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In the winter of 1992-1993, several men got together and decided to start an independent professional baseball league to serve the West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southeast Ohio areas. They believed they could bring professional baseball to areas that would never have a chance of affiliated professional baseball coming to their communities. The seed was planted and they named their project The Frontier League.
These founders approached business people and interested individuals in many different cities to own and operate the franchises. College players quickly heard of the fledgling league and mostly came from the Midwest and east coast to chase their dreams of playing pro ball. The Lancaster Scouts chose LHP Chris Smithers out of Valdosta State University with the first pick in the inaugural Frontier League Draft. On June 30, 1993, the Frontier League played its first games, with Tri-State hosting West Virginia, Kentucky hosting Ohio Valley, Zanesville hosting Lancaster, and Chillicothe hosting Portsmouth. Two weeks into the inaugural season, Tri-State and West Virginia folded their operations and the remaining six owners fought to keep the League above water. They made it through that first year with six teams and immediately began to make plans for 1994 by adding teams in Newark, Ohio and Erie, Pennsylvania. Portsmouth’s Jim Ridenour was the first player to sign with a MLB organization, as the Chicago White Sox picked up the catcher during the Explorers’ spring training, while Chillicothe’s Buck Wells was the first player to be signed during the season. Chillicothe’s VA Memorial Stadium hosted the first All-Star Game, which the West Division won 3-2 on August 2. The Zanesville Greys were the first champion and swept the post-season awards with Kyle Shave as MVP, Tom Crowley as Pitcher of the Year, Tom Venditelli as Manager of the Year and Bob Wolfe as Executive of the Year.
Prior to the 1994 season, the owners of the League made a commitment to move forward and they hired Bill Lee as the first and only Commissioner the League has seen. Lee had been in the professional sports business since 1980 and the owners hoped he could help the League grow and flourish in the future. The League got through the 1994 season with all eight teams intact. Outfielder Kendra Hanes became the first modern woman to play professional baseball, appearing in ten games for the Kentucky Rifles. Ohio Valley’s .746 winning percentage (50-17 record) remains the best single-season mark in league history, while the Redcoats’ Corey Morris was named Most Valuable Player by putting up one of the most dominant offensive seasons in league history, hitting .394 with 19 home runs, 63 RBI, and 21 stolen bases in 66 games. The Erie Sailors won the League Championship and the future was looking brighter.
During the off-season between the 1994 and 1995 seasons, several changes took place that helped the League gain credibility and recognition. Teams were relocated to Richmond and Evansville, Indiana as well as Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The stadiums were major upgrades to the caliber of fields that were in existence. The markets were larger and as a result, crowds that attended games were larger. The Johnstown Steal won the 1995 title and Evansville’s attendance was greater than the entire League attendance in 1993. The moves to Richmond and Evansville ultimately opened the door to the western expansion of the League.
In 1996, two more cities were added to the League by purchasing and relocating existing franchises. They were Springfield, Illinois and Kalamazoo, Michigan. Again, with bigger markets and better stadiums, the League attendance took a major leap forward. The caliber of play got better and the geographics from which players were coming to the League also continued to expand. The Springfield Capitals won the championship in their first season, but it was the third championship in a row for Manager Mal Fichman.
Several major changes took place in the League Rules in 1997 that led to a stronger level of competition in the League. First, the League went to an 80 game schedule. Second, the League allowed older players with more experience to play in the League. It also allowed for players who were popular in their cities to play in the League longer. The Canton Crocodiles, who had replaced the Zanesville Greys franchise, won the League Championship in their inaugural season. The Evansville Otters were the first franchise to draw over 100,000 fans in a season, including their playoff games.
1998 probably saw the greatest level of overall talent of any year in League history. Richmond’s Morgan Burkhart established almost every single season hitting record including 36 homers in 80 games. Other great players such as Chillicothe’s Gator McBride, Scott Pinoni and Mitch House, Springfield’s Joe Ronca and Jason Simontacchi made the League extremely exciting. The Springfield Capitals became the first franchise to win two championships.
In spite of all of the tremendous on field exploits of 1998, it was the winter of 1999 that saw the greatest changes in the League and elevated it to another level. The League expanded by two teams, making a total of ten teams, by adding the River City Rascals and the Cook County Cheetahs. This was important because it took the League into major metropolitan areas (St. Louis and Chicago) and both franchises were building new facilities. These were the first facilities built specifically for Frontier League franchises. The schedule expanded to 84 games and the River City Rascals in O’Fallon, Missouri, led the way in attendance reaching an unparalleled 151,000 fans. During the season, League attendance went to over 711,000 fans, more than ten times what it drew in 1993. The Dubois County Dragons also entered the League in 1999 by purchasing the Ohio Valley Redcoats. This purchase also meant that only the Chillicothe Paints remained from the original eight franchises that began in 1993. Also, the League became international in flavor by moving from Kalamazoo to London, Ontario, Canada. The Werewolves would set numerous team records on their way to becoming the 1999 League Champions.
The year 2000 propelled the League to even greater heights in publicity and notoriety, when in June, former Chillicothe Paint Brian Tollberg was called up to the Major Leagues with the San Diego Padres. Tollberg responded by winning the National League Player of the Week honors in his first week in the big leagues. Six days after Tollberg, Frontier League legend Morgan Burkhart received his call to the Boston Red Sox. Burkhart singled in his first at bat off of Baltimore’s Mike Mussina. Other great moments in 2000 included London’s Brett Gray striking out a League Record 25 batters on opening night. This almost unheard of feat drew national attention and even saw memorabilia of the event going to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Gray was signed by the Cincinnati Reds two days later. There were also two no-hitters during the year, one by Chillicothe’s Andy Lee and the other by Johnstown’s Matt Sheets. The Johnstown Johnnies, who had barely played .500 ball in June, slugged their way to the League Championship. The River City Rascals eclipsed their own League attendance record by attracting in excess of 157,000 fans.
In 2001, the Gateway Grizzlies and Kalamazoo Kings were added to the League. These additions gave the League 12 teams. Gateway is based in Sauget, Illinois, a suburb east of St. Louis. They played their games in a temporary park in 2001, but opened a brand new $6.5 million ballpark in 2002. In Kalamazoo, a group of local businessmen led by automobile dealer Bill Wright brought baseball back in a big way. The Kings drew over 103,000 fans on their way to being named Frontier League Organization of the Year. The League saw its first former manager, Jack Clark of the River City Rascals, advance to the Major Leagues as the Hitting Coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers. A tremendous pennant race that was settled on the last night of the season led to the Richmond Roosters claiming their first FL crown. Attendance reached an all-time high of 719,000 fans.
The League again saw changes for the 2002 season. Rockford, Illinois replaced Springfield. Rockford is the second largest city in Illinois and the RiverHawks had the highest average in professional baseball history in Rockford. Washington, Pennsylvania was also added by purchasing the Canton Crocodiles. The Wild Things opened new Falconi Field with a bang as they established a League Record for wins in a single season and took the powerful East Division crown. Also, Canton native Mark Haidet purchased the London franchise and moved it to Canton and Thurman Munson Stadium. The Richmond Roosters won their second consecutive FL title, the first franchise to do that. The League set a record for attendance by drawing in excess of 950,000 fans to its parks. The League saw five more graduates reach the Major Leagues as Zanesville’s Terry Pearson made the Detroit Tigers roster, Ohio Valley’s Brendan Donnelly was called up by the Anaheim Angels and eventually gained a World Series win, J.J. Trujillo advanced to the Padres, and the Cardinals called up both Jason Simontacchi and Matt Duff. The Frontier League received national publicity in July, when media outlets such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox Sports Radio, and Yahoo News covered the Home Run Derby that was used to break a tie in the All-Star Game at Kalamazoo. Footage of River City’s Brody Jackson hitting the winning shot was featured as the Spotlight Segment on ESPN’s SportsCenter the following night.
2003 was a record year for the League at the turnstiles. It was the first time in League history that the League attracted more than 1.1 million fans. The Gateway Grizzlies led the League in attendance and also claimed the League Championship en route to garnering the Organization of the Year award. The All-Star Game was a huge success and was televised by Fox Sports Midwest. In 2003, the League entered three new markets. Canton relocated to Columbia, Missouri, Dubois County relocated to Kenosha, Wisconsin and Johnstown ended an eight year run in the League by selling to Florence, Kentucky. The Florence club played their games in Hamilton, Ohio while their new stadium was constructed and ready for play in 2004. Former Ohio Valley Redcoat Brendan Donnelly became the first former Frontier League player selected to the MLB All-Star Game. Donnelly, pitching for the Anaheim Angels, retired all three batters that he faced in the 8th inning and was the winning pitcher in the game.
In 2004, the League again took a dramatic jump in attendance. Nearly 1.3 million fans entered the turnstiles of Frontier League stadiums. The Gateway Grizzlies led the charge, being the first team to draw over 200,000 fans in a single season and average more than 4000 fans per night. The League expanded its schedule to 96 games with the majority of those games as intra-divisional play. Also, the first round of playoffs was expanded to a best-of-5 game series. The Rockford RiverHawks claimed their first League title, sweeping the Evansville Otters 3 games to 0. Rockford’s Richard Austin was named the League’s MVP. Former Evansville Otters left-hander George Sherrill was the tenth former FL player to advance to the Major Leagues as he pitched for the Seattle Mariners. Plans for new Frontier League stadiums were announced in Rockford, Illinois and Traverse City, Michigan.
In 2005, the League attracted close to 1.2 million fans to its ballparks. The Kalamazoo Kings claimed their first League title in one of the most exciting playoff series in League history, defeating the Chillicothe Paints 3 games to 2. The Washington Wild Things hosted the All-Star Game to a sellout crowd at Falconi Field. Frontier League clubs moved 25 players to MLB clubs, and Kalamazoo’s Pete Pirman won the Morgan Burkhart Award as the League’s Most Valuable Player, eclipsing the League RBI record in the process. Following the season, the League suspended operations of the Ohio Valley and Mid-Missouri clubs for 2006. John and Leslye Wuerfel purchased the Richmond Roosters and relocated the club to their home town of Traverse City.
In 2006, the Frontier League drew almost 1.3 million fans to its 10 clubs. This translated to an average attendance of 2,713, the highest per game attendance in League history. The Evansville Otters opened their home schedule on May 27, when they became the first Frontier League team to draw 1,000,000 fans in their history. Much of the attendance increase was due to new facilities in Rockford, Illinois and Traverse City, Michigan. The Frontier League’s 14th Annual All-Star Game was played in Evansville’s historic Bosse Field and was televised into more than 14 million homes on Fox Sports Net. The West Division won the game in a Home Run Derby tie-breaker when Evansville’s Beau Blacken slammed the game winner. Kalamazoo’s Ian Church was the MVP of the All-Star Game as well as the League MVP. He was only the second player in League history to hit more than 30 homers in a season. In a battle of the League’s two oldest teams, the Evansville Otters defeated the Chillicothe Paints 3 games to 0 to claim their first League championship. Former River City Rascal, Josh Kinney, was the 13th former FL player to play in the Major Leagues. He was an integral part of the St. Louis Cardinals run to the World Series Championship.
In 2007, the Frontier League drew a record 1.5 million fans to its 12 clubs. It was the highest per game average for attendance in League history. Much of the attendance increase was due to the addition of the Southern Illinois Miners that drew more than 5000 fans per game and a League Record total attendance of 259,392 fans to Rent One Park. The League’s 15th Annual All-Star Game was played in Florence, Ky., and was the first game ever sold out for the Freedom organization. The South All-Stars won the game, as Florence’s Reggie Watson garnered MVP honors. In a tremendous FL Championship Series, the Windy City Thunderbolts came from a 2 game deficit to defeat the Washington Wild Things in one of the greatest Championship Series in League history. It was the first championship for the ThunderBolts in their club history. Chillicothe Paints shortstop Travis Garcia earned the League’s Morgan Burkhart Award as the Most Valuable Player.
In 2008, the Frontier League drew 1.46 million fans to its 11 home clubs, as the Midwest team operated as a road team the entire year. The Southern Illinois Miners again paced the League by attracting over 218,000 fans. The League’s 16th Annual All-Star Game was played in beautiful Wuerfel Park in Traverse City, Michigan, and saw in excess of 9,000 fans in attendance for two nights of festivities. The East All-Stars won the game, in a tie-breaking All-Star Home Run Derby. Florence’s Angel Molina garnered MVP honors. The Kalamazoo Kings were featured prominently in a story-line of the nationally syndicated comic strip Gil Thorp that ran for several weeks in July. In the League Championship Series, Homer Stryker Field in Kalamazoo was flooded with over 3 feet of water due to storms. The entire series was moved to Windy City’s Standard Bank Stadium. The ThunderBolts took advantage of the situation and swept the Kings 3 games to 0 to claim their second FL Championship in a row and became only the second team in League history to win back-to-back titles. Windy City First Baseman Phillip Hawke claimed the League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Ryan Bird of Southern Illinois was the Most Valuable Pitcher. Kalamazoo Manager Fran Riordan was honored as the Manager of the Year. Three additional Frontier League graduates made their Major League Baseball debuts, as outfielder Justin Christian (River City Rascals, 2003-04) and right-handed pitcher Scott Patterson (Gateway Grizzlies, 2002-05) spent time with the New York Yankees (Patterson later appeared in games for the San Diego Padres, as well) and infielder Mike Cervenak (Chillicothe Paints, 1999-2000) was called up by the Philadelphia Phillies. In addition, former Evansville Otter George Sherrill became the second Frontier League alum to be named an MLB All-Star, as the left-hander tossed 2.1 scoreless innings in the game.
The 2009 season saw the opening of another new ballpark with All Pro Freight Stadium in Avon, Ohio, hosting the Lake Erie Crushers, while the Midwest Sliders set up camp in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to give their players a home for the season and introduce Frontier League baseball to the metro Detroit market. Two major League milestones were set. Rockford outfielder Jason James hit safely in 40 consecutive games from June 2 to July 18 to break the record set by former Johnstown Steal and Richmond Rooster Kevin Holt, while Kalamazoo’s Fran Riordan overtook Greg Tagert as the all-time winningest field manager in Frontier League history. Other individual accomplishments included Florence’s Preston Vancil tossing a no-hitter in only his second professional appearance, Windy City’s Robert Perry tying the League record with a six-hit game, and Traverse City’s John Alonso hitting for the cycle. Both the Gateway Grizzlies and Lake Erie Crushers received national television exposure, the Grizzlies on the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food for their “Baseball’s Best” line-up of concession items while the Crushers had an ESPN crew follow the team to document the story of pitcher Josh Faiola, who spent the season living at the Belvedere of Westlake, as assisted living facility located just down I-90 from the Crushers’ ballpark. The East Division captured the All-Star Game, helped by back-to-back home runs from game MVP Ryan Basham of the Florence Freedom and Home Run Derby champion Grant Psomas of the Washington Wild Things. In a playoff race where none of the participants clinched berths until the final weekend of the regular season, the Windy City ThunderBolts became only the third team to qualify in three consecutive seasons while the Kalamazoo Kings repeated as East Division champions. Both were knocked out in the first round, however, as Frontier League Manager of the Year Chad Parker led the River City Rascals against the expansion Crushers in the Championship Series. After dropping the first two games in the best-of-five series, Lake Erie rebounded to win the final three games and join the 1997 Canton Crocodiles as the only expansion team from the last 15 years to win the title. Joey Metropolous of the Southern Illinois Miners was selected League MVP, with Paul Fagan of the Lake Erie Crushers as the Pitcher of the Year and Windy City’s Vinnie Scarduzio the Rookie of the Year. Two more former players made their Major League Baseball debuts, with former Florence Freedom and Ohio Valley Redcoat pitcher Chris Jakubauskas (the first pick in the Frontier League’s 2003 draft) making the Opening Day roster for the Seattle Mariners and Clay Zavada getting called up to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ bullpen less than one year after suiting up for the Southern Illinois Miners.
The 2010 season saw the opening of another new ballpark (The Corn Crib, home of the Normal CornBelters), two record winning-streaks, and a new Frontier League all-time home run king. Over 5,800 fans were at The Corn Crib on June 1 when professional baseball returned to the Bloomington-Normal area for the first time in 70 years. The Southern Illinois Miners shattered the league record for a consecutive game winning streak, posting 20 consecutive victories from June 9-28. The Miners 39-9 record at the All-Star Break was the best ever in the Frontier League, and Southern Illinois placed a league-record 10 players in the All-Star Game, which they hosted at Rent One Park in Marion. In the East Division, the Oakland County Cruisers won 29 of 37 games, despite playing all but six on the road, to give first year field manager Gera Alvarez the All-Star nod. The extensive travel for the Cruisers, who played 78 games on the road, combined by a league-record 20 home game winning streak for the Windy City ThunderBolts from July 22-August 25, gave Windy City their third division title in four seasons. The ThunderBolts joined the 1997-2000 Evansville Otters and the 2002-2007 Washington Wild Things as the only teams to make the playoffs in at least four consecutive seasons. While Southern Illinois maintained their lead in the West the entire season, both wild card races came down to the season’s final weekend with River City edging out Gateway in the West and Traverse City reaching the playoffs for the first time in their five seasons in the East. The Divisional Series matchups both featured comebacks, as the Beach Bums dropped game 1 to Windy City before taking the next three and Southern Illinois took the first two games from River City before the Rascals rebounded to game the final three games, including a 10-inning victory in the deciding game. In the Championship Series, Traverse City took the opening game with River City winning the next three for their first title. Championship Series MVP Josh Lowey threw a complete game in game 3, which was spread out over two days due to rain, including retiring all 15 batters that he faced after the game restarted. Gateway’s Charlie Lisk won the regular season MVP award in a year that saw him break the career home run record. Joe Augustine from Southern Illinois was the Pitcher of the Year, while Windy City’s Dustin Williams won Rookie of the Year. Between the regular season and the playoffs, over 1.52 million fans saw Frontier League baseball in 2010, setting a new record.
2011 brought another new market to the Frontier League with the expansion Joliet Slammers and saw the return of the Rockford RiverHawks under new ownership led by Frontier League founder Dr. Chris Hanners. The River City Rascals used a stretch of 12 wins in 13 games in late June to jump to the top of the West Division where they would remain for the remainder of the season. River City’s 68 victories tied them with the 2007 Windy City ThunderBolts for the most in one season. The Slammers played .660 baseball from July 1 through the end of August to become the first expansion team to win their division. Southern Illinois comfortably won the West wild card, while the East wild card came down to the final series with Lake Erie and Traverse City facing each other for the right to advance to the playoffs. After the teams split the first two games, it took ten innings on the final day of regular season for the Crushers to notch a 3-1 victory. Joliet and River City both advanced in the Divisional round leading to a Championship Series between the two division winners. After the Rascals took game 1 in River City, Joliet rebounded to win the next three games to bring the Frontier League Cup to the City of Champions.
2011 saw several on-field achievements highlighted by Joliet’s Andrew Moss tossing the 15th no-hitter in Frontier League history against the Lake Erie Crushers. Moss’ gem came just a few hours after the Cleveland Indians were no-hit by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 20 miles to the east of All Pro Freight Stadium and resulted in national coverage of two professional games featuring no-hitters by the visiting clubs on the same day in the same metropolitan area. Joliet’s Ryan Quigley recorded 28 saves to set a new record while Windy City’s Dustin Williams set a new mark by striking out 157 batters. River City swept the MVP and Pitcher of the Year awards with Stephen Holdren finishing in the top 5 in home runs, RBI, and batting average while Josh Lowey was in the top 5 in victories, strikeouts, and ERA. Joliet’s Erik Lis had a triple and drove in two runs to lead the East Division to an All-Star Game victory in front of the largest crowd in All Pro Freight Stadium history. Two more Frontier League alumni made their MLB debuts in 2011 as former Washington Wild Thing Tom Cochran was called up by the Cincinnati Reds for a nationally televised game in late May and former Windy City ThunderBolt Dylan Axelrod made four appearances (three starts) for the Chicago White Sox in September, finishing with a 1-0 record, 2.89 ERA, and 19 strikeouts in 18.2 innings.
The Frontier League added to their presence in the Chicago area in 2012 with the debut of the Schaumburg Boomers. The Boomers brought an outstanding operation to the Frontier League both on and off the field, starting with over 6,000 fans to watch their inaugural home game. In his first managerial job, the Boomers’ Jamie Bennett, who spent time in Dubois County, Kenosha, and Springfield/Ozark during his playing career, managed the West Division in the All-Star Game where he battled Traverse City’s Gregg Langbehn, who set a record by having 10 of his players selected for the game. Over 5,000 fans attended the game at The Corn Crib in Normal where London’s Joash Brodin was named MVP. Going into the final weekend of the regular season, only Traverse City had clinched a playoff berth, with Florence, Gateway, Lake Erie, Schaumburg, Southern Illinois, and Windy City all in the running for the three remaining spots. The Gateway Grizzlies won 16 out of 20 games in late July to jump into the race and finished with nine victories in their final 12 games to take the West Division title. The Florence Freedom won 13 of their final 14 games to take the top Wild Card spot while the Southern Illinois Miners qualified for the playoffs for the fourth time in the past five seasons. The Miners swept the Beach Bums in the first round while the Freedom defeated the Grizzlies in a series that went the full five games, setting up a Championship Series featuring two first-time participants. Southern Illinois captured their first title behind an 8-for-16 hitting performance from Championship Series MVP Cannon Lester. Seven of the 14 teams had a former Frontier League player as their field manager.
Individual achievements included a no-hitter by Windy City’s Tyson Corley, Gateway’s Jonathan Johnson reaching base safely in 65 consecutive games, Rockford’s Javier Herrera hitting for the cycle, Traverse City’s Ryan Still becoming the first player to walk 100 times in a season, and Darian Sandford setting the stolen base record with 71 for Southern Illinois and Washington. League MVP Jose Vargas tied the single-season mark with 100 RBI for Traverse City while Windy City’s Mike Recchia broke the records for strikeouts (177) and shutouts (5) in a season in being voted Pitcher of the Year. Former Evansville and Windy City pitcher Andrew Werner made his Major League debut with the San Diego Padres, becoming the 23rd player to advance to the big leagues. Following the season, former Zanesville Grey and Springfield Capital Darren Bush was named Bullpen Coach for the Oakland Athletics, becoming the first former Frontier League player to be part of a Major League coaching staff.
Following the 2012 season, Rockford announced a rebranding of the team with Aviators selected following a name-the-team contest.
The 2013 season was one of the most competitive in Frontier League history. For the first time since 2009 no club won 60 games while nine clubs reached the 50 victory plateau. Entering the final three games of the regular season, only the Schaumburg Boomers had clinched a playoff berth while six clubs were in the running for the final four spots, and two different scenarios would have resulted in a four-way tie. The Boomers won 26 of their final 35 regular season games to take the West Division title while in the East the battle came down to a head-to-head series between Lake Erie and Traverse City to end the season. The Crushers won the first two games to clinch their first division crown after a run of 19-2 to begin August launched them into the playoff race. Schaumburg won the title, becoming the first club in the ten seasons that the Frontier League has used a best-of-five format for both playoff rounds to sweep both series. More impressively, the Boomers were either tied or trailing at some point after the start of the 7th inning in all six games. Mike Giovenco was named Championship Series MVP, pitching in all three games and winning two while not allowing any runs.
For individual accomplishments, Traverse City’s Scott Dunn became the first pitcher in league history to win his first 14 decisions of the season, including a stretch of victories in nine consecutive starts, to run away with the Pitcher of the Year award. The Most Valuable Player vote was once of the closest in history, with league RBI leader Jacob Tanis of Florence winning the balloting. River City catcher Danny Canela led the Frontier League with a .360 batting average and was voted Rookie of the Year. Gateway’s Landon Hernandez hit three home runs in a game on August 3, Joliet’s Niko Vasquez hit for the cycle on September 4, and the Grizzlies’ Tim Brown tossed a no-hitter on July 20. On August 31, Chase Doremus, Lucas Goodgion, Jason Sullivan, Corey Kimes, Matt Dillon, and Brett Zawacki of the Slammers combined to toss a 10-inning no-hitter. It is believed that this game was the first time in professional baseball history that six pitchers combined to hold another club hitless. Florence’s Junior Arrojo broke his own single-season record by getting hit by 38 pitches while Evansville’s Eric Massingham set the career mark for saves. In a game that was suspended due to rain the previous night, Washington and Windy City battled for 5:53 and 19-innings on June 1-2 for what turned out to be the first game of a double-header to mark the longest Frontier League contest by both innings and time.
Two more Frontier League alumni made their Major League debuts in 2013. Former Washington Wild Thing Vidal Nuno won the James P. Dawson Award as the best rookie in New York Yankees’ spring training and pitched in five games (three starts) with a 1-2 record and 2.25 ERA during the regular season. Former Southern Illinois Miner Tanner Roark saw action in 14 games (five starts) for the Washington Nationals, winning his first seven decisions as part of a 7-1 record and 1.51 ERA. Steve Delabar of the Toronto Blue Jays, who spent part of the 2008 season with the Florence Freedom, became the third former Frontier League player to be selected a MLB All-Star when he won the fan’s Final Vote contest for the American League. Delabar struck out the only batter whom he faced, Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants, in the game.
In the press box, Robert Ford (Houston Astros) and Aaron Goldsmith (Seattle Mariners) became the first two former Frontier League broadcasters to become full-time MLB play-by-play voices. Both Robert and Aaron began their professional careers in the Frontier League, Robert with the 2003-04 Kalamazoo Kings and Aaron with the 2007 Gateway Grizzlies.
The 2014 season was a banner one for the Frontier League. With the playoff field expanding from four teams to six, a tight playoff race ensued. The West Division race ended with both the River City Rascals and Schaumburg Boomers holding 61-35 records, with the Rascals taking the division title and advancing to the divisional playoff round by virtue of a head to head advantage. The East Division sent four teams to the playoffs, the Southern Illinois Miners (60-36), Evansville Otters (57-37), Washington Wild Things (57-39) and Lake Erie Crushers (52-43). Evansville reached the postseason for the first time since 2006, while Washington’s postseason appearance was their first since 2007. In the Wild Card matchups, the Boomers knocked off the Crushers while the Wild Things beat the Otters. The divisional round saw the Rascals beat the Wild Things and the Boomers beat the Miners, setting up an all West Division championship series, with Schaumburg looking to repeat as Frontier League Champions. The championship series began in O’Fallon with a 5-1 victory for the home team. In game 2 Schaumburg found success as shortstop Gerard Hall homered for the second straight game and Justin Erasmus went 5.2 strong innings, leading the Boomers to a 6-2 win and a split in O’Fallon before heading home for games 3 and 4. Game 3 saw an offensive explosion for the Boomers, who hung 11 runs on Rascals pitching and took a commanding 2 games to 1 lead with an 11-2 victory. Game 4 ended triumphantly for the Boomers as well, as they won 6-2 and made the Boomers the third team in the league’s history to win consecutive championships. Hall was selected as the Championship Series MVP.
The 2014 season also saw numerous historic individual performances in the Frontier League. Reliever Patrick Crider of the Rascals broke his own record by appearing in 65 games and Washington closer Jonathan Kountis set a new league record with 32 saves. Southern Illinois’ Chris Burke tied a Frontier League record with 9 RBI in a July 30 game that saw him also hit for the cycle and Gateway’s Richard Seigel (June 28) and Ryan Cavan of Southern Illinois (August 19) both tied a league record with 6 hits in games. Frank Florio of the Frontier Greys had a big day on July 30 as well, joining Burke in hitting for the cycle. Windy City’s Mike Torres became the Frontier League’s Iron Man when he appeared in his 287th consecutive game on May 25. Torres’ streak, which began on June 1, 2011, eventually ended on July 29 at 339 games. Entering the last couple of weeks of the season, four no-hitters had taken place. Rick Teasley of Southern Illinois threw a 7 inning no hitter on June 5, Travis Tingle of Windy City threw a pair of no-hitters on June 19 (5 innings) and August 20 (7 innings) and Evansville’s Chad James threw a 7 inning no-no on August 20. Matt Sergey of Washington, however, took impressive pitching performances to another level on August 24 against Gateway, throwing the first perfect game in Frontier League history in a full 9 inning game. Shayne Houck of the Otters was named the season’s MVP, while Southern Illinois’ Matt Bywater won Pitcher of the Year and Rockford Aviators’ Tanner Witt won the Rookie of the Year award.
A historic number of Frontier League players were picked up by MLB organizations, as over 50 players got the call to affiliated baseball since the beginning of the 2014 season. Drew Rucinski, who played for the Rockford RiverHawks and Aviators, made his big league debut for the Angels, becoming the 26th former Frontier League player to reach the show. Also representing the Frontier League in the big leagues in 2014 were Dylan Axelrod (Reds), Steve Delabar (Blue Jays), Vidal Nuno (Yankees and Diamondbacks), Tanner Roark (Nationals) and Joe Thatcher (Diamondbacks and Angels). Prior to the 2014 season, former Traverse City Beach Bums manager Gregg Langbehn was hired by the Cleveland Indians as their first MLB Replay Coordinator, followed just days later by former Windy City ThunderBolts manager Mike Kashirsky, who was hired to the same position by the Chicago White Sox. Following the season alumnae Darren Bush was promoted by the Oakland Athletics to hitting coach.
The 2014 season saw the initial class of Frontier League hall of famers inducted at All-Star week, hosted by the Gateway Grizzlies. Players Morgan Burkhart, Aaron Ledbetter, Scott Pinoni, Fran Riordan and Kirk Taylor were selected for induction, as were special contributor Dr. W. Chris Hanners and the special moment of Brett Gray’s 25 strikeout game for the London Werewolves.
2015 featured playoff races that were not decided until the final day of the regular season and another MLB debut. Brandon Cunniff, who played for River City and Southern Illinois, spent the bulk of 2015 in the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen, setting a Braves’ rookie record for the most games pitched at the start of a MLB career without allowing a hit. The Normal CornBelters made the playoffs for the first time by winning the West Division, while the Southern Illinois Miners defended their East Division title. The Rockford Aviators and Florence Freedom edged out Evansville for the final two playoff spots. The River City Rascals defeated Florence then Southern Illinois to return to the Championship Series for the fifth time in the last seven seasons. The Rascals’ Josh Silver hit two grand slams in the deciding game over the Miners, becoming the first player in either regular or post-season history to achieve this feat. The finals were a rematch of the 2010 season, with a Traverse City sweep giving the Beach Bums their first title. River City’s Taylor Ard led the league in both home runs (30) and RBI (83) to capture the MVP award while Southern Illinois’ Adam Lopez was voted Pitcher of the Year and Brandon Tierney of the Frontier Greys selected Rookie of the Year. Normal’s Patrick McKenna posted one of the best single games in league history on August 2 with three home runs and nine RBI, both tying league records. A league-record crowd of 6,572 saw the West Division top the East in the All-Star Game in Schaumburg, with Rockford’s Michael Hur selected as game MVP.
The Greys received national attention through a feature story in Maxim Magazine, and six members of their pitching staff went on to be signed by MLB organizations. The Washington Wild Things also received national publicity, as a story on Pete Rose featured pictures of the Hit King wearing a Wild Things uniform during an appearance at CONSOL Energy Park. Former Grey Balbino Fuenmayor became the first FL alum to be selected for the MLB Futures Game, and following the season former Rockford Aviators Jose Martinez (Royals) and Josh Smoker (Mets) were added to their club’s 40-man MLB roster. The Chicago White Sox hired Jason Benetti, who broke in as the radio broadcaster for Windy City in 2006, as their TV announcer for home games. The second Frontier League Hall of Fame Class was inducted as part of the All-Star festivities, with former players Mike Breyman, Bobby Chandler, Stephen Holdren, Jason James, and Chris Sidick inducted along with special contributor Bob Wolfe. The 2002 All-Star Game Home Run Derby, the highlights of which were featured as the Spotlight Segment on ESPN’s SportsCenter, was honored as the significant moment in league history.
The 2016 season was the tightest since the Frontier League schedule expanded to 96 games, as with three weeks left in the regular season all 12 clubs were within 2.5 games of a playoff berth. Southern Illinois used a 20-3 run from June 4-July 1 to vault to the top of the West Division where they remained for the rest of the season to claim their third consecutive division title. In the East, Joliet used a streak of 12 wins in 15 games in early June and spent the bulk of the season in first place to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Evansville won 10 of their final 14 games to claim the top Wild Card spot, while River City’s victory on the final day of the regular season edged them past Lake Erie for the remaining position. The Rascals advanced to their sixth championship series in the past eight seasons to face the Otters, who advanced for the first time since their 2006 Championship. The series went the maximum five games for the first time since the 2009 season, with the Otters pulling out a 1-0 victory in front of the home Bosse Field crowd in what was described as the tightest deciding game in Frontier League history.
On-field excitement began early as Kramer Champlin celebrated receiving his 2015 Championship ring at Traverse City’s home opener by tossing the first no-hitter in Beach Bums’ history. Gateway’s Brandon Thomas hit a grand slam on August 21 against Joliet with the ball leaving the stadium and crashing through the front windshield of Thomas’s own pickup. Video of the shot and resulting damage received national publicity, and Thomas was interviewed live on ESPN from GCS Ballpark the following evening. Evansville’s long-time Flag Chairman Marvin Gray, a fixture at Bosse Field and sporting events throughout Indiana for over 60 years, passed away on July 27. Four more players made their Major League debuts in 2017, starting with Josh Smoker, the 2nd overall pick in the 2014 Frontier League draft, who was called up to be the 26th player for the New York Mets’ double-header on July 26. Smoker did not appear that day, but was recalled on August 19 and saw action in 20 games with a 3-0 record. Former London Ripper and Florence Freedom outfielder Stephen Cardullo was promoted by the Colorado Rockies on August 26, and celebrated his 29th birthday five days later by hitting home runs in both games of a double-header, including a grand slam. Jose Martinez from the 2014 Rockford Aviators got the call from St. Louis on September 6 and hit .438 over 12 games for the Cardinals. Chris Smith, who came out of the 2010 Frontier League draft and saw action with the Lake Erie Crushers, Traverse City Beach Bums, and Washington Wild Things, was promoted by the Toronto Blue Jays as bullpen support for the last week of the regular season. Off the field, Jason Benetti, who began his broadcasting career as the voice of the Windy City ThunderBolts in 2005, became the first former Frontier League broadcaster to be named the television voice of a Major League team when he was hired by the Chicago White Sox for the 2016 season.
The Florence Freedom hosted the All-Star Game for the second time in their history, with the host West Division posting a 11-4 victory aided by game MVP Nik Balog’s 3-run home run. The All-Star events also saw the induction of Richard Austin, Willie Edwards, Charlie Lisk, Joey Metropoulos, and Matt Schweitzer along with recognition of long-time umpire Max McLeary as a Special Contributor and acknowledgement of Brian Tollberg becoming the first former Frontier League player to advance to the Major Leagues as the Significant Moment.
The 2017 off-season started with former Frontier Grey Ariel Hernandez being added to the Cincinnati Reds’ 40-man roster. 12 former Frontier League players were part of World Baseball Classic rosters, including Tanner Roark, who made his professional debut with the Southern Illinois Miners in 2008 and became the first former FL player to play for Team USA. Roark, whose 16 wins in 2016 for the Washington Nationals tied him for fifth in the National League, started the WBC semi-final game against Japan and tossed four scoreless innings.
The 2017 Frontier League season began with early excitement as Evansville’s Shane Weedman tossed only the second no-hitter in the Otters’ 22-season history on May 13, striking out 11 Southern Illinois Miners in the process. The Florence Freedom won their first eight games of the season to jump to the top of the West Division, a spot that they held for the bulk of the season in winning their first division title. The Schaumburg Boomers also started the season hot, winning 24 of their first 32 games. The Boomers rebounded from a league-worst 41-55 record in 2016 to a 66-30 mark, the third most wins in Frontier League history. While the two division winners were set with more than a week remaining in the regular season, five clubs entered the final series of the year within reach of a wild card spot. Washington won seven of their final eight games to claim only the Wild Things’ second playoff berth in the past ten seasons while the defending champion Evansville Otters used an 8-2 streak at the end of August to get the second wild card. Schaumburg and Florence both won 3-1 first round series to create a Championship Series featuring the two All-Star Game managers. Schaumburg’s Jamie Bennett and Florence’s Dennis Pelfrey were teammates in the Frontier League from 2002-04, making 2017 the first time that former teammates managed against each other in either the All-Star Game and the Championship Series. Jamie (pitcher) and Dennis (catcher) both made the 2003 All-Star Game while with the Kenosha Mammoths. Schaumburg prevailed in the finals to give the Boomers their third title in the past five seasons.
Key individual achievements included Traverse City’s Will Kengor tying the record with three home runs on July 9 while both David Harris of Schaumburg (June 22) and L.J. Kalawaia from Lake Erie (July 22) hit for the cycle. On the pitching side, River City’s Nick Kennedy became the career leader for games pitched with 255 outings over his six seasons with the Rascals. Southern Illinois set a new record for runs scored in an inning with 15 in the 4th at Normal on June 4, a mark that Evansville tied on July 25 against Traverse City (also the 4th inning). Harris had a quality all-around season by hitting .344 with 13 home runs, 65 RBI, and 13 stolen bases to become the first Boomer named Most Valuable Player. Evansville’s Max Duval won Pitcher of the Year after leading the league in ERA by a quarter of a run and had the most strikeout when the Miami Marlins purchased his contract. Kyano Cummings, also of Evansville, became the second player in three years out of the California Winter League to claim Rookie of the Year honors while Washington’s All-Star outfielder Rashad Brown earned the Citizenship Award.
The Cincinnati Reds promoted Ariel Hernandez of the 2015 Frontier Greys on April 23, making the first from the Greys teams and the 32nd overall to advance. Hernandez made his MLB debut the following night, retiring all eight batters that he faced, five by strikeout. Hernandez was one of nine former Frontier League players to appear in Major League games in 2017, which included former Florence Freedom hurler Aaron Wilkerson whose debut with the Milwaukee Brewers included holding the St. Louis Cardinals to only two hits and one run in seven innings. The path to MLB continued at the beginning of the 2018 season as Trevor Richards, who made his professional debut with Gateway in 2015, continued the work that had him named Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the Miami Marlins by making their starting rotation.
Several former Frontier League personal received significant achievements in MLB as well. Robert Ford, the Broadcaster of the Year in 2003 and 2004 with the Kalamazoo Kings, was able to call the final out of the 2017 World Series as the Houston Astros’ radio play-by-play man. Former Dubois County hitting coach and Windy City manager Andy Haines was promoted to the Chicago Cubs’ Major League staff for 2018 as their assistant hitting coach. Jeff Albert from the 2002 Washington Wild Things was named to the same role for the Houston Astros. Fran Riordan, a former All-Star player and the Frontier League’s winningest manager, was promoted to manage Oakland’s Triple-A club, the Nashville Sounds. Former Schaumburg Boomer and two-time Frontier League champion Frank Pfister was named Mental Skills Coach for the Cincinnati Reds. Two former FL pitching coaches, Mark Dewey (Washington) and Chris Hook (Florence) were named co-pitching coordinators for the Milwaukee Brewers while former Evansville pitcher and long-time FL pitching coach Brendan Sagara was hired as the Chicago Cubs’ pitching coordinator. Jason Simontacchi, the 1998 Pitcher of the Year while with the Springfield Capitals, was hired for the same role with Kansas City while his former Springfield teammate Steve Barningham was promoted to Global Crosschecker by the New York Mets.
The 2018 season featured a new all-time hit leader, two more Major League debuts, a record number of alumni in the Majors, and the closest championship series since the best-of-five format was introduced for the 2000 season. Normal’s Santiago Chirino lined a single to left-center in his first at bat at Gateway on June 24 to tie former Washington Wild Thing Chris Sidick. After walking in his next two at bats, Chirino drove a single to right field in the sixth inning to earn the record. Chirino led the league with a .367 average and finished his six-season Frontier League career with 726 hits. Other individual milestones included Washington’s James Harris hitting for the cycle on May 17; Windy City’s Tyler Straub tying the single-game hit record with six on July 6; Evansville’s Ty Hensley and Matt Chavarria combining for a no-hitter on August 11; and Lake Erie’s Alex Romero setting a record with 38.1 scoreless innings (from August 1 to August 31).
The publicity highlight from 2018 occurred on June 21, when former Indianapolis Colts’ Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee started in right field for the Washington Wild Things. McAfee, a native of nearby Plum High School and West Virginia University, brought the national audience from his Barstool Sports show to Wild Things Park. The game, which was billed as “Dingers Only Night”, was used to benefit the “It’s About the Warrior Foundation.” The It’s About the Warrior Foundation is a post-9/11 veteran’s organization that assists and empowers all tri-state area post-9/11 veterans and their families with its various programs.
August began with no team no more than three games out of a playoff spot, and the tight races continued to the final weekend. Washington used a 21-9 streak starting on July 27 to finish with the same record as Joliet, where the Wild Things’ 7-5 head-to-head mark gave them their first division title since 2007. River City won 11 of their final 14 contests to hold off Evansville for the West title. After Washington swept Evansville and Joliet knock off the Rascals in five games in the divisional series, the Slammers took a decisive game 5 of the Championship Series giving manager Jeff Isom his first professional title in his 19-year managerial career. The five games were decided by a total of eight runs, with no game featuring more than a 2-run differential.
Former Windy City ThunderBolt Ryan Bollinger became the 35th former Frontier League player to get the call to MLB when the New York Yankees promoted him on May 23. Along with Bollinger, Robert Stock, the top pick in the 2015 Frontier League draft by the Normal CornBelters, made his MLB debut, appearing in 32 games for San Diego and posting a 2.50 ERA. A total of ten former Frontier League players saw MLB time in 2018, the most in any single season.
During the off-season several former Frontier League players and coaches were promoted in their MLB organizations. Andy Haines, who started his professional career as hitting coach for Dubois County in 2002 and later managed the 2007 Windy City ThunderBolts to their first championship, was hired as hitting coach by the Milwaukee Brewers. Joining Andy on the Brewers’ MLB staff is pitching coach Chris Hook, who served in the same role for the Florence Freedom for their first five seasons. Guillermo Martinez from the 2009-10 Windy City ThunderBolts was promoted to hitting coach by the Toronto Blue Jays and Jeff Albert was named hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Former ThunderBolts and Gateway Grizzlies third baseman Donnie Ecker was named assistant MLB hitting coach for Cincinnati as well. The 2019 season began with another MLB debut, as former Rockford Aviator and Frontier Greys hurler Nick Anderson retired the only batter he faced in the Miami Marlins’ opening game. Anderson became the 22nd player who began his career in the Frontier League to advance to the Majors.