Sunday, July 10, 2011

Players Keep Dreams Alive In Independent Leagues

This story is taken from Sacbee / Sports

Special to the Bee

Published Sunday, Jul. 10, 2011

They play for teams such as the Camden Riversharks, Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, Normal CornBelters and Washington Wild Things. They are the dreamers, the hangers-on and the has-beens, all seeking one last hurrah and one last chance to display their talents in hopes of gaining a major league team's interest.

Such is the life of a player on one of the 58 teams in the six independent leagues throughout the United States and Canada. Independent league rosters consist of former college players who either weren't selected in the free-agent draft or were drafted and subsequently released.

The most notable Sacramento-area figure on an independent team is former major league catcher Toby Hall (El Dorado High School, American River College). Hall signed with the New Jersey-based Riversharks of the Atlantic League.

Hall, whose career began in 1997, has not appeared in a major league game since undergoing shoulder surgery in April 2009. He signed a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers in January.

While rehabilitating a shoulder injury at extended spring training, he was released. He stayed at spring training trying to catch on with another team, but at age 35, and with shoulder problems, he had no takers.

So he went the independent route.

"It's been frustrating, but I just need to get back on the map and show everybody I'm healthy again," Hall told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times when he worked out for the Tampa Bay Rays in spring training.

Other locals playing in independent leagues include:

• Louis Ott (Sacramento City College) with the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the American Association.

• Brandon Pinckney (Elk Grove High, Sac City) with the Blue Crabs and Jason Norderum (Sac City) with the Road Warriors, who play all their games on the road, in the Atlantic League.

• Preston Vancil (West Campus, American River College) with the Florence Freedom, Doug Thennis (Mesa Verde, American River) with the Wild Things and Steve Alexander (Rocklin High, Sac City) with the CornBelters of the Frontier League. Matt Pulley (Woodland High) is the infield/catching coach with the Traverse City Beach Bums.

• Rex Rundgren (Sac City) with the Lake County Fielders, Jason Stevenson (Sac City) and Jason Roenicke (Nevada Union) with the Chico Outlaws and David Dinelli (Folsom High, Sierra) and J.J. Sherrill (Sac City) with Maui Na Koa Ikaika of the North American League.

• John Bonifacini (Jesuit) with the Carlsbad Bats of the Pecos League.

There are no area players in the Can-Am League.

Every year, major league teams pluck a handful of players from the leagues and assign them to one of their minor league affiliates. And, every once in a long while, someone reaches the big leagues.

Independents, formerly known as outlaw teams, are pro organizations unaffiliated with either the major leagues or their minor league teams. They can play near major and minor league cities without approval.

Salaries range from $600 to $2,000 a month. A team's entire payroll is less than one-third of the major league minimum for one player ($414,000). The highest payrolls are in the Atlantic League because it consists mostly of ex-major leaguers and those with Double-A and Triple-A experience.

In addition to receiving monthly salaries, independent players live with host families. They receive meal money while on the road, postgame meals and extra pay for appearances around town and for assisting with local camps and clinics.

Some teams "pass the hat" among fans to supplement players' income. When a player hits a home run or strikes out the side, a hat is passed around, and fans contribute money for him.

Hat passing is not an independent league innovation. Former major leaguer Greg Vaughn (Kennedy, Sac City) once said he loved playing for El Paso in the Texas League in 1988. The Milwaukee Double-A affiliate passed the hat, and Vaughn said he could make $300 a night for a home run (and he hit 28 of them).

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