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Issue Date: May 2009

Aiming for the Big Leagues

Jason Lloyd
Avon  is not the only Lorain County city in on the baseball action. The Pipe Yard in Lorain is home to the NorthCoast Knights, a team debuting this summer that will compete in the Prospect League throughout the Midwest.

The idea behind the Prospect League is to give elite college baseball players — potential major leaguers — their first chance to compete under professional baseball rules, which require using wooden bats instead of aluminum.

Since the league’s players must maintain college eligibility, none of the players are paid. But they are treated to a summer of games and bus rides and a real taste of what life as a minor leaguer is like.

“These are some of the top pro prospects from across the nation,” says Knights general manager Josh Hayes, who is just 23 years old himself. “The goal is to give these college players with the ability to play at the pro level an extra bit of training and experience.”

The Knights will play 30 home games at the 1,300-seat Pipe Yard, beginning with the home opener June 6 and concluding Aug. 6, giving players ample time to return to school for fall classes.

The Prospect League attracts some of the nation’s top young baseball talent. It’s an expansion of the former Central Illinois Collegiate League, consisting of 11 teams that span from western Pennsylvania to St. Louis. Former CICL players include Yankees manager Joe Girardi, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, the late Twins Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett and current Phillies slugger Ryan Howard.

“You’re playing with some of these kids from all different parts of the U.S., and you realize no matter where you’re from, you can compete,” says Cleveland Indians utility infielder Jamey Carroll, who also played in the CICL. “I thought it was a great opportunity to see what baseball is really like with wood bats, because it’s a lot different than the aluminum we were used to. But the main thing I remember was just being on your own and playing baseball, living with a bunch of guys and getting that taste of what life in baseball is all about.”

Though sometimes overshadowed by the new Frontier League team, the talent level at The Pipe Yard this summer will be high. Hayes should know — his career ended when a team in the Frontier League released him.

“These are more of the up-and-coming future players of baseball,” Hayes says of the Prospect League. “The Frontier League is pro baseball players trying to hang on. I can say that because I was one of those guys. I was just trying to hang on for a little while.”

Some Frontier Leaguers do revive their careers and ascend to the majors (see main story). The contrast between the two leagues is a matter of a few years: the Prospect League is for slightly younger players full of untested potential.

The Knights’ roster, already set, includes at least six players from teams ranked in the top 40 during the college baseball season. Two of them, outfielder Greg Zebrack and shortstop Kirk Singer, were drafted out of high school, but instead chose college.

As with the Frontier League, most of these players won’t be around for more than a year or two. But by latching on to the college players early and leaving a strong impression, Hayes is hoping those with eligibility remaining will return the following summer.

“We’re trying to lock in younger guys for team-building,” he says. “It’s nice to lock in a guy today and treat him well, and he might be with you for the next two or three years.

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