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March 23, 2007

Newberg Report Special: The Texas League

Frisco’s minor-league history is brief but rooted in one of baseball’s most storied leagues.

The Texas League was founded in 1888 but lasted only three years. Resurrected twelve years later as a Class D circuit, it slowly moved up the food chain until achieving AA status in 1946. Except for the years of World War II, the league has operated continuously since 1902. It has two divisions of four teams each, and teams play a 140-game schedule. The first and second-half winners in each division meet in a best-of-five series, and the victors play another best-of-five for the championship.

To date, 26 Hall-of-Famers have played in the Texas League. In 1931, it featured Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick and Hank Greenberg. Both Brooks Robinson and Willie McCovey played in 1957, and Joe Morgan faced off against Steve Carlton in 1964.

27 cities in Texas and 12 in other states have hosted Texas League teams over the years. Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston were longtime members before Major League Baseball came to Texas. San Antonio has the longest continuous presence in the league, having joined in 1907. Arlington debuted in 1965 as the Dallas/Fort Worth Spurs, and the team affiliated with the Cubs, Astros and Orioles during its seven-year tenure. The Spurs played in Turnpike Stadium, which was expanded and renamed Arlington Stadium when the Rangers arrived in 1972.

In 2001, Tom Hicks’s Southwest Sports Group became part-owner of Mandalay Entertainment’s Shreveport Captains. After two very lame-duck seasons as the Swamp Dragons, the team relocated to Frisco and debuted in the newly constructed Dr Pepper / Seven Up Ballpark on April 3, 2003. Frisco’s entry terminated Shreveport’s 35-year association with the league and a 26-year relationship between Texas and the Tulsa Drillers.

Fans in Frisco and the surrounding area showed up in astonishing numbers. In their inaugural season, the Roughriders ranked fifth in attendance among all minor-league teams with 9,264 per game. Round Rock’s advancement to AAA in 2005 bequeathed to Frisco the honor of highest attendance among AA teams during the past two years.

Ownership and Cadbury Schweppes, makers of Dr Pepper and Seven Up, agreed to shorten the park’s name to Dr Pepper Ballpark in 2006. Per Jim Trebilock, senior veep of marketing and brand management: “Renaming the stadium reinforces the Dr Pepper brand’s iconic status in the Dallas/Fort Worth market and aligns more closely with a strategy that has long tied Dr Pepper to sporting venues and events.? He could have just said “The old name was too long,? but it’s all good.

Nothing against its residents, but when I heard that Frisco would host a AA team I was dumbstruck. When I moved out of the D/FW area in 1986, Frisco seemed no more likely to claim a professional baseball team than Alvarado or Decatur. As I learned, it’s grown a bit since then:

1980 – 3,500 residents
1990 – 6,100
2000 – 33,700
2005 – 71,000

Frisco’s population has increased at an annualized rate of 17.7% during the past 25 years. The city planning department suggests a population of over 90,000 as of September 2006 and 275,000 by 2020. Frisco also hosts a Major League Soccer franchise, the training facility of the NHL Stars, and north Texas’s largest mall.

The Roughriders lost in the league finals to San Antonio in their inaugural year, then won the following season. The ’04 champs included Jason Botts, Ian Kinsler, Drew Meyer, Kameron Loe, Chris Young, and several other future Major Leaguers. Texas often sends Major Leaguers to Frisco rather than more-distant Oklahoma City for rehab assignments. Botts, Loe, and five other Rangers spent a few days in Frisco last season.

Among Frisco’s fifteen batters with the most at-bats and fifteen pitchers with the most innings in 2006, their origins are as follows:

0 – 2006 draftees
1 – 2005 draftee
6 – 2004 draftees
1 – 2003 draftee
3 – 2002 draftees
0 – 2001 draftees
1 – 2000 draftee
6 – undrafted free agents
5 – undrafted free agents signed from another team
6 – trade acquisitions
1 – MLB waiver claim

The hitters averaged 23.8 years of age, the pitchers 24.2. The youngest among the top thirty was pitcher John Danks, who turned 21 last April. Most were between 22 and 25-years-old. 20-year-old Eric Hurley just missed placing among the top fifteen in innings pitched. 35-year-old Lou Pote was 17th.

AA roster composition shifts markedly from the lower levels, where almost everyone has played only for the Texas organization. In contrast, only 60% of Frisco’s top thirty players in 2006 were originally signed by the Rangers.

The Texas League plays very close to the American League in terms of runs scored. Teams tend to reach base at a slightly higher rate but hit for less power. Walk and strikeout rates are 10% higher than in the AL. Dr. Pepper Ballpark slightly favored hitters last year. A league-average batting line for a Frisco hitter in 2006 was .269/.345/.407, and 4.50 was the average ERA. Unearned runs still exceed the AL but are well below the per-game averages in low-A and high-A.

Dave Anderson will replace Darryl Kennedy as manager for 2007. Anderson played for the World Series champion Dodgers in 1988 and has seven years of minor-league managerial experience. He also coached the University of Memphis team for four years.

If you’d like to see each team’s facilities, download this file, and open it within Google Earth. Surprisingly, Dr Pepper Ballpark has yet to appear in the satellite imagery.

Posted by Lucas at March 23, 2007 01:43 PM