currently, and teams stretch up to Duluth and into Canada.
The idea is that Burlington and Clinton will go wherever they’re going next together. The Northwoods League makes Clinton an outlier and Burlington even more so.
A new league
Tornow doesn’t rule out Clinton joining a newly formed league, either. With all the uncertainty, it’s not clear how many teams will be included in the MLB cut. Tornow says there’s always the possibility of a new league forming, with no clear-cut answers on size, travel or the kind of tie to the MLB.
“The dominoes will start when Major League Baseball does the 120,” Tornow said. “Then it will start happening. We look at the players involved, the scenarios and decide what to do moving forward.”
The bottom line seems to be this: The Midwest League will be disbanded in some way. The League will most likely continue, but Clinton — it’s oldest member — will not be part of it.
However, there will be baseball in Clinton, Tornow said. He said team organizers are planning baseball activities for years to come. It might look a little different and there are a lot of question marks, but the first pitch will come again.
“We’ve survived a World War, Korean War, Vietnam War, the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s,” Tornow said. “We’ve seen it, done it all, and we’ve survived. With COVID and the decision by Major League Baseball — if it was just Clinton it would be heartbreaking. But there are 40-plus others out there who will be feeling the same way, and misery loves company.
“We’re all hurting, and in talking to them, everyone’s feeling the same. We’re all sad, but six months ago we sat down and decided — what are we going to do,” he said. “We can start making plans and that’s what we did.”
— Beau Troutman is a Clinton Herald staff writer. Carie Kuehn is a Clinton Herald correspondent.