Next stop: O’Fallon, Missouri

I drove into O’Fallon, Missouri just west of St. Louis around noon on a Tuesday. My first Frontier League trip was starting with the River City Rascals.  It was a really hot day, and, deferring to my usual paranoia about being late for meetings, I was three hours early for the interviews I’d scheduled.

Carshield Field sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood, with left field abutting an apartment complex. The housing in the immediate vicinity looks to be upper-middle class, but manufactured housing and sketchy apartment complexes are  just a few blocks away.

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The Rascals started Frontier League play in 1999, and the ballpark is clean and well-maintained. Like a lot of minor league facilities, CarShield features a play area to keep little kids occupied that also contains a full-sized adjustable basketball goal. The team installed artificial turf in 2017, which is a little off-putting (though consistent with most teams in the league). Not only is the grass part of the field replaced, but the dirt part is covered with dark brown carpet.

River City’s manager is Steve Brook, and he also serves as Director of Baseball Operations.

“All that means is that I make all the player decisions,” he said. “There are some managers in this league who only manage the team. They don’t have to worry about paying people or making transactions.

“It’s a burden, but it’s kinda fun, really. It’s like playing fantasy baseball with real people.”

We were talking in his cramped office in the clubhouse, which is a brick outbuilding beyond the right field fence. An overworked air conditioning unit labored to keep up with July-like heat outside. Brook sat at a desk making out a list for his clubhouse manager to make a run to Subway. I sat in a chair to his left while assistant coaches Josh Ludy and Alex Ferguson slumped on overstuffed couches just a couple feet away.

Ludy, a squat, bearded ex-catcher and current Rascals hitting instructor sat looking at his phone, his lower lip puffy with dip. Ludy played over 300 games for the Rascals between 2014 and 2017. We were talking about how Brook finds players to field his team. He said it’s an everyday process of talking to coaches in both pro and college programs and close monitoring of the waiver wire.

“I rely heavily on these two guys (Ludy and Ferguson), and all my former and current players. And a lot of it is just emailing people. For instance, if a high-A or double-A guy gets released who spent three years at Georgia Tech, I’ll email all the contacts I have at Georgia Tech and ask for the kid’s phone number.”

Ludy stirred from the depths of his couch. “Where’d you get my name from? I don’t think I ever asked you that.”

“You were with the Phillies?”

“Yeah.”

“Zack Sterner.”

Ludy stared at Brook. “I have no idea who that is.”

“He was a right-handed starter from the Phillies who played for me in 2011 and 2012.”

Ludy shook his head. “Had no idea.”

After managing in independent baseball for years, Brook demonstrates an encyclopedic recall of players in both his own league and affiliated baseball. It’s one result of nearly constant focus on finding, evaluating, and acquiring players each year.

“It’s non-stop,” he said. “It’s a burden that never goes away. I mean, Christmas morning I’m thinking, ‘Who do I have at short this year? Who do I have a at second? How am I gonna get this guy? How do I outbid all the other managers around the country doing the exact same thing when I have the second-smallest salary cap in all of independent baseball?’ Plus, we have organizational restrictions that are tighter than other teams in our own league.”

“But a lot of it is getting the right people who want to come and enjoy baseball and have a shot at getting picked up by an affiliated team.”

As game time approaches and the sun sets, the heat eases a bit as the ballpark starts to fill. Brook had mentioned that River City and Gateway are the two smallest ballparks in the league. There are no ushers, so seat selection is apparently on the honor system. I settle into a spot five rows from the field down the first base line in front of Raskie’s Bar and Grill, a brick building in right field that offers relief from heat and kids along with cocktails and beer.

Frontier League Deputy Commissioner Steve Tahsler had mentioned to me that each ballpark in the league developed its own unique concession menu. In addition to the usual fare of peanuts, popcorn and hot dogs, CarShield Field offers “The Boomstick” ( a 24” hot dog with cheese and jalapeno peppers), “The Catcher’s Mitt” (a huge soft pretzel that surrounds cheese, fruit, and candy), and other specialties that can feed small families or large fans.

Brook’s comment about the team’s frugality didn’t sound too much unlike what I’ve heard in triple A. But several times the PA announcer mentioned that anyone turning in a foul ball would get a coupon for a free haircut from Great Clips.

The play on the field was surprisingly energetic and competitive. Some of the players told me that there is a lot more focus on winning games in the Frontier League than in affiliated baseball. At the triple A level, you sometimes get the impression that players are mostly interested in getting their at bats or innings and not getting hurt. But in this contest against the Schaumburg Boomers, players were sliding on the hot turf to knock down grounders and crashing into outfield walls with abandon. The home team clobbered three home runs and held the Boomers scoreless on their way to a 10-0 win that came in under two-and-a-quarter hours. IMG_20180522_183804536

I think I’m going to like this league.

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