Unless the Miners draw River City in a playoff series next month, their 13-year old rivalry with the Rascals has come to a premature end.
The news Monday night that River City will cease operations at the end of the year not only takes away one of the Frontier League’s most consistent franchises, but also creates a new set of questions for the league.
Can it get a new franchise into O’Fallon, Mo. for 2020? Failing that, can it get a 10th franchise with good financial footing off the ground somewhere else? And if that doesn’t happen, will it have to create a travel team in order to maintain an even number of teams?
From the perspective of Southern Illinois manager Mike Pinto, the loss of the Rascals is a detriment to the league.
“That was certainly disappointing news,” he said Tuesday night after a 6-3 win over Florence. “I know the league is doing everything it can to keep Frontier League baseball in O’Fallon. That’s a great market for us.
“The Rascals have had some great, loyal fans over the years. I’m sure they’re very disappointed, and I’m sure the league will try to keep baseball in there.”
The tipping point here was the inability to negotiate a long-term lease between the club and O’Fallon, a few miles west of St. Louis. O’Fallon intends to discuss the possibility of a new franchise with different tenants for 2020.
CarShield Field seats 5,150, but those seats haven’t been used as often this year. The team currently ranks ninth out of 10 teams in attendance at 1,710 per game, and has actually drawn fewer fans in total than any franchise in the league. By comparison, the Miners have attracted 2,304 fans per game while playing fewer home games than anyone else in the league.
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If the league isn’t able to work a deal to return baseball to O’Fallon, its options would appear to be limited. There have been rumors that cities in and out of the league’s geographical footprint such as Cape Girardeau and Clarksville, Tenn. might be interested, but none have been confirmed.
The last resort would be a travel team similar to the ones that helped fill out the league’s schedule for close to 2 ½ years. When the London Rippers folded in the middle of the 2012 season, the Road Warriors were hastily formed in order to maintain a 12-team league.
The Frontier Greys took their place for the 2013-14 seasons, giving each team extra home games. A travel team wouldn’t be ideal by any means, but it’s far better than running a league with an odd number of teams.
“You can’t have an uneven schedule,” Pinto said, “but I think any talk is premature at this point. Everybody is looking at all the possibilities, but it’s a shame for the River City players and staff to have this happen.”
Funny thing is, the Rascals might exit stage left with a league title. After sweeping a weekend series from West Division leader Florence, they trail the Freedom by just a game and have two games in hand. A home-heavy schedule down the stretch is another factor in their favor.
While a cautious veneer of optimism is being maintained by some that the situation will work itself out, you can’t blame league officials for being worried. The departures of Normal and Traverse City after the 2018 season knocked the league down from 12 to 10 teams.
Now comes some more work to either keep a league staple in its 21-season home under new ownership, or find another place to play.