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Official: Northwoods League could mean the end of State Amateur in Mitchell

Fans watch the action during the first game of the 85th annual South Dakota State Amateur Baseball Tournament between Winner/Colome and Dell Rapids PBR on Wednesday night at Cadwell Park in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Enjoy the South Dakota State Amateur Baseball Tournament in Mitchell while it lasts.

At the tail end of four consecutive amateur tournaments at Cadwell Park, tournament director Jim Johnston sees a threat to the tournament’s ability to remain in Mitchell on the horizon.

“As for me personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable being on a committee that hosts this tournament if we were competing for a crowd 100 feet across the parking lot,” Johnston said.

For reasons ranging from advertising conflicts to concerns over field maintenance, Johnston sees the Northwoods League (NWL) as a possible competitor that would bring high-quality college players from around the nation to Mitchell at the expense of the Mitchell Baseball Association that helped build the city’s strong baseball culture.

Earlier this year, the Mitchell Parks and Recreation Board approved an option agreement with the wood-bat baseball league, a plan that would allow the league the right to play at the Cadwell Sports Complex’s Drake Field if a lease agreement can be approved.

And while Johnston was initially surprised about the possibility of top-tier baseball talent gracing Drake Field from May to August, the passage of time provided an opportunity to realize possible issues that could arise with the Northwoods League, Mitchell Baseball, Dakota Wesleyan University and the amateur tournament all competing for fans and practice time at the Cadwell complex.

Johnston has served as a driving force behind the State Amateur Baseball Tournament’s success in Mitchell, but he said he wouldn’t bid for the event if Northwoods was playing at Cadwell Park’s neighbor to the west.

“If the Northwoods League came here and they would not agree not to play in August, then I think there’s a very good chance the amateur tournament would leave Mitchell,” Johnston said.

Nothing is set in stone with the Northwoods League and some of Johnston’s concerns can be rectified, said Mitchell Parks and Recreation Director Nathan Powell. But in the eyes of Johnston, the city might have to choose between watching the Mankato Moondogs and Kenosha Kingfish of the Northwoods League or the Alexandria Angels and Dimock/Emery Raptors in the amateur tournament.

But with respect to Mitchell Baseball, Powell said folks questioning the Northwoods proposal are “putting the cart before the horse.”

With no lease agreement set for the Northwoods League’s use of Drake Field, Powell said there’s time to work out the kinks with all stakeholders. And that’s if the Northwoods League decides to come to Mitchell, which remains uncertain.

Powell also pointed to the decision not to allow Northwoods the right to play at Cadwell Park — the crown jewel of the complex that serves as home to the amateur tournament — as the city’s initial effort to put local baseball on a higher pedestal than the Northwoods League.

“The state amateur (tournament) is a priority,” Powell said. “It was a priority, that’s why when they asked for Cadwell, we said, ‘No, they can’t have it.’ That was the main reason we almost lost Northwoods League, because we were focused on making sure Mitchell Baseball and the state amateur tournament would be a priority, and it’s been a priority since day one.”

An attempt to contact Northwoods League Chairman Dick Radatz Jr. was not successful, although he recently expressed optimism about the option of expanding to Mitchell in a recent episode of Northwoods League Now, which airs on Fox Sports North.

If the future of Cadwell came down to the Northwoods League or the amateur tournament, Mitchell City Councilman and Sports & Events Authority member Jeff Smith knows which side he’d come down on.

“If I had to pick between the two, I still would like to host the South Dakota Amateur Tournament, because we just get great crowds and we’ve got a great facility,” Smith said last week.

Major concerns

A baseball man through and through, Johnston was initially taken aback when he heard the Northwoods League was interested in Mitchell.

With 63 alumni currently in the majors as of July 24 — from MLB superstars Max Scherzer and Chris Sale to up-and-comers like Minnesota Twins outfielder Zack Granite — Johnston is aware of the caliber of talent the league could bring to south-central South Dakota.

“The Northwoods League is a big, big deal,” Johnston said. “I mean, there’s college wood-bat leagues around the country, but there’s none better than the Northwoods League.”

But the league’s interest in Mitchell, a town featuring a population of approximately 15,000 people, surprised Johnston.

If the league decides to make Mitchell its next home, current NWL teams in Willmar and Mankato sit about 225 miles away in Minnesota, and most boast populations greatly exceeding that of Davison County. Considering the size of the Mitchell community, Johnston questioned if the city could support the league.

“The way I look at it now is I think it would be exciting to have them in town, but I don’t think the realities of Cadwell Park make it possible for them to be here,” Johnston said.

And Smith acknowledged that Johnston’s concerns are valid.

“There’s some concern about the amount of activity that’s already out there and how it’s going to wear and tear on (Drake) field, and I think that should be taken into consideration,” Smith said.

Johnston wondered what kind of beating Drake Field would take if the NWL paid the city the proposed $10,000 annually it would provide to play up to 40 games at the complex.

Without a lease agreement in place, it’s unknown if the city or the Northwoods League would maintain Drake Field. A proposed lease agreement included in an April Parks and Recreation Board agenda, the lessee would “at their sole expense,” physically maintain and repair the property. But that same proposed agreement suggests the city of Mitchell would “provide supplemental manpower as required for daily maintenance and upkeep” of the field.

As far as the shared use of Drake Field, which is used by DWU and Mitchell Baseball when needed, the proposed agreement would mandate that “Users agree to engage in useful communication with the City and other athletic clubs to coordinate schedules and share use of the facilities.”

And Powell is optimistic those details could be ironed out before the city were to consider signing an agreement with the Northwoods League, noting the city wouldn’t leave local baseball organizations hanging out to dry.

“We don’t even have an agreement with Northwoods League at this point, and we would actually make sure that we addressed those concerns and issues when we do sign the agreement,” Powell said. “So it’s kind of the cart before the horse. We don’t know if they’re coming yet.”

Working toward solutions

Fortunately for Mitchell Baseball, the Parks and Recreation Department and the Northwoods League, the lease agreement has yet to be drawn, and the league has until Sept. 1 to determine whether it will play in Mitchell next year.

If the NWL decides 2018 will be its first year at the Cadwell complex, it won’t have to worry about competing with the State Amateur Baseball Tournament. The tournament won’t return to Mitchell until 2019, spending next summer at Augustana University’s Ronken Field in Sioux Falls.

With many questions remaining unanswered in the meantime, Johnston is hoping to get answers.

And if needed, Powell said there’s room at Cadwell to expand the city’s existing facilities.

“There’s room for another field, we have room for that field,” Powell said. “Northwoods League said they would invest and help us out in the facility if it needs upgrades, and one of those things might be actually working on getting another practice field out there.”

While Mitchell awaits the NWL’s call on whether the team will move forward with a plan to come to Mitchell, the amateur tournament will continue to roll along until the Aug. 13 championship game.

As for the tournament’s future in Mitchell, Johnston suggested it may be grim upon arrival of the Northwoods League.

“The (South Dakota Amateur Baseball) Association has expressed a concern about it,” Johnston said.