As baseball fans and Dodger enthusiasts, fanatics, maniacs, zealots or whatever mantra might apply to us, we spend the season following MLB and the minor leagues, especially the Dodger affiliates. We also pay some attention to high school ball and college ball, both of which wind up in June and are more of interest around the time of the First-Year Player Draft. However, there is another layer of baseball that does not garner as much attention. It is comprised of the many collegiate summer baseball leagues that span the nation.
According to Wikipedia there are over 60 collegiate leagues in the United States. Perhaps the best known and oldest is the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League while the most unique might be the Alaska Baseball League where they actually play the “Midnight Sun Game” without artificial light.
The more I follow minor league players, the more I note that many of them play in the summer collegiate leagues for one or more years. One league that has gained more and more prominence over the past decade – and is definitely one of my favorites – is the Northwoods League. It has emerged as one of the top collegiate leagues and one with a difference even though it will be celebrating just its 25th season in 2019. The teams are located in six different states – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, North Dakota- with the bulk of the teams in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Thunder Bay Border Cats are located in Ontario, Canada.
The Northwood League is the brain child of Dick Radatz Jr. who was the co-founder of the league back in 1994. He is the son of former Boston Red Sox pitcher Dick Radatz who struck out Mickey Mantle 12 times in Mick’s 16 at bats against the right-hander. The younger Radatz had his baseball aspirations crushed with an injury that broke his shoulder and collar bone.
Before his vision of a Northwoods League and following his completion of a Master’s Degree in Sports Administration from Ohio University, he worked as an Administrative Assistant for the Dodgers at historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. He then spent a few years in the lower levels of the Red Sox organization setting attendance records at virtually every one of his stops. A bit outspoken, Radatz parted ways with the Red Sox in 1992 and in 1994 the Northwoods League was born. He is still the chairman in the league office.
So, what is the difference in the Northwoods League? It is a wooden bat league but that does not make it different from a number of other collegiate leagues. The big difference is that the league has striven to simulate a professional minor league experience for its young players in which they have the opportunity to play under similar conditions experienced by minor league players.
“The primary reason is that they get to experience pitching in front of big crowds in minor league venues,” said Radatz. “They also get used to five-man rotations and long bus rides. All the things that are going to go on in a professional baseball player’s life, they experience here. We really feel like we’re the leader in the field. We play more games and play in better venues. Our experience is more closely related to that of entry-level minor leagues.”
Many of the teams play in ballparks formerly occupied by professional minor league teams from the Midwest, Prairie and Northern Leagues that couldn’t sustain a minor league franchise. The Northwoods League has tried to fill that void and has established improved stability while providing smaller communities with a high-quality product and good competitive baseball. As part of that commitment another definite difference is that although the players are not paid it is a for-profit league with paid staff, advertising, marketing and stadium improvement.
The Northwoods League has a 72-game schedule played in 76 days from late May until mid-August. There are now 21 teams in the league with a 22nd to be added in 2020. There are four divisions with a play-off structure not too dissimilar from the Class A Midwest League. There is also an annual All-Star Game with the 2019 game scheduled for July 16 in Waterloo, Iowa. The Major League Dreams Showcase– a showcase for players hand-selected by a panel of major league scouts–will take place at Madison’s Warner Park on Tuesday, August 6. Of the 163 players drafted with Northwoods experience in 2018, 40 of them had played in the Northwoods 2017 League Major League Dreams Showcase.
The Northwoods League has grown like no other collegiate league both in terms of the number of teams and, in its case, paid attendance. In its inaugural season in 1994 the league drew 69,000 fans. In 2014 the league attendance passed the 1,000,000 mark for the first time and is continuing to grow.
The league is continually trying to improve, expand its viewing audience and give its young players a better chance of being selected in the June Draft. In 2013 the Northwoods League celebrated its 20th Anniversary by becoming the first to have its own YouTube channel. This video tool allowed the League to show all game broadcasts – free of charge – to fans across the world along with nightly highlights of each game.
Another distinctive feature of the Northwoods League is that coaches and field managers are often those who have had minor league or even major league experiences as players or coaches.
As a sidelight with Dodger experience, Tyger Pederson – Joc’s older brother – was the manager of the Duluth Huskies in the Northwoods League during the 2018 season. He had been selected by the Dodgers in the 33rd round of the 2013 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He had one short season with the Arizona League Dodgers in 2013 before three years of independent ball before turning to coaching.
Pederson led the Huskies to an impressive record of 47-25. Their regular season success continued into the postseason as they earned a berth in the Northwoods League World Series losing the deciding game for the league championship by one run. Despite falling one win short of the ultimate prize, the impact of Tyger’s aggressive brand of baseball could not be understated. His one season at the helm saw the Huskies improve by 15 wins.
On January 18, the Huskies announced that Tyger Pederson had been offered a position with the St. Louis Cardinals. Too good to pass up, he accepted a position with the Palm Beach Cardinals to be their new hitting coach. The Cardinals play in the Advanced-A Florida State League.
To lengthen out the story, the hitting coach for the Duluth Huskies for the 2019 season is none other than Stu Pederson who signed on to work as his son’s underling. He too had been drafted by the Dodgers in the 9th round of the 1981 MLB June Amateur Draft out of University of Southern California.
The Duluth Huskies baseball club’s new hitting Coach, Stu Pederson, talked about his excitement in the upcoming season working with his son Head Coach Tyger Pederson. Stu reveals, “I couldn’t pass it up. I may never get this chance again” He was the hitting coach for the La Crosse Loggers of the Northwood League during the 2018 season and left to join the Huskies for the upcoming season. Fortunately for the son, he got the opportunity to further his coaching career with the Palm Beach Cardinals. Unfortunately for the father he missed out on the opportunity to form a father-son combo with the Duluth Huskies but undoubtedly was more than happy to see his son further his baseball coaching career.
In other Dodger connections, right-hander Tony Gonsolin got noticed in the Northwoods League by the Dodgers in 2015 and they selected him in the 9th round of the 2016 June Draft.
Apartial list of Dodger alumni from the Northwoods League includes: ScottAlexander, Austin Barnes, Andre Ethier, Rocky Gale, Hunter Feduccia, BrockStewart, Matt Beaty, Karch Kowalczyk, Alex Helmeting, Luke Rally, MarshallKasowski, Nick Yarnell, Brock Carpenter. Departed Corey Copping and Adam Braywere also both alumni from the Northwoods League.