The Northwoods League was in its third season, with the future still in doubt, when Robb Quinlan first arrived, just another college ballplayer looking to spend a summer swinging a wood bat.
Following his freshman year for the Gophers, Quinlan played that 1996 season with the Dubuque Mud Puppies, facing the likes of the Rochester Honkers, Manitowoc Skunks and Kenosha Kroakers.
“We played at a field in Dubuque that was right down on the river,” Quinlan said. “If we got 100 fans a game, it was a good night.”
The Mud Puppies left Dubuque that fall. The Skunks and Kroakers didn’t last much longer.
More than two decades later, however, the Northwoods League isn’t just surviving, it’s thriving. After starting with five teams in 1994, the league is now in its 25th season and has expanded to 20 teams. Two more franchises are coming next year — in Hudson, Wis., and Kokomo, Ind. — with more on the way, according to the league’s tireless co-founder Dick Radatz Jr.
Quinlan had two Northwoods League stints as a player. In 1998, he hit .353 for the St. Cloud River Bats to win league MVP honors, helping a once-overlooked prospect launch an eight-year big league career.
Now he’s back in the NWL again, this time as an owner. He is part of a group that purchased the St. Croix River Hounds, an expansion team building a $15 million ballpark where Hudson’s abandoned dog track once stood.
Beyond that project, the league also has a $10 million stadium set for construction in Green Bay, Wis., a few blocks from Lambeau Field. Mankato just gave a $4 million facelift to Franklin Rogers Park, home of the MoonDogs, with $3.2 million of that cost covered with public money.
Amid all this expansion and growth, Northwoods League alumni continue rising to prominence. Max Scherzer and Chris Sale, the starting pitchers in each of the past two MLB All-Star Games, both spent a summer in the NWL for the La Crosse Loggers.
“If you would have told me where this league was headed when I was playing in Dubuque,” Quinlan said, “I would have been absolutely shocked.”
Explaining the growth
Long before starting the league, Radatz learned baseball from the inside. His late father, Dick Radatz Sr., was the famed “Monster” in the Boston Red Sox bullpen during the 1960s — a 6-6, 230-pound intimidator who twice led the American League in saves.
Dick Radatz Jr. spent six years running Boston’s Class A affiliate in Winter Haven, Fla., before that club fired him for making critical comments in the newspaper. He had other ideas, anyway.
He and former Florida State League President George MacDonald soon created a for-profit college summer league, which mirrors independent ball, with one key difference: Northwoods League teams don’t pay the players. College athletes can’t be paid or they lose their amateur status.
But the Northwoods League simulates the rest of the minor league experience, with long bus rides and 72 games in 76 days between late May and mid-August.
So far, 199 NWL alumni have reached the majors, including Scherzer, Sale, Curtis Granderson, Ben Zobrist, Mitch Haniger, Brandon Crawford, Pat Neshek, Josh Willingham and Twins catcher Mitch Garver.
Leaguewide attendance has spiked from 70,000 the first season to more than 1.1 million each of the past four years.
“I would pose the question: What has had the most impact on the entirety of baseball in the last 25 years?” Radatz said. “And I can make a great case that it was the formation of the Northwoods League.”
Back in 1994, the NWL’s original franchise fee was $125,000. Radatz and his wife, Kathy, borrowed seed money from her 401(k) and took ownership of the Rochester franchise, selling it in 2003 for a reported $700,000.
These days, the franchise fee is $1 million, Radatz said. After buying out their partners, he and Kathy now control Northwoods League Inc., selling the franchises and keeping a 5 percent stake in each team.
The Madison team, the Mallards, is the league’s crown jewel. They drew 10,061 to the “Duck Pond” for a 2004 game and still average about 6,400 per contest. That not only leads the national summer collegiate attendance rankings, but it also would lead all of Class AA, save for one team, the Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders.
“That [Duck Pond’s] as awesome of a minor league setting as you can find anywhere in the country,” said Chris Goodell, GM of the La Crosse Loggers. “But there’s so many great stories in this league.
“Look at Willmar, Minnesota. It’s a community of [19,000] people, and they’re getting 1,200-1,500 people in that facility. I mean they’ve captured that community.”
On a recent Saturday, with blue skies and 80-degree temperatures, the Mankato MoonDogs drew 1,823 fans to Franklin Rogers Park for a game against the Eau Claire Express.
“The Frank” opened in 1961 and had fallen into disrepair before last offseason’s renovation. The city installed a glistening FieldTurf surface, new dugouts and a new MoonDogs clubhouse.
“It used to be a 15-by-15 brick building, no windows,” MoonDogs GM Austin Link said. “Now it’s probably four times the size. It has couches, chairs, a 75-inch flat screen TV. They’re definitely not roughing it for the Northwoods League.”
MoonDogs fans are pampered, too, with all-you-can-eat-and-drink seating areas near each dugout and the league’s largest video scoreboard, at 20 feet by 50 feet.
Some things in Mankato haven’t changed, though, like the nightly “Beer Batter.” Whenever that unlucky opponent whiffs, fans rejoice because beer is half price ($2.25) for the rest of the inning.
Jordan Kozicky and Toby Hanson are among recent Gophers who have called Mankato home for the summer. As Radatz noted, 21 of the Gophers on this year’s Big Ten championship team have played in the NWL. Illinois’ Bren Spillane, this season’s Big Ten Player of the Year, spent last summer with the Rockford Rivets.
“We’ve absolutely changed the face of Big Ten baseball,” Radatz said. “It can now somewhat compete with the southern and western schools, since these guys are getting so much repetition in the summer, which they didn’t have in the past.”
The Cape Cod League still carries more cachet among scouts, but it has a smaller business model, with fewer games and far fewer fans.
“I don’t think there’s a league in the country that can match the Cape Cod League for talent,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “But no question, [the Northwoods League] mimics the minor leagues. You’ve got to learn how to get out of bed and compete every day.”
How big is too big?
Most of the league’s teams have 35-mile territorial rights, but Radatz said that won’t apply to Hudson “because we do realize we could be in the Twin Cities metro at some point. There could be a Maple Grove. We talked to Anoka at one point, and Prior Lake. So you never know what the next phone call is going to bring.”
Hudson and Kokomo will expand the league to 22 teams next season. Radatz said that there’s already a 23rd team but that he can’t release the location yet.
“I’m looking for a 24th,” Radatz said, noting that Waukesha, Wis., is a strong possibility.
One drawback of expansion is talent dilution. Anderson said the pitching consistency isn’t as strong as it was when the league was smaller. But Radatz doesn’t think the on-field quality will suffer, saying the league already turns away thousands of college players each year.
Goodell, the La Crosse GM, has seen consistent growth for the league since he started working for the Waterloo Bucks in 1997.
“I almost want to say, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet,’ ” Goodell said. “Because the league’s not slowing down anytime soon.”