Will they be the Brainerd Walleyes? The Brainerd Bunyans?
Northwoods League president Dick Radatz said Tuesday he is "95 percent" certain the wood bat league for baseball players with college eligibility remaining will return to Brainerd in 2005.
The league tentatively plans to expand to Eau Claire, Wis., in addition to Brainerd, which had a Northwoods franchise for five seasons before folding following the 2002 season. The addition of Brainerd and Eau Claire would give the league 12 teams.
"Eau Claire is in the same situation as Brainerd," Radatz said by phone. "While everything looks 95 percent yes, in neither community have we put our John Hancock on any document or with any respective owner.
"Until those things are done, I would like to leave myself a five percent opening. But we're 95 percent done for '05 in both communities."
Radatz said an out-of-town owner, whom he declined to name, is primed to purchase a Brainerd franchise. He said a conference call is scheduled among league board of directors Wednesday that may verify the Brainerd owner. A public announcement that Brainerd will return might be made within a few weeks.
Action taken by the Brainerd City Council on Monday paved the way for the league's possible return. The council, by a 5-2 vote, approved a lease that runs from 2005-2009 at Mills Field.
During that time, the league agrees to pay a non-refundable $5,000 a year. If games are played, the $5,000 would be applied to the league's payment to the city. If no games are played, the city would keep the $5,000.
Council members Bob Olson and Mary Koep voted against the lease. Olson said he couldn't support it because he felt the city and the league already had an agreement in place for the 2003 and 2004 seasons, had budgeted $7,000 per year because of that agreement and was never paid.
North Division: Alexandria, Duluth, Thunder Bay, Ontario, St. Cloud, Mankato.
South Division: Madison, Wausau and LaCrosse in Wisconsin; Waterloo, Iowa, Rochester.
Radatz said he never agreed to the previous lease. Under the new lease, the league agrees to pay the city $5,000 per year and will pay about $15,000 in outstanding debts to vendors owed by the previous owner.
If the league returns it would be Brainerd's fourth wood-bat baseball venture since 1994. Three previous teams folded for a variety of financial and attendance reasons.
The Brainerd Bears played one season in 1994 and for about one month in 1995 before the North Central League disbanded.
The Brainerd Bobcats ceased operations just 18 games into their only season in 1995 with a paid attendance average of 240, lowest in the Prairie League.
The Brainerd Mighty Gulls played in the Northwoods from 1998-2002.
Radatz thinks a Brainerd franchise can thrive under the right ownership.
"Sort of the benchmark for us is Alexandria," he said. "Our feeling from the league is if Alexandria can make it, then Brainerd surely can."
Alexandria is averaging 1,052 fans this season.
Radatz said he "agreed wholeheartedly" if the Northwoods had come to Brainerd before the difficulties encountered by the Bears and Bobcats it would probably never have left. The North Central and Prairie league paid players; the Northwoods does not.
"It was a big setback to baseball in that community, yet I don't think it's something that can't be overcome," Radatz said.
Mike Bialka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 855-5861.
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