Great West League Downsizing for 2017
November 21, 2016

One step forward, two steps back. The Great West League, which likes to call itself 'one of the premiere college wood-bat leagues in the country', will operate with five teams instead of six next year. Not exactly progress for the fledgling league that's preparing for its second season.

The good news first. They are adding a new franchise for next year. The Lincoln Potters are not named after Abraham Lincoln, or Sherman T. Potter from M*A*S*H, or Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life. Lincoln is a very fast growing city about half way between Marysville and Sacramento, and they have been named the Potters from Gladding, McBean & Company, which has made pottery products in Lincoln for over 150 years. There were other baseball teams known as the Potters throughout the years as well.

While the Potters will call the city of Lincoln home, they will actually play their games in the nearby city of Rocklin, at McBean Stadium--a ball park that is being renovated for the Potters and the baseball program of William Jessup University. Lincoln expressed an interested in joining the new league last season, and it didn't take much time to make the franchise come to fruition. Truly one step forward for the GWL.

However, if it's physically possible to both take one step forward and two steps back at the same time, that's exactly what the league has done. In the very same announcement welcoming the Potters, the league also proclaimed that both the Lodi Crushers and Sacramento Stealth will be inactive for the 2017 season. Neither are really much of a surprise, but by the same token, league officials also don't seem to want to admit that the endeavor of collegiate summer baseball has turned out a lot more difficult than they had foreseen.

The Sacramento Stealth were an easy call. The team didn't have a stadium to play in last year. They played all 45 games on the road, and finished with a record of 7-38 (.156). Allowing them to play in the first place was probably a mistake, but the league (ironically) didn't want to go with five teams (even though that's what they are down to now). The team was hoping for the renovation of an old Sacramento field, and when that fell through, they became collegiate baseball nomads. There has been no change in the status of that ball park, so the Stealth will sit out next year. If you think they are planning for 2018, though, think again. The Stealth General Manager is now the GM of the Potters.

The Crushers are a different story. They were last in the league in attendance, with the Lodi News-Sentinel reporting that they averaged just 232 fans per game at Tony Zupo Field. They were, however, a fairly competitive 23-34 with a roster that was made up of mostly junior college players. Strangely, as the Lodi paper reports, ownership was the problem. Not just ownership, but out of town ownership. Jack Donovan lives in Arizona, and so does Doug Leary, who was the GM. The league says the Crushers will take a year off to get local owners and businesses involved. Again, not exactly progress. More like a fall backwards than a step.

In addition to a five team league, the GWL has announced it will play 54 games, down from a planned 60 last year and a reality of 57 (45 for the Stealth) last season. The schedule hasn't been released yet, but why 54 games if you only have four opponents? Apparently, each team will play two teams 13 times, and the other two teams 14. We'll just wait and see. A slate of 54 games also means only 27 at home, down from 33 last year.

Because of this, the league is allowing teams to add home games against non-league opponents. That was not only forbidden last year, but the league president seemed like it was outlandish to even suggest such a thing. “If they want to play us, they can join the league,” he said. That tune has now changed. With an odd number of teams in the league, one team would conceivably have three straight days off. In summer ball, that's a good thing, but it could also be used to put butts in the seats. The Gold Sox could bring back the Seattle Studs or Neptune Beach Pearl, or the Medford Rogues could try to recreate their rivalry with the Klamath Falls Gems—a rivalry they ditched to join the GWL.

For those tracking this league, and especially in Marysville (and to a lesser extent Medford) where there was already collegiate baseball but this league was forced upon the fans, the Great West League was created for two reasons. Chico and Portland. Chico was a very successful independent league town, has a well known and reputable Division II college program in Chico State, but never had collegiate summer baseball. Portland went from trying to lure the then-Major League owned Montreal Expos, to losing a Triple-A team, to not having a ball park, to renovating one for this league.

It's not surprising that Chico and Portland were one-two in GWL attendance. Medford and Marysville, the only teams that existed before the league began play last year, had decent years at the gate, but there was skepticism, certainly in Marysville. The Gold Sox were coming out of a business formula that had them at home every weekend, almost no road games, and some very good teams coming into town to play them. There were admittedly some bad ones too, but not unlike their freshman season in the GWL. The biggest difference was weeknight home games, and some weekends where the team was on the road. That's no different than any other baseball league, but it was different from what Gold Sox fans were used to. And for what, Marysville won their final game of the season to finish with a winning 29-28 record.

If league organizers have done one thing well, it was to get the ball rolling in their primary focus markets. There is a buzz in the northwest about the Portland Pickles, not only because of their weird nickname, but their new renovated ball park and the minor league atmosphere that comes with this brand of ball. Chico fans may have expected a little better quality of play, but will likely be just as supportive in 2017 as they were this year. Oh, and they also won the championship.

Add to Portland and Chico established teams like Marysville and Medford, and you've got the nucleus for a decent league. Beyond that, however, has been a much tougher task than even rich baseball people could imagine. Outside of their 'core four', they had two extra teams. Now they are down to one. Becoming 'one of the premiere leagues in the country' is a lot harder than just printing it on a press release.

Not as big as it used to was: Remember when UCLA-USC was a big football game? Like most years? It would almost always follow Ohio State-Michigan on ABC, and be right up there with Auburn-Alabama and Oklahoma-Nebraska (which was a while ago). This year, the LA showdown wasn't even Thanksgiving weekend, and was relegated to 7:30pm PT on ESPN. Those who make such calls got it right, though. 'SC won in a blowout.

More Kiwi talk: About moving to New Zealand if Donald Trump were elected? I forgot they drive on the left side of the road there. I don't know if I could ever get used to that.

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