King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Video: Reaching for the bottom rung. A day at an open tryout for an independent pro baseball league.


King Kaufman
April 14, 2008 2:00PM (UTC)

The Golden Baseball League, a minor league unaffiliated with Major League Baseball, held tryouts in San Francisco last week for its 2008 season.

This is as far away as it's possible to get from the big leagues in professional baseball, and a collection of players with college and minor-league experience showed up to try to reach for that bottom rung.

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We showed up too, with a camera, to get a look at this slice of the minor-league life. (More below the video.)

The Golden League was formed in 2005, one of a handful of circuits operating independently from Major League Baseball and its farm system. Crowds are small and so are salaries, but independent baseball generally offers great entertainment for fans. Prices are low, the atmosphere is intimate and, unlike in affiliated minor-league ball, the home team's objective is to win games, not train players.

And of course the independent leagues are at least as enthusiastic about wacky promotions and stunts as the affiliated minors. Golden League commissioner Kevin Outcalt said it was his idea two years ago to trade 60 cases of beer for a player, a move that made small headlines nationwide. The player was Nigel Thatch, the guy who played "Leon" in those Budweiser commercials a few years back.

Thatch was a pitcher as well as an actor, toiling in the independent Northern League for the Schaumburg Flyers, near Chicago. He had requested a trade to a Los Angeles-area team so he could pursue acting work, so Outcalt agreed to arrange for a trade between Schaumburg and the Fullerton Flyers of the Golden League.

Outcalt says that when his Schaumburg contact told him that Thatch wasn't much of a player, he said, "'Then let's have some fun with it.' So I offered to trade a pallet of beer for him. And then he got all bent out of shape about it and refused to report -- which made it an even better story!"

You might recognize the Schaumburg Flyers as the team that lets fans vote on lineup changes and such through a Web site.

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For all the fun, the independent leagues are serious business, especially for the players. Men who have washed out of affiliated ball or who have gone unsigned use them as a summer-long audition for big-league scouts, who pay attention. The Golden League sells about 20 contracts a year to big-league clubs, and while the relatively new circuit has yet to graduate a player to the majors, other independent leagues have sent a steady trickle of talent to the show, mostly relief pitchers.

Baltimore Orioles closer George Sherrill played in both the Northern and Frontier leagues. His teammate Kevin Millar is also a Northern League vet. The Atlantic League has established itself as the go-to circuit for former big-league stars who want to keep their careers going. Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, John Rocker and Juan Gonzalez have all played there in the last few years. Henderson also spent time in the Golden League.

Philadelphia Phillies backup catcher Chris Coste spent four years with the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks of the Northern League before embarking on a rambling journey through the farm systems of four organizations before Philadelphia called him up late in the 2006 season. He tells his story in a new book, "The 33-Year-Old Rookie: How I Finally Made it to the Big Leagues After Eleven Years in the Minors."

Independent ball also presents opportunities for off-the-field talent. Mike Marshall, the former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder-first baseman who now runs the Yuma Scorpions in the Golden League, said he pursued work in independent baseball while his kids were school-age because the short season -- only three months of games -- meant he didn't have to spend most of the year away from home. But it's also let him be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

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"I scout, I negotiate contracts, I work in the front office and I get to manage the games," he said. "I'm not just a hitting coach or whatever it is." With a son at Stanford and a daughter soon to enter college, Marshall said he's thinking about a return to coaching or managing in affiliated ball.

Unless there's a big star on his way out like Henderson or Canseco, the biggest names in independent ball tend to be the managers, who are often former big-leaguers who weren't superstars but have some name recognition. Along with Marshall, Jeffrey Leonard, Steve Yeager and Cory Snyder all manage in the Golden League.

Last week's tryouts weren't quite open. Players had to have recent experience in college or pro baseball. The league has an age limit of 29, though that's waived if the player has played as high as Double-A -- two steps below the majors -- or in any country's top professional league.

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The level of play in independent ball is usually described as comparable to Single-A ball in the affiliated minors, though Matthew Parris, the pitcher who appears in the video, says it can vary widely.

"There are guys here who are better than guys in A or even Double-A," he said, "and then there are guys who you wonder how they got a job."

Here's some background on the three players who appear in the video:

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Matthew Parris, 25, pitcher: A right-hander, Parris was drafted out of high school in Panorama City, Calif., in the sixth round by the Detroit Tigers in 2000, which means he was considered a legitimate prospect. Parris got as high as the Single-A Florida State League in 2004 before being released. Since then he's pitched in the Golden League and the independent American Association, and he also spent part of the 2006 season in the Florida State League with the Phillies organization.

After going 5-8 with a 5.79 ERA for the Reno Silver Sox of the Golden League last year, Parris says he asked for his release to pursue another baseball job, but was forced to come back and try out when that fell through.

Lafayette Brown, 23, outfielder: A left-handed hitter, Brown played for the Macon Music in the independent South Coast League last year. He hit only .230 in 34 games, with a .296 on-base percentage and a .243 slugging percentage. He stole nine bases in 10 tries. Brown, from Atlanta, played college ball at Savannah State. He was thrown out of work when the South Coast League suspended operations.

DeAndre Miller, 22, outfielder: A switch-hitter from Antioch, Calif., Miller played baseball for both Fresno State and Loyola-Marymount. He was picked in the 24th round last year by the Los Angeles Angels, who sent him to play rookie ball with the Orem Owlz in the Pioneer League. Miller played 53 games and posted a .394 on-base percentage, but he hit only .228, slugged just .299 and was caught stealing five times in 15 tries. The Angels released him this spring.

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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