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Northwoods League eyes Mitchell for expansion

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A map of the current franchises in the Northwoods League in 2017. (Northwoods League graphic)2 / 2

More summer nights of baseball and beer may be in order for Mitchell.

The Northwoods League, the wood-bat summer league for collegiate players with dreams of playing in the majors, is in the process of pursuing an affiliate franchise in Mitchell, Northwoods League Chairman Dick Radatz Jr. told The Daily Republic on Friday.

The league will have a proposal in front of the Mitchell Parks and Recreation Board on Thursday to use Drake Field for up to 40 games during the 2018 season and for exclusive concession and signage rights at the field. The league and its limited liability company for a Mitchell franchise — Mitchell Baseball LLC — is offering the city $10,000 to play at Drake Field for a season of play, contingent on a license to sell beer during games.

The proposal, which will be considered at 4 p.m. Thursday at the board's regular meeting, also includes an option agreement. In that case, the league will pay the city $1,000 each year it does not play in Mitchell and will decide on Sept. 1 whether they will play at Drake Field for the next season.

Once the franchise starts playing in Mitchell, it would make a minimum five-year commitment to play Drake Field.

Radatz said the league — which already has 20 teams spanning from North Dakota to Michigan and from Iowa to Ontario, Canada — intends to expand in multiples of two. On Thursday, the Northwoods League's board of directors unanimously approved Huron for affiliate status, which would likely be Mitchell's partner in joining the league.

"I would say that I'm hopeful," Radatz said of Mitchell's prospects. "It's a strong baseball area and you can see that just by being in the community for a short time. I know we're very interested in Mitchell and the comment we've made is that it's a community that seems to be bigger than it really is in size."

The move comes as the Northwoods League starts its westward expansion. The league is adding the Bismarck Larks in North Dakota for the 2017 season and is looking to add franchises that complement its expansion to the Dakotas.

"Right now, Bismarck is on an island. So adding teams out west would make it easier and would make travel more convenient for our teams," Radatz said. "I would expect that we're going to be talking to more cities in North Dakota and South Dakota and further west."

A possible franchise would play at Drake Field in part because the Mitchell Parks and Recreation Department could not assure Cadwell Park be available for a summer's worth of games. Department Director Nathan Powell said the Northwoods League wanted exclusivity at Cadwell, something it couldn't assure with the number of teams that use the facility.

"I didn't want to take that away from Mitchell baseball," Powell said, adding that Mitchell's youth programs use Cadwell Park's concessions and signage opportunities to raise funds throughout the year.

Radatz said in scouting Mitchell as a possible site, he was impressed with the two ballparks on one site at the Cadwell Sports Complex. He's not deterred by the idea of improving Drake Field for a new franchise.

"The comment I would make is that we've started with a lot less," he said. "The fact that Cadwell is in the situation it is with the current users makes it unavailable, but Drake solves that problem."

Radatz said the league "has a lot of irons in the fire" regarding expansion with cities in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well, which is why the option agreement is in place. If approved, Mitchell's franchise would have an ownership group, which Radatz said he would prefer to be local but is not a requirement.

Of the current NWL teams, the Mankato Moondogs and the Willmar Stingers are the closest franchise to Mitchell at roughly 225 miles. Mitchell would be among the smallest markets in Northwoods League but that's not something that worries Radatz, who compared Mitchell to Willmar's team, which has been in existence since 2010. The city has about 19,000 residents.

The league was the home to current big-league stars Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and Curtis Granderson and more than 100 other current and former major league players. It's also known for being a realistic test for college players to taste professional baseball. In 2017, the teams will play 72 games in 77 days, making most of those trips from city to city by bus. Players, who are not paid to play, generally stay with host families while they're on the team for the summer.

"I think it would bring in some tourism dollars to our community," Powell said. "It would be a higher caliber of baseball in Mitchell that we currently don't have, and I think a team coming to town would be a benefit to our parks and community."

Radatz made a comparison to the Sioux Falls Canaries in the atmosphere fans could expect at the ballpark.

"We're very similar but that doesn't mean they're less talented," Radatz said, comparing his league to the independent American Association. "We've got the mascots and the music. We've always said 'Let's market to the kids and they'll bring along the parents.' "

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