It will be a new day and the start of a new era in the history of the New Jersey Jackals when the team opens its 23rd season on the diamond on May 27.
Major League Baseball made sweeping changes to the minor league system over the winter, the biggest changes in decades, and the Jackals are going to be a part of the new look.
First, after competing in three much smaller leagues over the years, the Jackals will now be playing in the newly-expanded, 16-team Frontier League, the biggest, longest-running and most successful independent league in the country.
And, beginning this year, the Frontier League has been designated as an MLB-Partner League.
“Being a partner with Major League Baseball is obviously a big deal,” said Jackals third-year manager Brooks Carey.
“We’ll just be getting it off the ground this season, but the possibilities for the future are endless. This is the start of something that can be very exciting for the team and, most importantly, for the fans.”
The Frontier League is still an independent league with no MLB-affiliated teams, but it’s now a league with an even bigger pipeline for players to move on to affiliated teams and, ultimately — hopefully — to Yankee Stadium or Citi Field.
The partnership also could give Frontier League teams possible opportunities to participate in MLB’s tinkering and experimenting with rules and other aspects of the game.
In the winter shakeup, MLB reduced the number of affiliated teams from 160 to 120 and cut the annual draft from 40 rounds down to 20 rounds. Those two moves, alone, will eliminate spots for close to 2,000 young, hungry players who would have been in the affiliated system and, instead, will now head for independent leagues, like the Frontier League, which already had the most successful track record of sending players on to big-league organizations.
“There are a lot of players out there,” said Carey. “On the other hand, that really doesn’t make it any easier to put together a roster. You’re always trying to fill holes, to fill your needs, and you’ve also got to have a roster that complies with league rules about numbers of players in the various categories of experience levels.”
That’s what Carey and his staff are up to at the moment – working the phones, scanning the transaction wires and staying glued to the internet in search of just the right player to make the team better.
Founded in 1998, the Jackals played their first seven years in the Northeast League and the Northern League before joining the Can-Am League for the 2005 season.
In 2019, New Jersey won its first Can-Am championship, defeating the Sussex County Miners in the final round of the playoffs.
Now, it’s on to the Frontier League.
“It’s a big step up for us,” said Jackals owner Al Dorso.
“The Can-Am was a good little regional league, but the Frontier League is more of a national presence. It’s going to be exciting. In many ways, it’s a new beginning. The only thing that doesn’t change is that we want to win ballgames, no matter what league we’re in.”
The Jackals will be playing in the Frontier League’s Can-Am Conference, which includes many old opponents from the now-defunct Can-Am League plus two new names – the Tri-City Valley Cats and the Washington Wild Things.
The Cats are from Troy, NY, and the Wild Things are based in Washington, PA, 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh and 18 miles from the West Virginia border. Washington is 376 miles from Little Falls.
Virtually all of the Jackals games this year will be played against other teams within the Can-Am Conference, in part a concession to travel issues due to the corona virus. The only exception occurs in August, when the Florence Y’Alls, out of the league’s Midwestern Conference, travel from their home in Kentucky to Yogi Berra Stadium for a weekend series with New Jersey.
Both conferences are split into two divisions. The Jackals are in the four-team Northeast Division of the Can-Am Conference. After a 96-game season, the winners of the four divisions will square off in the Frontier League playoffs.
In other words, it’s win your division or go home as far as the postseason is concerned.
“That’s the goal, to win the division” said Carey, speaking by phone from his home in Tampa.
“Right now, my most immediate goal is to put together a team that will live up to expectations both on and off the field.”
As a lefty pitcher who grew up in Key West and played for Florida State University, Carey was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1978 and reached the Triple-A level with the O’s, then with the Cincinnati Reds.
Before he took over the Jackals in 2018, Carey was manager of the Normal CornBelters, an Illinois team that played for him in the Frontier League. This year, because of MLB’s recent shuffle, Normal is now in a Prospect League – a collegiate, wood-bat, summer league.
Meanwhile, the Frontier League gained new teams by absorbing the Can-Am League and gained in reputation with the MLB partnership.
“No doubt about it, it feels good to say we’re part of the Frontier League,” said Jackals general manager Gil Addeo.
“We hope that connection to Major League Baseball will help us reach out in the community, too. That MLB logo will be nice to have.”
The Jackals open the season 50 miles north at the Sussex County Miners. After two games there, the team returns to town for the 6 p.m. home opener on Saturday, May 29, with fireworks to follow the game.
“It’s been a long time that we’ve gone without baseball,” Addeo said. “I can’t wait for that first pitch. We all deserve it.”
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Trentonian.