ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — A couple of California college kids who came north for a nonstop summer of baseball relaxed in the shaded grandstand one bright afternoon, before the gates opened and the Rochester Honkers hosted the Mankato MoonDogs.
The two teams had just played a lunch-time game in Mankato and bused 80-some-miles across the flat farmland of south-central Minnesota to Rochester for the second half of this dual-city doubleheader, part of the 72-games-in-76-days schedule in the flourishing, fostering Northwoods League.
"There's nothing I'd rather be doing than be out here," said Casey Worden, a senior-to-be at UC Riverside who homered in the first game that day for the Honkers.
The teammates marveled at the abundance of green grass around the five-state, one-province footprint of the league. They missed seeing the mountains but not the smoggy sky.
"And there's actually stars at night," said Mark Contreras, another UC Riverside rising senior.
Future stars aren't hard to find on the field, either.
With Curtis Granderson, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer among the alumni, the Northwoods League has served as a meaningful stepping stone for many a college player to a professional career over two-plus decades. The reach of this 18-teams-and-growing league designed to simulate the minor league grind has only increased.
"I enjoy playing the game. It's a muse to me," Contreras said. "If the draft does happen for me, then I have that confidence I've lasted that many games and can do it here."
The Northwoods League founders weren't sure how long it would last past its 1994 inception. Dick Radatz Jr., a former college player with operational and promotional experience in the minor leagues and with major league spring training in Florida, needed a job and wanted to stay in the sport. So he helped spawn the league with a $25,000 down payment that drained his savings. There were five teams then, two of which remain in operation in their original city.
"A little bit of inspiration and a little bit of desperation," Radatz said. "In the early years we were robbing Peter to pay Paul. If you had a good night in Wausau you had to get that money down to Dubuque to pay those bills."
With a shorter season than the minors, the Northwoods League had fewer bad-weather nights on which to sell tickets. Games were affordable for families, and some teams created all-inclusive party decks to keep 20-somethings coming. The first alumnus to reach the majors, Jeff Weaver, debuted in 1999 for the Detroit Tigers.
The for-profit model, with 5 percent of team revenues redirected to the league, fueled investment in innovation like an in-house webcast on track to feature four high-definition cameras at every site by next year. So many season subscriptions were sold that Google and YouTube started asking the league questions about its success. This year brought three-man umpire crews.
Now the new-franchise fee is $1 million. League-wide attendance this summer entering the weekend was 1,597 per game, with a league-high average of 5,681 fans flocking to see the Madison Mallards. Next year could bring one to four expansion teams. The number of all-time alumni to reach the majors rose this month to 153 , with more than half since 2011 and 56 active this season.
"This is the best competition I've seen my entire life," said MoonDogs All-Star Jordan Kozicky, a Minneapolis native who redshirted his freshman year at Minnesota.
Current college enrollment is the only prerequisite for participation, with clubs recruiting players through connections at various NCAA programs. Strict rules protect pitchers, such as five days of rest required after appearances of 100-plus pitches. Relievers can't pitch on consecutive days.
Gracious hosts house and feed the players when they're in town.
"It's truly like a second family. They treat you like one of their own," Worden said.
Travel is an integral part of the experience. The North Division stretches 500-plus miles from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to Waterloo, Iowa. The eight teams in Wisconsin have a long way to go around the lake to get to Battle Creek or Kalamazoo in Michigan. Yes, that's a lot of napping. It's also time for players from different regions to bond over pizza or Mafia, the group strategy game that gets top billing on the MoonDogs bus.
"Anything that's this compacted is going to bring the best out of you," Honkers pitching coach Demetre Kokoris said. "The more adversity, the better. The more games you play, the more scenarios that come up. I'm a firm believer that the more challenging you can make things, the better off it is."
The Cape Cod League, with 292 alumni playing in the majors in 2015 alone, has long been the amateur-league summer standard for pro prospects. It has 10 teams no more than an hour apart playing a 44-game schedule. Naturally, the Northwoods Leaguers are proud of their bus miles and game logs.
"I just focus on trying to get better every day and playing the game hard because you love it," said MoonDogs All-Star Jake Shepski, a Chicago-area native playing at Notre Dame who entered the weekend with a league-best .384 batting average and ranked in the top five in homers and RBIs. "Then I think everything will just work out the way it's supposed to."