Indiana State has 20 home baseball dates at Bob Warn Field before the Terre Haute Rex can begin the 2015 season at Sycamore Stadium.
The May 27 opener for Terre Haute will be against some fresh blood that could invigorate the Prospect League. Owned by Mike Zimmerman's MKE Sports and Entertainment, based in Milwaukee, the Kokomo Jackrabbits will open life in the league in Terre Haute.
The Prospect League's new commissioner, Bryan Wickline, is thrilled about the addition. Zimmerman is also owner of the Jamestown (New York) Jammers, which is the new home of the Lorain County Ironmen.
“We have an opportunity to have a $14 million facility in our league. It's a good market. It's a baseball town. Looking forward to many many years in Kokomo,” said Wickline, who was a founding member of the Prospect League, which merged with the historic Central Illinois Collegiate League in 2009.
Jamestown, N.Y., is an eight-hour drive from Terre Haute, but that's a bus trip the Rex will make just once during the 50-game season. The Jamestown Jammers will be a part of the East Division.
Jamestown has a place in baseball history as a member of the Class A New York-Penn League up until 2014.
“Jamestown's unique because they had Single-A ball there forever. There were seven other leagues, including professional, trying to get into Jamestown. Fortunately, the Prospect League was able to get that opportunity,” Wickline said.
With Rex owner/general manager Bruce Rosselli and the Rex ownership group, Wabash Valley Baseball LLC, playing a prominent role, the Prospect League is in a strong position moving forward.
“We have never been as solid as we are today,” Wickline said.
Rosselli stepping up
Rosselli has not only spent the off-season working with on-field manager Bobby Segal to put together the 2015 roster, but he's been working to improve the league as a whole.
As a former member of the U.S. bobsled team, Rosselli used his contacts with adidas to form a partnership with the national brand that should put the entire league in adidas gear during the next five years. Rosselli, nominated to represent the West Division ownership, expects adidas to be a “springboard” to gaining more national sponsors, and even local ones.
The Prospect League logo will be included in the adidas 2015 team catalog, as the league looks to continue to build its reputation among college programs around the United States.
“When college kids have come to become accustomed to the adidas brand and the cool brands they're doing these days,” Wickline said. “It adds a little bit of legitimacy. They're the first one but they're not going to be the last one.”
Wickline and the rest of the Prospect League ownership wants to continue to expand the league and increase the caliber of play as years pass.
“Bryan's been talking to new teams about expanding our footprint. We want to be just called one of the top three in the nation if we can get there,” Rosselli said.
Growing the league's talent
Attracting better pro prospects from throughout the college ranks is a process that begins by building trust with the college coaches who have a big say in where their players end up spending the summer.
“If they want a guy to only go five innings or 80 pitches, respect their wishes,” Rosselli said. “One of the things we have and we need to keep educating our coaches [about is] we don't cut a player because of bad play. Some leagues are cutthroat. They'll cut you and you're gone.”
Wickline said the feedback he and the ownership groups are receiving is overwhelmingly positive.
“Our league has a tremendous reputation, even though we've been playing since 2009,” Wickline said. “Guys go back and talk to their college coaches. I feel very, very confident, as far as where we're at, as far as our niche in baseball. We treat our kids right, and we have talent. We have more D-Is, now than we have ever had. The coaches know we don't play too many games, don't wear the pitchers out.”
Several of the Prospect League franchises have former players who have reached the major leagues — Ryan Howard and Jonathan Papplebon being two of the most well-known. More are sure to come, as 88 former Prospect League players have signed professional contracts in the past two years.
Expanding league geography
Wickline is actively researching new markets into which to expand the Prospect League. While the league now spans from the Mississippi River (Quincy, Ill.) to close to Lake Erie (Jamestown, N.Y.), travel time is not an issue, Wickline said.
For one, spending long hours on a bus will be a part of reality as these collegiate prospects graduate to minor-league prospects.
“We run our league like a professional league. They get charter bus rides. They play two, three games in a row. That's what prepares these kids for the next level. "This is what it's going to be like, guys, and we're helping you prepare for that.'”
Wickline could see moving to three divisions if expansion unfolds as he envisions it.
“We are going to look to grow. We have a lot of interest in the East and in the West. We don't have a magic number [of teams] we want to get to. We don't want to expand for the sake of expanding. First thing you need is a facility, second is a market and third is an ownership group,” Wickline said. “We are going to grow next year. We'll grow into 2016 and 2017. At some point, it makes sense to get to three divisions. Right now, we're looking to see what fits. Does it fit in the East, does it fit in the West?”
A quality stadium is paramount as the league has as strong a group of stadiums as any summer collegiate league in the nation, Wickline said.
“I'll put our 12 stadiums up against anybody. Our stadiums are top notch at our level. The facilities we get to play in provide the atmosphere and environment for our players that will help prepare them to play at the next level,” Wickline said.
Focus on the fans
Across 176 teams, more than 41 million fans attended minor-league baseball games in 2014 for a record 10th straight season, according to milb.com.
Summer collegiate league teams look to provide similar experiences to minor-league stadiums, and the Prospect League hopes to see its attendance numbers swell.
“We run our teams no different than a minor league team. We do all those promotions. You're not going to tell the difference on the field. When you come in the ballpark, nine out of 10 people don't remember the final score, but they remember if Johnny and little Sue had a smile on their face and had a good time,” Wickline said. “It's dinner theater. It's relax and watch nine innings of baseball. Put your smart phone away for three hours and have fun.”
Terre Haute Rex fans were kept up to date with fresh promotions in 2014 under the new guidance with Rosselli at the helm. The Rex GM will try to keep more new things coming in 2015 in a goal to attract more fans from all around the Wabash Valley.
“That's what it's all about. It's keeping people entertained through the summer,” Rosselli said.
The Rex had record attendance days of more than 2,200, but the attendance average has room to grow.
“If we can bring in 2,000 on a night, why can't we do 1,600 on an average night?” Rosselli said.
Wickline said fan support is important to the players.
“When you go as a fan to a ballpark, there's something going on. It's more important to the players. When they're playing in front of a packed house, it makes them feel pretty good. They throw a little harder, run a little harder. When you go, it's a big social event,” Wickline said.
With a brand-new set to be finished – possibly despite some issues regarding FEMA and part of the stadium site being located on a flood plain, according to Kokomo Tribune reports – Kokomo's team could be a big boost to the Prospect League.
The Jackrabbits' website has promotions planned such as a “Throwback to the 50s homestand,” a “Mini-State Fair” weekend as well as a “Beer Garden Tour” weekend. An in-state rival could be good for the Rex.
Wickline has the league going in the right direction, and he's definitely happy to have the Rex on board.
“Having the group we have there now is first class. I have no doubt, we don't have anything to worry about in Terre Haute, Indiana. They have a first-class facility, teaming up with ISU, that's immeasurable. Terre Haute is one of the teams that's at the top of the class,” Wickline said.