Part 2: Who would play in this new Continental League?

In the past 50 years, Major League Baseball has almost doubled in size, going from 16 teams to 30. At 25 players a team, there are now 750 men in the league, as opposed to 400 in 1960. In September, when rosters expand, the number gets as high as 1200. With so many more uniforms to fill, it would seem talent has diluted markedly. Still, I took a long look and between Triple-A, top-level independent leagues and various international circuits there are enough ex-big league players scattered about to form an expansion league.

The last time anyone tried to form a new pro baseball circuit was 1959, when a group led by Branch Rickey announced plans for a Continental League, with teams in Atlanta, Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York and Toronto. They never played a game, after the MLB announced plans to expand in a few of the markets, and today, all but Buffalo has a team. In Part 1 of this series, I looked at cities that could host a professional team. There are dozens of such cities, and I identified 12 of the best.

(For anyone who missed Part 1, go here.)

Today’s post is about identifying potential players for this new league. After spending more hours than I care to catalog on Wikipedia and various team Web sites, some in English, some not, I found over 100 ex-big leaguers in their 20s and 30s scattered between Triple-A, the independent leagues and international circuits, as well as the retired and inactive lists (and those were just the names I knew.) I should add that I find this general subject fascinating, regardless of whether we’re talking expansion leagues. A former established player grinding it out in some lower league in hopes of coming back is a great underdog story, at least to me.

The list that follows includes ex-starting players, All Stars and a past Cy Young award winner, Eric Gagne (currently playing in Canada.) The men are:

Mexico: Raul Casanova, Scott Chiasson, Jacob Cruz, Erubiel Durazo, Benji Gil, Alex Sanchez

Korea: Jose Capellan, Doug Clark, Karim Garcia, Gary Glover, Edgar Gonzalez, Brandon Knight, C.J. Nitkowski

Japan: Alex Cabrera, Jose Castillo, Casey Fossum, Seth Greisinger, Ben Kozlowski, Randy Messenger, Matt Murton, Andy Phillips, Terrmel Sledge, Jason Standridge

Taiwan: Pedro Liriano, Matt Perisho, Wilton Veras, Jerome Williams

Independent: Antonio Alfonseca, Edgardo Alfonzo, Carlos Almanzar, Lorenzo Barcelo, Larry Bigbie, Dewon Brazelton, Alberto Castillo, Juan Diaz, Ryan Drese, Carl Everett, Robert Fick, Keith Foulke, Wayne Franklin, Eric Gagne, Trey Hodges, Hideki Irabu, Jorge Julio, Jose Lima, Luis Lopez, Dustan Mohr, Sidney Ponson, Matt Riley, Felix Rodriguez, Bill Simas, Randall Simon, Jason Simontacchi, Scott Spiezio, Junior Spivey, Denny Stark, Matt Watson, Esteban Yan, Shane Youman

Minors: Eliezer Alfonzo, Luis Ayala, Josh Bard, Armando Benitez, Kris Benson, Joe Borchard, Raul Chavez, Alex Cintron, Chad Cordero, Shane Costa, Jack Cust, Lenny DiNardo, Brandon Duckworth, Chris George, Esteban German, Jay Gibbons, Brad Hennessey, Steve Holm, Paul Hoover, Kei Igawa, Jacque Jones, Brad Kilby, Jason Lane, Kameron Loe, Brandon McCarthy, Dallas McPherson, Mike MacDougal, John Mayberry Jr., Justin Miller, Damian Moss, Garrett Olson, Adam Pettyjohn, Horacio Ramirez, Cody Ransom, Michael Restovich, Clete Thomas, Joe Thurston, Josh Towers, Andy Tracy, DeWayne Wise

Not playing: Shawn Chacon, Roger Cedeno, Raul Mondesi, Tike Redman, Jose Vidro

Retired: Jose Cruz Jr., Nomar Garciaparra, Ben Grieve, Gary Knotts, Ramiro Mendoza, Matt Morris, Trot Nixon, John Rocker

Looking over the list, it’s hardly a collection of ex-superstars. I’m reminded of that scene in Major League where the new owner of the Cleveland Indians presents a list of players she intends to invite to spring training, in secret hopes of fielding the worst team in baseball so she can relocate it to Miami. Upon seeing the list, a member of her front office remarks, “I never heard of half of these guys, and the ones I do know are way past their primes.”

In reply, the Indians general manager quips, “Most of these men never had a prime.”

Still, as I said in Part 1, I think that over time, with sufficient financial backing, fan support and patience, a new league could become sustainable and competitive. And even to start, I think that 20 or so of the guys named above combined with a few blue chip prospects could form a team comparable to the Washington Nationals. It goes without saying that everything I’ve said over the past two posts would probably never legally work, for any number of different reasons, but I think it’s an interesting concept.

Part 1: Possible cities that could host teams

The Continental League: It could still happen

In 1959, a group led by Branch Rickey announced plans for a Continental League with teams in Atlanta, Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York and Toronto. Different than former rival circuits such as the American Association, Players’ League or Federal League, Rickey and his associates envisioned a complementary league. However, they folded August 2, 1960 before playing a game after the big leagues announced plans to field teams in a few of the markets.

Since then, Major League Baseball has almost doubled to 30 teams, from 16, spreading west like the Continental League proposed. What’s interesting, though, is that amidst the glut of expansion, a new baseball league could still work. Many cities besides Buffalo could accommodate a team and hundreds of ex-big leaguers in their 20s and 30s currently populate the minor leagues, independent ball and the international circuits.

Baseball could theoretically have a league at least like the XFL in football for talent and general interest. With good financial backing, fan support and patience, it could become sustainable. Here’s an idea of how it might look:

The Classic Division:

1. Brooklyn

Population: 2,465,326 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Brooklyn Cyclones (Mets, Short-Season A)

Notes: Why not bring big league baseball back to Brooklyn? New York supported three baseball teams for years, and this borough boasts over 2 million people, with no professional team as of this writing (just so long as the Nets remain in New Jersey.) As a bonus, a modernized replica of Ebbets Field could be built.

2. Buffalo

Population: 292,648 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Buffalo Bisons (Mets, Triple-A)

Notes: This is the only Continental League city lacking major league baseball 50 years later, perhaps because Buffalo’s population has fallen more than 50% in this time. Still, the rate of decrease is no longer as rapid, and Buffalo has the largest┬áballpark in the minors, Pilot Field, capable of enlarging to big league capacity.

3. Montreal

Population: 1,620,693 (2006 Canadian Census)

Current baseball team: None since 2004

Notes: I don’t think this was a bad baseball city. I just think the Expos sucked something fierce by the time they left for Washington D.C.

4. Louisville

Population: 256,231 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Louisville Bats (Reds, Triple-A)

Notes: A June 2008 article from RBI Magazine says it best: birthplace of the Louisville Slugger for god sakes. Give them an MLB Team!

5. Memphis

Population: 650,100 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Memphis Redbirds (Cardinals, Triple-A)

Notes: The 18th-largest city in the 2000 census, plus a geographical rival of Louisville. When the Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis some years ago, they tried to rename themselves the Express, in honor of FedEx (headquartered there) but the NBA quashed it. In my league, there are no such restrictions.

6. Indianapolis

Population: 781,870 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Indianapolis Indians (Pirates, Triple-A)

Notes: The third-largest city in the US without a professional baseball team, after San Jose and San Antonio, Indianapolis is a former Negro League town and between the Pacers and Colts has traditionally treated teams well.

The Territorial Division:

1. San Antonio

Population: 1,144,646 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: San Antonio Missions (Padres, Double-A)

Notes: This is the largest American city without a big league team. Kind of surprising it doesn’t even have a Triple-A club (or an NFL team for that matter.)

2. Sacramento

Population: 407,018 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Sacramento River Cats (A’s, Triple-A)

Notes: Call me biased, since this is my hometown, but Sacramento is a great baseball city. The weather is sublime in the late spring and early fall, and the River Cats play in a jewel of a riverfront ballpark, Raley Field, which could be expanded from its current capacity of 14,000.

3. Las Vegas

Population: 478,434 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Las Vegas 51s (Blue Jays, Triple-A)

Notes: This is again where my bias will show, as there’s been talk in recent years of my Sacramento Kings moving here, and I think putting a baseball team in Las Vegas could avert this. That being said, I think Sin City could well accommodate a ball club and that casinos would purchase many stadium luxury boxes for high rollers.

4. Honolulu

Population: 371,657 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: None since 1987

Notes: Honolulu has gorgeous weather and no professional teams currently, and modern technology eases travel there. This area is ripe for expansion and would make a perfect spot for All Star games.

5. Portland

Population: 529,121

Current baseball team: Portland Beavers (Padres, Triple-A)

Notes: Almost as large as its neighbor Seattle, Portland surprisingly only has one professional team, the Trail Blazers of the NBA.

6. Vancouver

Population: 578,041 (2006 Canadian Census)

Current baseball team: Vancouver Canadians (A’s, Short-Season A)

Notes: Vancouver is another beautiful city in the Pacific Northwest that could support a higher level of baseball than it does.

Part 2: The players