The Northwoods League Has Something to Offer

Curtis Granderson is one of the most successful alums of the Northwoods League. (via Ian D’Andrea)

Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Ben Zobrist, and Curtis Granderson are just some of the many players to have played in the Northwoods League. And despite the NWL’s notable alumni, many people still associate the Cape Cod league as the premier summer baseball league for the top college prospects. While this may be true, the NWL — a college summer league played primarily in the upper Midwest — has gained notice over the past few years for its exceptional talent, unique atmosphere, and fan experience.

The Northwoods League began in 1994 with just five teams, and it started in an unexpected way. The expression “when one door closes, another one opens” was central to the beginning of the NWL. “We were out of our jobs, didn’t have any jobs. It was one of those inspiration, desperation moments,” said co-founder and chairman of the NWL, Dick Radatz.

What Radatz and his business partner knew they could do was market baseball. The opportunity arose in Kenosha and Wausau when both cities lost their Midwest League teams. That meant there were two cities with nice baseball facilities and no baseball to be played in them anymore. Radatz jumped on the opportunity; he figured it would be a good time to give a for-profit summer baseball league a shot.

Photo Courtesy of The Northwoods League

The original teams included affiliates in Kenosha, Wausau, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, as well as Dubuque, Iowa, and Rochester, Minnesota. Over the course of a 56-game schedule, college all-stars would compete for a chance to win a title. In 1995, the NWL had its first All-Star game, where the best first-half NWL performers competed. The Rochester Honkers were the very first champions of the league. The teams were encouraged to run organizations like any pro team would. There would be nightly giveaways, postgame fireworks, and many fan engagement opportunities.

Since then, the league has grown to 23 teams across the Midwest. In 1999, Jeff Weaver became the first NWL alumnus to reach the major leagues. Other notable events/moments in NWL history include:

1998: The five-year anniversary brought in teams from the Prairie League, which had shut its doors. At this point, the NWL included eight teams spanning four states.

2000: Another NWL alum, Juan Pierre, made his debut for the Colorado Rockies. Five of the eight teams in the league set new attendance records.

2001: Madison became the biggest city to host a NWL team when the Mallards joined the league. For the All-Star game, the NWL All-Stars took on team USA and beat them, 1-0.

2004: Eight of 10 teams shattered attendance records. The league reached a total of 626,704 fans. Thomas Diamond became the league’s highest draft pick to date when he went 10th overall to the Texas Rangers.

2005: At this point, 25 former NWL players had made major league debuts.

2006: A record 96 current or former NWL players had been taken in the draft.

2008: 141 current or former NWL players had been taken in the draft, shattering the previous record. Scherzer made his major league debut.

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2010: The NWL debuted intra-division play with two eight-team divisions.

2013: A YouTube channel allows fans to watch games and highlights free of charge.

2018: The 25th anniversary of the league. A total of 207 NWL alumni have made major league appearances. Attendance reached a record 1,177,903 fans for 20 teams.

Clearly, the Northwoods League has accomplished a lot over the course of 25 seasons. Despite that, the Cape Cod league is still be considered the premier destination for college prospects. Radatz feels the NWL offers something the Cape quite doesn’t have. “We think ours [the NWL] is a better experience for preparing players for professional baseball. I think it’d be tough to argue with that.”

This statement caught me off guard at first. As someone who has lived in Wisconsin for over 20 years, I first learned about the NWL when the Chinooks moved into my area in 2012. But I had heard of the Cape Cod League since I was a young child. So what does Radatz think the NWL does better than the Cape to prepare players for the next level. “We play 72 games in 75 days, similar to what they will experience in the minor leagues. The Cape plays 40 games on high school fields.” Radatz believes the NWL provides players with an experience that is similar to what they will face in the minor leagues, or in some cases superior to it.

I spoke with to Lake Bachar, the Padres’ fifth-round draft pick in 2016, who is currently in Double-A who played for the Northwoods League’s Lakeshore Chinooks in 2015. What he had to say about the NWL confirms Radatz’s point. “It [the NWL] does prepare you for pro ball. You are playing every day and bussing around the Midwest. You’re forced to take care of your body and figure out what works best for you,” Bachar said of the NWL.

Mike Kaska, a pitcher for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and a former pitcher for the Rockford Rivets added, “It was a grind. Waking up, eating, and going to the gym and straight to the field from there day in and day out.” Clearly, the NWL is no cakewalk for the players, as it is meant to prepare them for next level of baseball.

To get a first-hand account of the differences between the NWL and the Cape, I talked with Zach Biermann, who currently plays for Coastal Carolina and has played in both leagues. “The Cape is the more talented league,” Biermann said. “The Cape has more of an emphasis on the scouts, and there are more scouts in the Cape,” he adds. When it comes to coaching, both leagues offer great experiences and coaches who work to improve on their players’ weaknesses. “The Cape tends to have more retired coaches from big schools, while the NWL has more current coaches” Biermann said.

Kapco Park (Photo Courtesy of The Northwoods League)

Biermann also admitted there is a lot of travel in the NWL, and it takes a toll on the body. While both leagues are big summer collegiate leagues, Radatz states, “We are the Yin and the Yang for collegiate summer baseball. You couldn’t be more different than we are.”

Part of what makes the NWL a destination are the facilities in which the players have an opportunity to play. Most of the ballparks are well maintained or nearly brand new. Kapco Park (Lakeshore Chinooks) overlooks Lake Michigan, The Duck Pond (Madison Mallards) is in Wisconsin’s capital, Kokomo Municipal Stadium (Kokomo Jackrabbits) sports an umbrella bar featuring a 360-degree view of the stadium and grounds, and C.O. Brown Stadium (Battle Creek Bombers) is home to Michigan’s largest outdoor sports bar.

Many of the stadiums recently have undergone millions of dollars’ worth of renovations. Daniel Corbin, general manager of the Waterloo Bucks in Iowa, said the stadium is something they take great pride in. “Our facility has over $3 million in renovation since around the year 2006. We keep adding on, including an LED video board and brand-new bullpen field boxes,” Corbin mentioned when describing the stadium.

The NWL has excelled in its special events, specifically the All-Star Game festivities. Like MLB’s Midsummer Classic, the event includes a Home Run Derby. Marketed as the “Home Run Derby at the Harbor,” the Kenosha Kingfish hosted the NWL All-Star festivities in 2012, and the Home Run Derby made national headlines. It was covered by many media outlets and featured on ESPN. I talked to the man behind the idea, Conor Caloia of the Kenosha Kingfish. “We talked to the residents of Kenosha and asked what was most iconic about the city, and they identified most with the lake [Lake Michigan].”

When thinking of what could bring out the best of Kenosha, Caloia said that the lake offered a great opportunity. They wanted an event that included music, food, beer — the whole experience for the residents. There is a little concrete slab protruding out into the lake. This layout made for a great spot for a pitcher and hitter. In addition, the harbor was just about the right size for the contest.

Conor explained they were able to map out the distance and shape of their field on the pier. They then placed a buoy line in the shape the fence would be. “The guys in general thought it was fun, unique, and different,” Caloia said about the reaction to the event. “It was a larger stage for them to participate on from a home run derby standpoint than they are used to at just a standard All-Star Game.” The game was attended by over 3,000 fans.

All the teams in the NWL build and maintain relationships with universities throughout the country; many get a fair amount of their talent from the surrounding region. Obviously, each team looks to put the best players on the field, but it is through relationships with schools and coaches that they acquire such talent.

Scott Schreiner, GM of the St. Cloud Rox said, “It’s really more about the relationship with the coach than the college. If the coaches at the college tell us a player is a good kid on and off the field, we’ll go back to the school the next year for players. If they tell us the player is a good kid on and off the field and he isn’t, we don’t go back. It’s that simple.”

Corbin also mentioned that relationships with coaches are key in recruitment. Part of what can make recruiting special in the NWL is that a lot of talented players from lower divisions have the opportunity to get noticed. Lake Bachar added, “The NWL for me was eye opening. Coming from a Division III college, I got to really see all the talent and competition I would be seeing in the future.”

The goal is to get the best players, of course, but the league is also about development. Ben Kapanke, GM of the La Crosse Loggers, for instance, mentioned they like to bring in freshman prospects who didn’t get much playing time during the college season and prepare them for the upcoming sophomore season.

Teams have 30 full contracts they can give out in a season. They also have 10 temporary contracts that allow a player to be on the team for 10 days, after which the team has the option to either let him go, offer him another temporary contract, or offer a full contract.

Cal Aldridge, who plays for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and won the WIAC Position Player of the Year honor in 2019, played for the Rockford Rivets under a temporary contract. When asked if he felt any pressure being on a temporary contract, he said, “It was a loose and fun atmosphere where everyone is there to have fun, play the game of baseball, and get better.” While he said he wished he could have played the entire summer with the team, he said he had a blast during his time with them.

And the talent in the Northwoods League is nothing to scoff at. Some players, such as Orioles pitcher Steve Wilkerson and Twins catcher Mitch Garver have been able to participate in both the Cape Cod and the NWL. In terms of overall success in the majors, the NWL has a pretty impressive resume of players. Below are the top 11 current players by WAR who have played for a NWL team.

Northwoods League Alums in the Majors
Player Career WAR
Max Scherzer 54.6
Curtis Granderson 48.5
Ben Zobrist 44.3
Chris Sale 42.5
Jordan Zimmermann 24.0
Brandon Crawford 20.2
Kole Calhoun 14.2
Marcus Semien 11.5
Matt Chapman 11.5
Kevin Pillar 10.0
Mitch Haniger 8.5

While some of the players on top are on their way out, others such, as Matt Chapman and Mitch Haniger, likely will contribute big numbers for years to come. In addition to this, up-and-comers such as Paul DeJong and Peter Alonso are beginning their ascent to being some of the game’s top young players. Retired players Juan Pierre, Jeff Weaver, and Andre Ethier also put together impressive MLB careers.

In 2018, 303 alumni of the Cape Cod League played in the majors, compared to just 60 players from the NWL. While the NWL’s 207 total players who have made a major league appearance is small compared to what the Cape has sent up, the NWL has shown a steady growth, and the talent entering the league continues to improve.

Something the NWL pays special attention to is the way it can interact with the entire community. When talking about the importance of community relations, Corbin said, “Whether it’s getting out to schools for a reading program, Step Up to The Plate Program, or a mascot visit…it lets the community know we aren’t a fly by our pants organization. We are here to stay.”

This is important because when a community sees effort by an organization, it is more willing to support the local team. This goes a step further with host families. Many of the players who come from out of town need a place to live. Host families play a huge role in the NWL, and a direct community impact is made through this program. Corbin goes on to say, “Families are able to open up their house and be good influence on one or more of the players, and hopefully our players are good influences on their kids.” The host family program in Waterloo has been a great success; it has an 85-90 percent renewal rate.

Kids are a priority for the NWL, which is why games are so family-friendly. With competitions between every inning, play areas on the grounds, food, and friendly mascots, kids can truly have a fun time even if they do not enjoy the game itself. Radatz mentioned that in his experience, the two most successful marketing campaigns in business have been McDonald’s and Disney’s, with both of them catering to kids. This is something Radatz kept in mind when thinking about the atmosphere teams foster at NWL games. Corbin made the point that, “If our team goes 0-72, we still will have fans coming to the game because the entertainment value is still there.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Kapanke said nonprofits are something they really enjoy promoting.

“We hosted tribute/fundraiser nights for some great non-profits/organizations over the years, like Children’s Miracle Network, Special Olympics, Cancer Awareness Night, etc., that are very special for us. It gives us an opportunity to tell their story to our fans, raise some funds for their cause, and really just gives them a chance to take a break from the everyday challenges they face and take in a Logger game with their family and friends.”

Many games host celebrity guests, have fun giveaways, and put on postgame fireworks. It is clear that while the game is what people come to the stadium to watch, in many cases it can be a mechanism to really change the community and the lives of individuals within it. As Kapanke mentioned, a game of baseball is all it could take to make the day for someone who is really struggling.

The NWL is a special league. It may not have the recognition the Cape Cod League has for being the elite of the elite, but I think Scherzer would tell you he turned out alright. There is no competition between the two leagues. As Radatz mentioned, they are the Yin and the Yang. While the NWL may not have the quantity of players the Cape has in the majors, every time you go to a NWL game, there is a good chance you are watching at least one player who will make a major league debut.

The kids playing in the NWL are not scrubs taken from the local bar leagues; the league gives a pro-style experience, playing in upscale stadiums, with a schedule similar to what players would see in the future. And the league builds communities. By promoting local charities and making the game family friendly, the community will support the team, and the team will support the community. The NWL runs a top-notch baseball business while offering the community a sense of partnership and support. This is how baseball is meant to be.

References & Resources

  • Northwoods League Official Site
  • Aldridge, C., May 24, 2019. Email Interview
  • Bachar, L., May 18, 2019. Email Interview
  • Biermann, Z., May 14, 2019. Email Interview
  • Caloia, C., May 22, 2019. Phone Interview
  • Corbin, D., May 16, 2019. Phone Interview
  • Kapanke, B., May 16, 2019. Email Interview
  • Kaska, M., May 24, 2019. Email Interview
  • Radatz Jr., D., May 15, 2019. Phone Interview
  • Scheiner, S., May 15, 2019. Email Interview


Collin has a career in data analysis and he freelances on the side for his sports blog, statsswipe.com, where they look to find the unique, behind the scenes stories in sports. The goal is not to just know Brewers baseball, but to know the Brewers/Milwaukee culture in one of the fastest growing sports markets in the country. http://statsswipe.com/
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Yehoshua Friedman
Member
Yehoshua Friedman

I really enjoyed the article. It was good to know that there are more people developing baseball than just the minions of the MLB moguls.

CL1NT
Member
CL1NT

Wow I’ve never heard of this league. It’s amazing that such great players have came from the NWL. Great article!

rustydude
Member
rustydude

Several years ago I took in a game in La Crosse. Had a lot of fun both at the game during the early evening and later in the bar district. As a university town, La Crosse has a bit of a reputation as a party town. Thanks for this piece.

Max Rieper
Member

My college roommate played in the Northwoods League in the late 90s for Wisconsin and had a blast. The college summer leagues are a lot of fun to watch and you get a great chance to see some future stars.