EAU CLAIRE, WIS. – Dick Radatz Jr. and George MacDonald Jr. were legacy employees in professional baseball. Dick’s father was the famous “Monster” of the Boston Red Sox’ bullpen and George’s father was the president of the Florida State League.
Dick Jr. was running the Winter Haven club in the Florida State League for the Red Sox in the late 1980s. George Jr. had followed his father as the league’s president.
They both were fired.
“We knew how to promote the game,” Radatz said. “The independent league movement had started. We were looking for the right business model to get back in the game.”
Radatz and MacDonald came up with the idea of a for-profit summer collegiate league. This business model would combine the promotional tactics of the low minors and independent leagues, with the NCAA’s secret of success.
“Free labor,” Radatz said.
Bill McKee, another minor league operator, joined the partnership in 1994. The Northwoods League started that summer with five franchises: Kenosha, Manitowoc and Wausau, Wis.; Dubuque, Iowa; and Rochester.
“We were charging $125,000 per franchise,” Radatz said. “The [independent] Northern League had pulled out of Rochester. That didn’t make people happy, and we couldn’t find an owner. I said, ‘I’ll take Rochester.’ ”
Radatz and his wife, Kathy, borrowed against her 401(k) to come up with their share of seed money to start the league and a down payment to own the Rochester Honkers.
“We averaged 551 people a game that first summer in Rochester, and we made a few bucks,” Radatz said. “I knew then this would work as a business.”
Radatz was sitting in Carson Park on Tuesday afternoon. The All-Star Game marking the Northwoods League’s 20th season would start in a few hours. For now, there were 60, 70 scouts from major league clubs sitting in the stands, watching early sessions of batting and fielding practice for the 26 position players in the All-Star Game.
The Northwoods League has had 105 alumni make it to the big leagues. A half-dozen were in New York for this month’s MLB All-Star Game: Chris Sale and Max Scherzer (both La Crosse), Jordan Zimmermann (Eau Claire), Mark Melancon (Duluth), Ben Zobrist (Wausau) and Allen Craig (Alexandria).
“Zobrist is one of those good Northwoods stories,” said Mark Wilson, a Twins scout watching Tuesday’s activities. “He was playing at a small college and didn’t get much attention. Then, he had a big summer in this league, teams got interested and he was drafted in the sixth round.”
The Northwoods has gone from those initial five teams in 1994 to 16 this summer. Two more franchises will be added in 2014: in Kalamazoo, Mich., and the return of Kenosha.
And the price for a franchise? “It’s now $1 million,” Radatz said.
There’s much speculation the Northwoods could get to 20 teams in the next few years with franchises in Anoka and Shakopee.
“We’d like to be in the Twin Cities suburbs, but we’re not close to that yet,” Radatz said.
Any interest in a Northwoods franchise to share the new ballpark in St. Paul with the independent Saints? “Maybe, but I’m not sure the Saints would want to have us,” Radatz said.
Dick and Kathy bought out their partners a number of years back. They now control Northwoods League, Inc. They sell the franchises and have a 5 percent interest in each team.
Talk about a business model.
“We do invest quite a bit,” Radatz said. “We’ve spent a lot on technology. We made a deal with YouTube where you can see all of our games. We have pregame and postgame shows for the league every night. We have real-time scoring on our website.”
The Cape Cod League is both the most famous and highest quality of the collegiate leagues. It’s run like Harvard vs. Yale — nonprofit, pass the hat, day games in quaint ballparks in neighboring villages.
The Twins’ Wilson and Steve Cohen, an area scout for the Phillies, both agreed the Northwoods offers an advantage in preparing potential pros for the minor leagues.
There’s a hectic schedule (70 games from May 29 to Aug. 11) and many hours spent on buses.
“This league does give college players a better idea of what life is going to be like in the minor leagues,” Wilson said. ”As we all know, the lower minors are as much a mental test as physical. And by the end of July, the players here have gone through that.”
The Northwoods League also features the product that is the key to financial success in the low minors, in independent leagues and in town-team baseball:
Carson Park has large party deck down the right-field line, and a couple of smaller party areas behind the right-field fence. The owners of the Eau Claire Express can’t duplicate this in left field, since the football field shared by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and local high school teams sits behind that fence.
Eau Claire has an impressive baseball tradition. Most famously, Henry Aaron played his first pro game as an 18-year-old shortstop for the Eau Claire Bears of the Class C Northern League at Carson Park on June 14, 1952.
“Eau Claire was one of the towns we visited when we were starting the league,” Radatz said. “We didn’t make any progress, until LaCrosse got a team in ’03. Once that happened, Eau Claire saw it would work and we came here in ’05.”
Absolutely, it would work. The business model was based on the superfecta of summer, baseball, beer and free labor.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays at AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org