08/04/2009 10:50 AM -
The Rockford RiverHawks’ future lies to the north.
The RiverHawks announced Monday that they will move to the independent Northern League for the 2010 season. The Northern League, which has operated since 1993 and was the first league of the modern independent-baseball era, will expand to eight teams for next season.
“This will broaden our marketing base as well as our media exposure,” RiverHawks owner and director of baseball operations Dave Ciarrachi said. “We feel that this is a tremendous upgrade for our franchise.”
The Northern League currently includes three Chicagoland teams, the Schaumburg Flyers, the Joliet Jackhammers and the Gary Southshore RailCats, along with a Zion-based expansion team, the Lake County Fielders, scheduled to join the league in 2010. The league also includes the Kansas City T-Bones, based in Kansas City, Kan., the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and the Winnipeg Goldeyes.
Four teams are within a 100-mile drive of Road Ranger Stadium. The league’s Chicagoland base will give the RiverHawks a chance to expand its marketing and ticketing opportunities, Ciarrachi said.
The league plays a 96-game schedule that begins in late May and ends around Labor Day. The Northern League has no age limit and allows teams to carry a larger number of experienced players. The talent level is approximately that of Class AA.
“We have the opportunity for players to interact with our community for a longer period of time,” Ciarrachi said. “It gives us the chance to put the best professional baseball product on the field.”
Since the rebirth of the Northern League in 1993, more than 600 of its players have been picked up by major-league organizations. More than 30, including J.D. Drew and Kevin Millar, have reached the major leagues.
Ciarrachi said the Northern and Frontier leagues had discussed a merger.
“When that didn’t happen, we felt that we as a franchise had to make the move,” he said. “We hold the Frontier League in the highest regard.”
The RiverHawks will maintain the rights to all players currently under contract. They will also have the ability to bring back former players who had reached the Frontier League’s age limit of 27.
“We’re going to try to upgrade our on-field product,” Ciarrachi said.
The RiverHawks have played in the Stateline since 2002. They moved from Marinelli Field to Road Ranger Stadium in 2006. The franchise was a charter member of the Frontier League in 1993, when it was in Portsmouth, Ohio. It relocated to Springfield in 1995 and moved to Rockford following the 2001 season. On July 15, 2009, the RiverHawks hosted the 2009 Frontier League All-Star Game.
The Rockford RiverHawks have never posted a losing season record. In 2004, the RiverHawks won the Frontier League championship, and they reached the postseason in four consecutive years (2004-2007).
Rockford has produced several outstanding pitchers in the Frontier League. Jason Shelley (2002-2003) was named Baseball America magazine’s Independent League Player of the Year in 2003. He holds season pitching records for ERA (0.85) and strikeouts (156). Two pitchers, Garrett Bauer (2006-2008) and Tanner Watson (2005-2007, 2009 - ), were also named to Baseball America magazine’s all-independent first team. Watson has 26 career victories, best among any active player.
The RiverHawks have also excelled at the plate. Richard Austin (2002-2004) was the league’s Most Valuable Player and won the batting title in 2004. In addition, he was a Baseball America first-team All-Indy player. In 2009, Jason James (2007 - ) achieved a 40-game hitting streak, the best in league history.
More information on the RiverHawks is available by calling (815) 885-2255. Fans can also visit the RiverHawks online at www.rockfordriverhawks.com. Most games are broadcast live on ESPN 1380, and on the team website.