April 2012

Batter Up!

by Karen Boehler

Photo By Robert Bailey

Every spring, the sounds of "Play ball!" followed by the crack of the bat are heard around New Mexico. From sandlots to Little League fields to high school and college diamonds, baseball is alive and well in the Land of Enchantment.

But since 1961, the only place in the state to watch professional baseball was in Albuquerque, with the Dukes and Isotopes. All that changed in 2011 with the formation of the Pecos League of Professional Baseball, a six-team independent league that brings the American pastime to small—or at least medium—town New Mexico.

Golden Referral

Beginning in May 2011, six teams competed in the league: The White Sands (Alamogordo) Pupfish, Carlsbad Bats, Las Cruces Vaqueros, Roswell Invaders and Ruidoso Osos, as well as the Alpine (Texas) Cowboys.

The league was the brainchild of Houston businessman and player Andrew Dunn, who was convinced to start a team in the Continental Baseball League in Las Cruces in 2010. After a shortened 2010 season, the league folded after the championship was played on July 31. But Alpine fans—who had had teams in their city all the way back to 1947—didn't want to lose their team and persuaded Dunn a new league was the way to go.

Although it was a long shot—"Financially, you would definitely say it's not a sound decision, because the failure rates have been greater than the success rates, for sure, 100 percent sure," says Dunn. He spent more time on the road in New Mexico and west Texas than he did at home, scouting potential locations for the new league.

"Noting the potential success in Las Cruces, Roswell was picked as the second (New Mexico) city, per the advice of our main supporter in Las Cruces," Dunn says. "He said it would be golden."

That put three teams in the league, and after considering Bisbee, Ariz., and Clovis, Dunn chose Ruidoso and Alamogordo as the fourth and fifth sites. Having trouble finding a sixth team that met all Dunn's requirements—mainly a professional-quality stadium with lights and the ability to sell beer—he decided to place a traveling team—no home stadium—in Carlsbad. And the Pecos League was born.

A League is Born

"We had a good plan and we had some good markets and we really felt like we could make something work," says league Manager of the Year Chris Paterson. "There was a very untapped market there in New Mexico, with only one (pro) baseball team in the entire state. We had a lot of states to choose from and we thought we had a good market to tap into." For the most part, they did.

Although the success rate varied from city to city, the league will open its second season May 8 with the league's newest teams, the Santa Fe Fuego and Trinidad (Colorado) Triggers, facing off just north of the border.

Carlsbad's travel team fell victim to not having a home stadium, and despite a rabid fan base, Ruidoso didn't have lights or beer, so despite playing for the league championship in 2011—against Roswell—the Osos were disbanded.

But with six solid teams and one year's worth of experience, both Dunn and Paterson believe the quality of baseball will only get better this year. "It's even better with Santa Fe and Trinidad," Dunn says. "We're actually going to have six equal-footed teams."

"Definitely," Paterson agrees. "I think this year it will only get better because those people in those towns will have a year under their belt. They'll know what to expect and stuff like that. Also, the people in town that worked for the teams, they'll have a year experience as well, so I think that's something they can really gain off of this year."

A Big Step Up

"Now, you may be wondering, if this is professional baseball—and it is—what major league teams are they aligned with?

The answer is: none. The Pecos League is independent baseball, the lowest level of pro ball but pro nonetheless.

"It's professional all the way," Dunn says. "Guys are paid $400 a month. They're paid. They're trying to move up and the difference between them and the (formerly Class A El Paso) Diablos is not much."

Moving up is the key for these players. For the most part, they're former college players who weren't drafted and still have hopes of making the big leagues. So the quality of play is generally a step up from college ball, sometimes a big step up. So far, 65 players—and one front office staffer—from last year's teams have moved up to higher levels of baseball.

But unlike major and even minor league ball, these players are accessible to their fans.

Since their paychecks aren't very big, the Pecos League houses its players with families in the cities they play in.

Host Families

These host families can choose to house one or more players for the season, and most make lifelong friendships.

"It was a really neat experience," says Barbara McLean, who, with her husband Don, hosted several Roswell Invaders. "We got to know all the players. We housed two at one time; up to four at one time. Great bunch of guys. Good experience. I would recommend it to anybody."

And teams in each of the six cities are currently looking for host families for the new season. "I would definitely encourage them, but just know that you can take it to whatever level you want to," McLean says. "You can provide as much laundry services, food, whatever you want to do, but they don't really expect it. It does take a lot of time. It is a four-month commitment."

But one that most host families wouldn't trade for anything.

The All-Star Game

Players, of course, aren't home all the time as the season is 70 games long, divided between road and home. The Pecos League also has an All-Star Game—this year set for July 8 in Alamogordo—and a playoff, in which the top four teams advance and vie for the league title.

Last year, the Roswell Invaders won that title in a tough three-game series that came down to the wire. Paterson managed the Invaders to the title, but has moved on to Alamogordo, where he's now the manager of the Pupfish. But ask anyone—even those folks with teams they're rooting for—and they'll say this year should be a lot more competitive.

"I think it's going to be a lot harder to win the championship this year," Paterson says. "I think the teams are going to be a lot more evenly distributed, I guess, talent-wise. Obviously, the only reason I would be doing this is if I thought I would be successful at winning a championship wherever I would be at, but I think that Alpine is another strong contender, like always, and I wouldn't be surprised if Alpine and White Sands aren't there at the end of the year."

Future Goals

And while the managers and fans are just looking at one year at a time, Dunn is looking further ahead. His goals?

"Eight teams, with a team in the following season in Los Alamos, Taos, Durango, Pueblo West, Silver City, and Pecos, Texas. And making sure these teams survive. We know we're going to be in Las Cruces, Roswell and Alamogordo for sure. No doubt. That's a permanent fixture. Alpine is welcome to stay as long as they want to stay. Those are four permanent fixtures in the south."

Play Ball

No matter where you live in New Mexico, the sound of professional "Play ball," could be headed your way.

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