On a recent media trip to Green Bay to visit the NFL Packers' training camp, I had the opportunity to go to a college summer league baseball game. To be honest, I didn't even know such leagues existed, as they are rare in the Deep South, where I live.
The Green Bay Bullfrogs play in a league that goes all the way up to Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. The night I visited their ballpark, they were playing the Battle Creek Bombers.
This is baseball at its purest: the American pastime played by college kids who really want to improve their game and live out their dreams. Everyone there was having a good time: the players, coaches and fans.
The home team won the game, 5-2, but everyone was a winner that night. I spoke to players on the visiting team that lost, and they were very happy to have a chance to showcase their talent and have fun all summer long.
The league ended play this past weekend. They have a 72-game schedule that lasts from late May through mid-August, when the players must return to their respective college teams for fall classes and practices.
The Bullfrogs play in a stadium that dates back to 1929. Frank Howard, former National League Rookie of the Year in 1960, played there. Titletown Partners has revamped it to its current configuration.
Our host for the cool, crisp evening where we enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the left field party deck was Joel "Green Bay Sports Guy" Everts, a Wisconsin native who knows sports statewide. It was an enjoyable evening for everyone.
Majority team owner Jeff Royle explained to us what a labor of love the team has been since he and his partners were awarded an expansion franchise in 2007. Royle played college baseball himself in Wisconsin and formerly published the Green Bay Packers Report. He has a passion for the game and his city.
The Northwoods League appears to be the most popular for college baseball among players nationally. It has surpassed the century-old Cape Cod League in fan interest, as it has more teams, plays more games and draws more fans than any other league of its kind nationally. Many games are played in stadiums that were formerly occupied by minor league teams. It is a 16-team, two-division league that spans Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, and Ontario.
Top college players from across North America are recruited to play in the league. All players must have NCAA eligibility remaining in order to participate, and to preserve that eligibility, they are not paid.
Each team is operated similarly to a professional minor league franchise, providing players an opportunity to play under the same conditions as a professional: using wooden bats and minor-league specification baseballs, experiencing overnight road trips and playing nightly before fans in a pro stadium.
Host families house, feed and provide all the players with lots of support. The player is a member of someone's family during their time in Green Bay. Hosting a player is a rewarding experience for the families, as the players are positive role models for their children, and the parents have the opportunity to make a positive impact on the future of a young man in creating friendships that last a lifetime with someone who just might become a Major League baseball star someday.
This was an unexpected, surprisingly positive experience in Green Bay, an area that is dominated by their NFL Packers franchise in terms of sports. The fans get to have access to sports heroes on an up close and personal basis, getting autographs from the players and coaches after the games.
The Bullfrogs missed the playoffs this year but did very well in the first half of the season. The fans don't seem to mind, as long as they get to touch and feel professional athletes that families can bond with on a long-term basis.