BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – Four years after forming as a team and joining the Prospect League, the Kokomo Jackrabbits have announced that they will depart the league for the Northwoods League. While the Prospect League was a good launching point for the team, ROC Ventures, the teams ownership group in Milwaukee, considers the Northwoods League a better fit with better talent and more stability.
“We are definitely looking forward to facing a whole new spectrum of teams and talent,” said ROC Ventures CEO Mike Zimmerman in a written statement. “We’re grateful to the Prospect League for giving the Jackrabbits a great start, and the fantastic support we enjoy from the fans. This enthusiastic community has been integral to the success and growth of the team.”
The Northwoods League has been in existence since 1994 and will have 22 teams when the Jackrabbits and St. Croix (Wisconsin) River Hounds join next summer. The wood bat league utilizes players who must have NCAA eligibility remaining. The league’s mission statement is: Provide the finest environment for the development of collegiate baseball players; leverage technology to maximize the operational effectiveness of its affiliated teams; and enrich the quality of life in its member communities.
“It may well be one of the great success stories of American (and Canadian) baseball,” said Digitalballparks.com in a quote on the league website.
Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who was instrumental in bringing the Jackrabbits and Prospect League to Kokomo Municipal Stadium, said the move will be good for the local baseball market. The Northwoods League has nine teams in Wisconsin, five in Minnesota, two in Michigan and one each in Iowa, Illinois, North Dakota and Ontario, Canada.
“We are excited that the Northwoods League picked Kokomo as the latest expansion team,” said Goodnight in a press release. “The Jackrabbits have made a home here while playing exciting baseball. The opportunity to move up to a stronger league will give local fans a front row seat to a high caliber of play.”
Both the Prospect League and Northwoods League boast about the number of Major League Players they have produced – but the numbers show the Northwoods League may be the more significant of the two. Since 1963, the Prospect League has had more than 175 players make a Big League roster while the Northwoods League has had 185-plus players promoted to The Show in the last 24 seasons – including 91 since 2013.
When it comes to marquee players, the Northwoods League can call two of the current biggest names in baseball as alumnus: Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer and Boston Rex Sox hurler Chris Sale. Scherzer has earned three Cy Young Awards and is the reigning National League winner. Sale was the American League Cy Young runner-up. Sale and Scherzer faced each other as the starting pitchers in the 2017 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
“For me, it was a time where I really got to break out and shine,” Scherzer says of his time with the LaCrosse Loggers in a quote on the league website.
Other current MLB stars who once called the Northwoods Leauge home include World Series champions Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs and Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants, along with All-Stars Jordan Zimmermann (Detroit Tigers) and Curtis Granderson (Toronto Blue Jays).
The Northwoods League also draws more fans than most summer leagues, with four consecutive years of attendance topping one million. While the Prospect League drew an average of 1,132 per game last year, the Northwoods League averaged 1,657 – the Madison Mallards led the way with an average of 6,308 while the Thunder Bay Border Cats were last in the league at 762 per game. Last year, the Jackrabbits averaged 1,638 fans per game, which was third in the 10-team Prospect League and would have been fifth in the 20-team Northwoods League. The NL also has an All-Star Game, something the PL has eliminated in the last two seasons after Kokomo hosted the event in 2016.
Along with more teams, the Northwoods League plays 12 more games than the Jackrabbits currently play – 72 compared to 60. That means the 2018 NL regular season runs from May 29 through August 12, with an additional week of play for the postseason.
The Jackrabbits plan to take the field, presumably in the South Division of the Northwoods League, next summer. The squad is currently battling for a playoff position in its final year of play in the Prospect League after missing the playoffs a year ago.
Northwoods League North Division: Duluth Huskies, Bismarck Larks, Mankato MoonDogs, Willmar Stingers, St. Cloud Rox, Rochester Honkers, La Crosse Loggers, Eau Claire Express, Thunder Bay Border Cats, Waterloo Bucks.
Northwoods League South Division: Madison Mallards, Kalamazoo Growlers, Fond du Lac Dock Spiders, Rockford Rivets, Battle Creek Bombers, Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, Lakeshore Chinooks, Kenosha Kingfish, Green Bay Bullfrogs, Wisconsin Woodchucks.
For more on the Jackrabbits move to the Northwoods League, see the July 3 edition of the Sports Journal of Central Indiana. Request your free weekly digital subscription today at www.indianasportsjournal.com.