Patrick Reusse: Northwoods League is an old, college try that's thriving

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2013 - 6:48 AM

The Northwoods League — built from the ground up with collegiate players — is thriving across the Upper Midwest.

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– 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.

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  • Reusse blog: Change Eau Claire's Braun's Bay to Aaron's Bay

    Tuesday July 23, 2013

    There were Brewers' fans in a Northwoods League crowd on Tuesday. They were asked about Ryan Braun, of course.

  • The Northwoods League held its All-Star Game — complete with a home run derby, won by Adam Martin, above, of the St. Cloud Rox — on Tuesday in Eau Claire, Wis.

  • Dick Radatz Jr. led the creation of the Northwoods League 1994. “We averaged 551 people a game that first summer in Rochester, and we made a few bucks,” he said. “I knew then this would work as a business.”

  • Carson Park in Eau Claire, Wis., was crawling with major league scouts who were watching the Northwoods League All-Star Game. Among those attending from the Twins were, from right, Mark Wilson, North Central area scout; Jeff Kaldor, an associate; and Rafael Yanez, an administrative assistant.

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