It seemed an audacious idea: minor league baseball without a lifeline to a single, “parent” major league team. When the first Atlantic League (ALPB) game was played on May 20, 1998, at the “Sandcastle” in Atlantic City, New Jersey, much of the baseball establishment was skeptical. Suffice it to say, they are skeptical no more. That game between the Atlantic City Surf and the Somerset Patriots launched an astounding 22-year American success story – not just a sports success story, but also an entrepreneurial one.
The newly founded six-team “independent” league had come to fruition three years after founder Frank Boulton was looking to move one of his minor league teams to the Long Island area. During that time, he began to see a shift in the baseball industry.
“The need for our league was really twofold,” said Boulton. “There was a need on the players’ side that still had the skills to play at a very high level but were pushed out of major league organizations, usually because of their age. At the same time, there was a growing number of cities looking to provide baseball to their communities that were told ‘no’ by Major League Baseball because of territorial rights from minor league teams many miles away that didn’t really serve their market. After reviewing the opportunities on both fronts, we decided to give it a go.”
It was a twist on the old cliché – in this case, if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em. That spirit came full circle earlier this year when the ALPB signed a landmark agreement with Major League Baseball to be a testbed of baseball innovation. While Atlantic League players had been getting signed by Major league teams for many years, the agreement marked a final acknowledgement by the baseball establishment that the Atlantic League is the premiere non-affiliated league and operates with a level of professionalism and legitimacy equal to the affiliated system.
In The Beginning
From the start, Boulton modeled the Atlantic League to be at a Double-A/Triple-A level of play on the field, with ballparks that were comparable to Double-A sized facilities. He also focused on bringing in veteran players, including former major leaguers, to set the Atlantic League apart from other independent leagues forming around the country.
Surrounding himself with baseball veterans instantly gave legitimacy to the fledgling league. Baseball operations were developed by respected baseball veterans, led by Executive Director Joe Klein, a former General Manager for the Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers, and Cleveland Indians who passed away in 2017.
“When I was the GM of the Tigers, I was also on the Baseball Operations Committee for Major League Baseball,” said Klein for a 2016 article on the league. “As a whole in the player development system, we were approaching the problem of adequate talented players to fill roles when guys got hurt. The depth in organizations wasn’t good. If guys weren’t staying in shape by playing at a high level somewhere, they had a much higher chance of coming in and getting hurt. Our league gave players a place to go and allowed Major League Baseball to keep an eye on them for when opportunities became available.”
From the beginning, championship-caliber names brought attention to the brand. New York Yankees legend Sparky Lyle was the first manager of the Somerset Patriots. Team Chairman Steve Kalafer, a founding member of the board of directors of the league, brought Lyle into the fold when the former “Bronx Bomber” was looking to buy a Ford F-150. Lyle not only left with the truck from Flemington Car & Truck Country but also got a life-long contract to manage Kalafer’s team.
Lyle was joined by fellow Major Leaguers Willie Upshaw (Bridgeport Bluefish) and Wayne Krenchicki (Newburgh Black Diamonds) as managers in 1998. The owner of the Newark Bears, Rick Cerone, was also well known for his time in pinstripes. Through the years, Mitch Williams, Tommy John, Von Hayes, Bill Madlock, Tommy Herr, Butch Hobson, Chris Hoiles, Andy Etchebarren, and Darrell Evans served in managerial roles.
The Long Island Ducks entered the league in 2000 and brought with them an owner/manager that was perfect for their market. Bud Harrelson, a World Series Champion player and coach with the New York Mets, continued to show the Atlantic League was for real.
Through expansions a few years later, Hall of Famer and 16-time Gold Glove winner Brooks Robinson entered the league as an owner of the Lancaster Barnstormers and York Revolution (2005 and 2007, respectively). Robinson was also involved in the founding of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs (2008).
When the Sugar Land Skeeters joined in 2012, they added their manager, Gary Gaetti, a two-time All-Star and World Series Champion, to the Atlantic League’s roster of major league stars, and the 2019 High Point Rockers feature three-time MLB All-Star Frank Viola as their pitching coach.
A Developing Major League Baseball Relationship
The Atlantic League offers an open classification of play, the highest level of professional baseball other than Major League Baseball. Players are highly experienced professionals, having progressed through baseball developmental levels (A, AA, AAA), with over 40% having prior MLB service. As a result, Major League organizations have developed an increasing interest in the league as a source for mature talent.
In its first 21 seasons of play, more than 900 of the league's players have signed contracts with big league organizations, and more than 130 players have been promoted to Major League Baseball. In fact, at one point in 2018 there were 21 former ALPB players in the major leagues. Over 100 former Atlantic League players and coaches are managers or coaches in MLB organizations. A number of those players, including Scott Kazmir and Rich Hill, have played significant roles on Major League clubs after first playing in the league, including appearing in World Series games.
At the same time, the Atlantic League has been at the forefront of positioning the game of baseball for the next generation. The league, for example, was a pioneer in experimenting with speeding up the pace of play, beginning in 2016 – before Major League Baseball undertook “official” initiatives to do so.
And Major League Baseball has taken notice. In another example, the Atlantic League was the first to eliminate the four pitch intentional walk – a change later adopted by Major League Baseball.
After years of the ALPB producing significant talent for major league organizations and blazing a trail for next-generation baseball, it was no surprise that the Commissioner of Major League Baseball recognized the ALPB’s role in 2016, when the league became the first independent professional league to sign a working agreement with Major League Baseball. The signed formal agreement with Major League Baseball put into writing the rules the Atlantic League would follow in selling its players' contracts to MLB clubs.
More Than Just Baseball
In its 22nd season, the Atlantic League prides itself on creating fun and affordable family entertainment. Since the league's inception, more than 40,000,000 fans have attended Atlantic League games in the league's state-of-the-art ballparks. And a look around the league shows an enormous array of celebrity appearances, youth baseball events, community celebrations, college tournaments, food and beer festivals, and more. The league’s ballparks have become the hubs of their communities.
All Atlantic League teams are also now locally owned in their markets. The committed entrepreneurs who back them do so not just for a bottom-line return, but because they understand how community-focused professional baseball contributes to the quality of life in their communities.
The Next Frontier
The next frontier for the league arrived in 2019 through a groundbreaking new Major League Baseball partnership, one that made the Atlantic League a proving ground for the future of MLB, and a contributor to the data collection and statistical packages used by all affiliated Minor League clubs. While the baseball industry had always known of the growing stature and maturity of the Atlantic League, millions of baseball fans outside of the league’s markets suddenly knew of the league’s stature and success.
“We are excited to announce this new partnership with the Atlantic League,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s Senior Vice President, League Economics & Operations.
“The Atlantic League prides itself on innovation,” Atlantic League President Rick White said. “In that spirit, our board of directors, led by Chairman and Founder Frank Boulton, enthusiastically and unanimously approved this forward-looking agreement.”
The Atlantic League is also the only professional baseball league in an active expansion mode, with the Rockers becoming the newest member this season.
“The 40,000,000 plus fans shows that the league has a proven track record,” Boulton added. “The goal is always to make the league better and stronger. We have to continue to do what we’ve been doing and have it work for everybody. We need smart growth in terms of expansion. Eight teams works, but I think 12 would also be a great number.”
That spirit of forward motion is what has defined the Atlantic League from the start – and no doubt will ensure its success well into the future.