A new baseball stadium is rising along Interstate 90 this spring, bringing pro ball to Cleveland’s western suburbs. The Lake Erie Crushers, a Frontier League expansion team, play their home opener June 2 at the new All Pro Freight Stadium in Avon.
Steven Edelson is excited. He’s the owner of the Crushers, a Chicago native and owner of a successful minor league hockey franchise in Iowa. Sports teams are a family affair for Edelson. His brother-in-law is Michael
Reinsdorf — the son of Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Now the White Sox fan is out on his own and staking his business in Cleveland Indians country.
“Cleveland is one of the best sports markets in the United States,” Edelson enthuses. “If you pull out Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, it’s one of the best in the country.”
The Frontier League, an independent organization, gives young players a chance to work their way into (or return to) affiliated ball. The on-field talent is roughly at the skill level of Class A leagues, a lower level in affiliated minor league baseball. By rule, half of all players on Frontier League rosters must be rookies. Typically, they are players who either weren’t drafted or who were drafted but were later cut loose by their major league teams. They are using the Frontier League, which has an age limit of 27, to earn another chance.
After all, it has worked for major league pitchers such as George Sherrill, Brendan
Donnelly and Jason Simontacchi, as well as former infielder Morgan Burkhart. All spent time in the Frontier League before eventually signing with an affiliated team and climbing to the majors. Sherrill, ace relief pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, made just less than $1 million last year.
“You want your guy to sign with an affiliated team so you can hang your hat on that,” says Ryan Gates, the Crushers general manager. “It’s important to draw that line and say, ‘Hey, we’ve had guys come through this league who have turned into successful professionals. Now you could be next.’ ”
Some Frontier League teams are close to major league cities, such as the team in Florence, Ky., about 12 miles from Cincinnati. In other places, such as Traverse City, Mich., O’Fallon, Mo., and Evansville, Ind., the Frontier League is the only sports attraction in town.
The league set an attendance record in 2007 when more than 1.5 million fans attended ballgames throughout its 12 Midwest cities. Attendance dropped slightly last summer to 1.47 million, but it was still the league’s sixth straight season above the million-fan mark.
“The majority of people go for the entertainment,” says commissioner Bill Lee. “I tell all our teams, they’re not here to play baseball. They’re in a dinner theater. They’re here to feed people and entertain them for three hours.”
One draw of minor league baseball is the family friendliness. Avon’s new ballpark will hold about 2,600 seats, and almost all of them will cost $9. Lawn seating overlooking the outfield means up to 2,000 more fans can bring a blanket and watch a game for $6.
Compare that to Progressive Field, where field box seats to see the Yankees in May could run upward of $70. Even bleacher seats this summer will cost $18. In Avon, a family of four can go to a game with a $50 bill and leave with change.
“What we’re going for here is an inexpensive family entertainment option,” says Edelson.
Within a year or two, Frontier League players will either be picked up by an affiliated team or released. It leads to plenty of roster turnover and lots of new faces every summer. Players don’t make much, typically less than $1,000 a month, so teams rely on local host families to take players in for the summer. It can be a tremendous experience both for the player and the family — particularly a family with young boys who love baseball.
“Minor league baseball is about the community and being part of a social gathering,” says Gates. “I very rarely even bring up baseball. You’ve got great baseball with kids hustling, but it’s about coming out and seeing your neighbors, friends and co-workers. Everyone is there. It will bring you fireworks and giveaways and goofy promotions on the field. It’s that fun atmosphere that’s all-inclusive. That’s the best part of minor league baseball.”
the marriage between the Frontier League and the city of Avon began four years ago. The league was looking for a new home for a team; meanwhile, Avon Mayor Jim Smith was working on bringing a recreation center to his city — ideally with basketball courts, swimming pools, maybe even an ice rink.
Though Avon was enjoying a population explosion, 400 acres near the interchange of I-90 and state Route 611 was up for sale with no real bites. A few gas stations had given the area a truck-stop feel, something Smith desperately wanted to change.
So when the Frontier League asked for a stadium easily accessible from the highway, the city presented it with the perfect location. It was an anchor that also helped Smith get his recreation center dream rolling.
The new $11.4 million All Pro Freight Stadium gets its name from the Avon-based transportation, warehouse and distribution company that secured the naming rights. The artificial FieldTurf will allow events to take place in the stadium all summer. Add in the $13.5 million YMCA, set to open around January 2010, and both dreams are on the verge of being realized.
Smith is counting on nearly a quarter-million visitors to the site annually. “We’ll have the ability to put on concerts and entertainment, besides baseball. People will go to a baseball game and they’ll see the rec center. Others will go to use the rec center and see the baseball stadium.”
The baseball stadium and YMCA are only the start of Smith’s grand plan. Over the next 10 years, he expects all 400 acres of the initial space to fill up with restaurants, hotels — even an ice rink.
An economic impact study hasn’t been conducted, but Smith points to the way Avon Commons boosted more development and real estate prices throughout the town, around state Route 83 and Avon Commons’ I-90 interchange. Smith estimates the project will reach capacity in less than a decade.
Once the hockey rink, indoor soccer fields, restaurants and hotels are in place, Smith estimates 2 million visitors a year will come to the complex, with 500,000 staying overnight.