In Durance Vile: A Season with the Stockade in the Cellar

Life on the road wasn’t too kind to the Salina Stockade. (via Sonoma Stompers)

The pecking order of affiliated minor league ball is easy to figure out. The hierarchy of Triple-A, Double-A, High Single-A, Low Single-A, short-season Single-A, and Rookie League ball applies to every major league team. That’s why they call it organized baseball. But what about independent minor leagues?

There is no official ranking of indy leagues, but clearly some have higher talent levels than others. In all sports leagues, competition is the product, not a means to an end. A franchise that is clearly overmatched is a drag on the entire league. In independent ball, however, some teams are all but guaranteed confinement in the cellar.

Without the support of major league affiliation, independent minor league teams occasionally go belly-up. Curiously, if two teams bite the dust, it is less challenging than when one team tanks. An even number of teams assures every team will have an opponent every day of the season; an odd number means one team must always remain idle.

There are ways of compensating. During the 2016 season, the American Association combined the Grand Prairie Air Hogs and the Amarillo Thunderheads into one franchise known as the Texas Air Hogs. Half the team’s home games were played in Grand Prairie, half in Amarillo. In previous seasons, the league solved the problem by scheduling interleague games with teams from the Can-Am League. (Miles Wolff is the commissioner of both leagues.)

The odd/even conflict is often resolved by adding a travel team, a franchise without a home. You say you like to travel? Well, playing for a travel team would never be confused with a vacation.

Professional baseball is a peripatetic profession, and coping with road trips has always been part of baseball at all levels of play.  The traditional recipe for success is to dominate the competition at home and play .500 on the road.  But when all your games are on the road…well, good luck to you.

Also, travel teams are usually put together hastily. Warm bodies, not victories, are the goal. The duration of the team is rarely more than one season, as the league will work hard to come up with a landed franchise for the following season.

For a travel team to win a league championship would be a miracle greater than the ’69 Mets. Playing .500 ball would be a major achievement. Not finishing last would be commendable. And if a travel team does finish last…well, the odds were long from the start.  Consider the Pennsylvania Road Warriors, who went 23-103 in the Atlantic League in 2004.  The results were regrettable but not unforeseeable. It could have been worse, which brings us to the 2017 season, when another travel team did worse.  Here’s how that came about.

The Laredo Lemurs (formerly known as the Shreveport-Bossier Captains) started play in the American Association in 2012. On the field, the team was always competitive.  In five seasons under manager Pete Incaviglia (hired for 2018 by the Sugarland Skeeters of the Atlantic League), the Lemurs were always above .500, never finished lower than second in the South Division, and won a championship in 2015.  The team was 57-42 in 2016 but just missed the playoffs.

On May 3, 2017, the Lemurs withdrew from the American Association for reasons that would require a separate article to explain. They will not return. In fact, the City of Laredo in 2018 hosted a team in the Mexican League and shared the home games with Nuevo Laredo across the border in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

Since the 2017 season was due to begin on May 18, the May 3 announcement put the American Association in an awkward position. Yet the day after the Lemurs disintegrated, the league announced, thanks to an agreement with the Pecos League, the Salina (Kansas) Stockade (the name derives from an ad hoc fortress created in 1864 to protect settlers from Native Americans and Confederate guerillas) would take their place. Clearly, the league had anticipated the demise of the Lemurs and had a contingency plan.

The Stockade was a 93-percent travel team (seven games of the 100-game schedule were scheduled for Salina, population approximately 47,000). The franchise had logged just one season (2016) in the Pecos League, playing 10 games of 68 in Salina.

Minor league ball goes back a long way in Salina; the town hosted a franchise in the Kansas State League back in 1887. Over the years, Salina had a number of low-level teams (Class C and D leagues) such as the Coyotes, the Insurgents, and the Millers. The last professional franchise before the Stockade was the Blue Jays of the Western Association. That franchise disappeared after the 1952 season.

Despite playing so many games on the road in 2016, the Stockade finished fourth (29-36) in a field of five in the North Division of the Pecos League. Hardly a disaster. So why not repeat the scenario in 2017 in a different league?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Well, the talent level of the Pecos League is below that of the American Association. I’m sure the players and powers that be in both leagues would agree with that. A quick comparison of team rosters showed the American Association had a number of players with affiliated experience, some having reached Double-A and Triple-A, and a few with major league experience (e.g., Winston Abreu of Cleburne, Mark Hamburger of St. Paul, and Reggie Abercrombie of Winnipeg).

The Pecos League rosters reveal numerous undrafted college players and a number of players who had washed out from the lowest levels of affiliated ball. Some individuals in the Pecos League were capable of stepping up their game and moving up to more competitive leagues. A glance at the previous experience of players on American Association rosters shows some players had done just that. But an entire team of Pecos League players transplanted to the American Association would be overmatched, and that was clearly the case for the Salina Stockade in 2017.

The Stockade opened the regular season on May 18 with a four-game series in Wichita and won one game. That was not a bad showing, as the Wichita Wingnuts had appeared in the postseason six years in a row. (They did so again in 2017, winning their division with a 61-38 record.) Then came the drought.

The next Stockade victory did not come until June 13, when three Salina pitchers (Connor Bach, five innings, and Skylar Hunter and Tyler Herr, two innings apiece) combined for a 7-0 shutout of the Cleburne Railroaders, the league’s other new team, albeit one with a stadium and a future.

Could the Stockade win two in a row? No, the drought resumed. The Stockade lost two games in Wichita and three in Kansas City.

But on June 19, the Stockade would have their first home game, the first in a four-game series versus Wichita at Dean Evans Stadium in Salina. Unfortunately, the Stockade’s first home game resulted in a loss (Wichita’s T.J. Mittelstaedt hit three home runs and drove home six in the 11-5 victory). The Wingnuts went on to sweep the Stockade, who were outscored 37-14 in four games. So home cooking proved to be less than nutritious. The results were no better in Sioux Falls, where the Stockade lost two games to the Canaries by 15-1 scores and one by 11-4.

The Stockade began a three-game series in Cleburne on Monday, June 26. They won the first game, 7-1, thanks to a six-run sixth inning and a complete game from starter Chris Cody. Again, the question: Could they win two in a row?

They did, but it wasn’t easy. Cleburne starter Josh Hodges, a former member of the Stockade pitching staff, made his first start for the Railroaders. He gave up six runs in 3.2 innings. The Stockade held on for an 8-7 victory. Not only had they won two games in a row, but they had also clinched their first series of the season! Pop the champagne corks! Sure, they were only 4-35 and 22.5 games behind division-leading Wichita, but there are moral victories.

The next victory came on Independence Day. Thanks to a fine performance from starter Brian Smith (seven innings, one unearned run), the Stockade defeated Cleburne 7-1, thus spoiling the home team’s July 4 celebration, one day after its new park (known as the Depot) was voted the Independent Ballpark of the Year in the Ballpark Digest Best of the Ballparks vote. Despite a 5-40 record, the Stockade could still play the role of spoiler.

The Stockade also played spoiler in its next victory, when Josh Hodges earned his first win on July 9 in Grand Prairie. Hodges’ quality start (6.1 innings pitched, one run) resulted in a 5-1 victory over the Air Hogs, enabling the Stockade to salvage the finale of a three-game series. It was Disney Night at Air Hogs Park, but all the pixie dust fell on the Stockade that evening.

After that, it was back to the loss column till July 18, when the Stockade eked out a victory over the Sioux City Explorers. The team record at that point was 7-49.  So the Stockade was winning one game in eight.  They couldn’t have known it at the time, but this was the first game of a streak – a three-game sweep (4-3, 8-3, 5-1) of Sioux City. The star of the series was Cody Coffman, who homered in each game. One wonders what Sioux City manager Steve Montgomery had to say to his team after that series. The Explorers were no powerhouse, but before the series, they were one game above .500.

Then it was back to the losing side for the Stockade, who lost their next three games to the St. Paul Saints.  In a sense, this was the ultimate contrast in American Association teams. The Saints (established in 1993 and named after St. Paul’s erstwhile longtime affiliated franchise) have been box office boffo from day one. Having proven an independent minor league team can not only survive but thrive, the Saints have a new ballpark in downtown St. Paul that would do any Double-A franchise proud. They are about as “establishment” as an indy team can get. The Stockade, meanwhile, are the baseball equivalent of asylum-seekers. The new kids on the block are living in a tent city.

At the All-Star break, the Stockade record was 9-52, good for a .148 winning percentage. The reasons for that record were obvious. The starting pitching was awful. No pitcher had more than one victory.

Brian Smith started 12 games and led the staff in innings pitched with 62 2/3, but his record was 1-9 with a 7.61 ERA. Connor Bach was 1-5 with a 8.49 ERA in 41.1 IP. Joe Robinson was 0-5 in 37 1/3 IP in 8.92 ERA. I could go on, but you get the idea. Only three pitchers had an ERA below 4.00, but they had seen limited duty.

The hitters weren’t tearing up the league, but some of the regulars were having respectable seasons.  Kewby Meyer, for example, was hitting .323 with two homers and 17 RBIs; Cody Coffman hit .262 with eight homers and 19 RBIs, Jordan Caillouet hit a mere .201 but with seven and 20.  Considering these guys did not have the opportunity to inflate their stats by batting against Stockade pitchers, their achievements attain a bit more luster.

The July 25 All-Star game pitted the American Association against the Can-Am League at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton (understandably abbreviated as RCGT) Park, home of the Ottawa Champions.  To no one’s surprise, the roster of the visiting AA team featured no members of the Stockade.  But it was a two-day break for the Stockade, a great opportunity to kick back and relax at home…if they had a home.  (For the record, the Can-Am League defeated the AA by a 3-2 score).

On July 26, the Stockade was back in action against the Gary South Shore Railcats. They started off the second half with another loss (2-1), but at least kept it close. The next day the team scored just one run again, but the results were even worse; in a double-header, the Stockade lost to Gary by scores of 14-1 and 2-0. The team did manage to salvage the fourth game of the series by a 4-1 score. Josh Hodges became the team’s first two-game winner, emerging victorious after eight innings and one run. The Stockade finally hit double figures in victories, now at 10-55.

On Sunday, July 30, it was back to Salina for three more home games against Wichita. The Wingnuts were in a stretch of their schedule when they have to abandon their home park, Lawrence Dumont Stadium, in favor of the American Baseball Congress competition.

Wichita swept the series (8-1, 9-4 and 5-0), thus going 7-0 for the season in Salina. Conversely, the Stockade completed its brief home season at 0-7. At the end of the day, the Stockade was 33 games out with 32 to go. With five weeks left in the season, the Stockade officially had been eliminated. Unofficially, of course, it had been eliminated on Opening Day.

Still, on occasion, the team could be competitive, as new manager Daniel Aldrich (taking over from J.D. Droddy) would discover. Despite playing the rest of the games on the road over the last month of the season, the Stockade actually had a break in the schedule. Most of those remaining games were against South Division opponents. That included seven games against the Cleburne Railroaders and 14 against the Texas Air Hogs, who were both well below .500. In the South Division, only first-place Wichita was respectable.

Nevertheless, the Stockade failed to capitalize. With a halfway decent final month, the team could have nudged its winning percentage above .200. The Sockade got close, but after ending the season with an eight-game losing streak, finished up at .180 (18-82). In other words, they couldn’t win one game out of five.

Offensively, the Stockade finished last in the league in hits (781), runs (332) and total bases (1100).  Team leaders were Kewbie Meyer (.278 average), Cody Coffman (10 home runs) and Jesse Baker (35 RBIs). As for pitching, the team finished last in strikeouts (601), walks (491), runs (652) and earned runs (584).

In baseball, the mathematics of a winning team and a losing team are easy to explain. If you’re playing .600 ball, winning three games out of five, you are a very good team; if you’re playing .400 ball, winning two games out of five, you are a lousy team. That one game in five makes all the difference.

There have been many horrible teams in major league history, but in modern times, the 1962 New York Mets have been the traditional barometer of ineptness, winning just one game in four, good for a .250 winning percentage. That was a record the Stockade could only envy.

As bad as the Mets were, at least they played half their games in their own park. Sure, the Polo Grounds was dilapidated and outdated, but it was better than no home at all. (The Mets responded with a record that evinced a modest home-field advantage, 22-58 good for a .275 winning percentage.)

As soon as the 2017 season was over, the Stockade disappeared from the American Association web site, and baseball in Salina went into limbo. However, in 2018, the team played in the Cam-Am League, and this past season it was a member of the Pacific Association. In 2020? Who knows?

Taking one for the team occasionally is one thing. Taking one for the league for an entire season is something else entirely. If a league needs to create a travel team, it should at least make an attempt to field a competitive team. How to do this? An expansion draft perhaps? I don’t have the answer, but transplanting a team from an inferior league is not the way to go.

At least the Stockade players can boast of having been professional ballplayers, albeit just barely. Unfortunately, they aren’t in a position to say, “Wait till next year.”

There might not be a next year for the Stockade. Not next year, not any year.

References & Resources

  • Am-association.wtbaseball.pointstreak.com
  • Ballpark Digest – “Salina Replaces Laredo in 2017 American Association Lineup” by Kevin Reichard, May 4, 2017
  • Salina Journal – “Introducing the Salina Stockade” by Arne Green, Feb. 14, 2016
  • www.salinastockade.com
  • Wikipedia – Laredo Lemurs
  • Wikipedia – Pennsylvania Road Warriors


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Triteon
2 years ago

Excellent article, thank you!