Albert Lea ripe for Northwoods League picking

Published 7:37 am Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An open letter to the movers and/or shakers of this community:

I know Major League Baseball’s World Series ended recently, and it ended with the Bronx Bullies successfully buying another championship. So now might not be the ideal time to bring up baseball. But my issue also has to do with the betterment of this community, and there’s never a better time than the present to bring up that topic.

Willmar, a town so similar to Albert Lea they should call it our sister city, had news recently about it getting a Northwoods League baseball team. It’s a town out on the prairie, a couple hours from the bright lights of a major metropolis, and about an hour or so away from a healthy, mid-size Minnesota town (St. Cloud for them, Rochester for us). The as-yet-unnamed team in Willmar will be the league’s 15th team playing a 64-game summer schedule around Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Canada. League scheduling is naturally looking for a 16th team, as it has a history of adding in pairs whenever possible.

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For those not familiar, Northwoods League baseball is a college-player, summer wooden bat league. It’s a scout league.

For example, if a highly touted college baseball player is looking for A. a chance to play a full schedule of games with a wooden bat like they do in the pros (they use metal bats in high school and college) B. a summer opportunity to work on skills C. more chances to play in front of Major League Baseball scouts, then they’d join a league such as the Northwoods League. There are a few other similar leagues, but we are blessed in this region of the country to have one of, if not the, best-run version.

The league was founded in 1994, based out of Rochester, with four teams. As previously stated, Willmar will be playing a full schedule next summer as the 15th team, and Albert Lea, with the right mix of city cooperation, ballpark upgrades and private investment is ripe for the picking. That may sound like a lot, but truly the right mix of the above three, and suddenly Albert Lea each summer is transformed 34 nights a summer into a hopping baseball town. Anyone who’s lived in a thriving baseball community knows what I’m talking about.

Albert Lea was once one of those towns. In a book called “Town Ball: The Glory Days of Minnesota Amateur Baseball,” you can read more about the following: “Shanty Dolan and the Albert Lea Packers towered over state baseball in the early post-World War II years. The Packers won the Class AA championship five consecutive years, 1944-48. … This domination is unprecedented in state amateur baseball history.”

When the Albert Lea Packers were playing, people paid attention.

While that era of town baseball hoopla is long since buried, this community has a chance to revive a similar summer feel by investing in its summer fun options. Twice I have been lucky enough to live in towns as they were swept up in the Northwoods League fervor. In the mid-1990s I was in college at St. Cloud State University when the Dubuque Mud Puppies came to town and became the St. Cloud River Bats, a staple of that community’s summer entertainment options to this day.

In the early 2000s I was in college (yes, I was in college awhile) in La Crosse, Wis., when a local business owner and state politician, Dan Kapanke, brought that town a summer experience it has cherished ever since. Both team owners are not rich by any standard, but simply willing to invest in a proven product. I encourage you to call Kapanke and see just how good of an investment it has been for him.

I’ve met the owners of both franchises (St. Cloud, La Crosse) through my work with those town’s local newspapers, and I know of a respected former politician and business owner in this community who reminds me a lot of those owners that could probably help make this happen here.

Now, granted, both of those towns are much bigger than Albert Lea. So is Rochester, which has the Honkers, but the Alexandria Beetles in draw about 1,000 fans a game in a town of 11,000. Besides, Albert Lea has already proven it can support a similar product in the Albert Lea Thunder, a Junior A hockey team.

Certainly, getting a baseball facility with ample bleachers and parking is a sticking point, but when the idea for the La Crosse Loggers was being formulated, they were looking at a former softball field as the potential site. Anything can happen with the right investor group, support from the city council and, obviously, support from the local business community.

Many years ago I worked at the St. Cloud State student newspaper, The Chronicle, for one of the guys who’s currently putting together the team in Willmar. He said the Willmar business community members he’s met are ecstatic about this opportunity. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s bringing people to town and getting them out of their houses on beautiful summer evenings to cheer on a team full of players who live with community members. They do not get paid. They are here simply to take part in something they’re passionate about.

I’ve only lived in Albert Lea about five years, but I’ve become passionate about seeing it thrive. My promise to the movers and shakers of this town: If you build it, they will come.

Riley Worth can be reached at