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The Great Wasp War
The call went out to the lads of Silver City: This means war!

Pay to Play
The fledgling Las Cruces Vaqueros' field of dreams

Kiss of the Prairie Dog
Black-tailed prairie dogs once numbered in the billions

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   July 2010

Pay to Play

The fledgling Las Cruces Vaqueros team gives a whole new meaning to "field of dreams" — and what some players will do to make their baseball dreams a reality.

By Jeff Berg

"I love being the highest paid player in the game." — NY Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez (2010 salary, $33 million, or $22,633 per inning)

Total season salary for the entire Vaqueros team – some of whom are shown here – is just $25,000. (Photo courtesy Las Cruces Vaqueros)

Yes, I was skeptical. Yes, I probably should have done this little article earlier, but I needed to see if it was rrrreallllly going to happen this time. Would lovely Las Cruces get a real baseball team where the players actually get paid (albeit a pittance) and would the team survive the first week?

Well, Mr. Jaded has to eat crow, as I can now say that Las Cruces does have a form of semi-professional baseball — namely the Las Cruces Vaqueros of the ever-changing Continental Baseball League (CBL), which began play in 2007.

But the team — actually the entire league — turns out to be much different than I expected.

It's hard to hang a label on this league, because it is different from the seven (at last count) other independent baseball leagues that have sprung up around North America over the last 20 years or so. Nor is it in any way affiliated with any Major League Baseball team.

True, the CBL bears some similarities to other independent leagues, such as the Northern League, whose current incarnation has been in operation successfully since 1993, and the Atlantic League, which began to play ball in 1998. Each team in those leagues and in the upstart Continental League is made up mostly of young players who couldn't catch on with a big-league team or one of their farm teams, or even other indie-league teams. Occasionally, long-time veterans, typically near the end of the careers, have used indie-league play to reinvigorate their careers. Four CBL players have worked their way back into the MLB system, such as Brandon Sisk, now in the Kansas City Royals organization.

But the players in those other leagues were all paid — certainly not what they would like to earn, but paid nonetheless.

The difference in the Continental League is that not all the players are paid, and in fact, some of THEM pay to play!

Indeed, according to J.R. Smith, general manager of the CBL's Big Bend Cowboys in Alpine, Texas, there is a seasonal payroll allotment that caps out at $25,000. Sounds pretty fair for a short season that only encompasses 56 games plus playoffs, doesn't it?

Except that $25,000 is to pay the entire TEAM for the whole season.

"The coaches get $25,000 to divide among all the players on the roster as they see fit," Smith explains. "Some players will get paid, others will not, and others still are paying to play."

Yup, you read that right. Some of the young men (and, all too briefly, one young woman) in the Continental League are playing mostly because they want to play baseball. Local residents provide the players room and board in exchange for a season ticket. And, since this is nicknamed a "bus league," as opposed to "bush league," transportation is provided to away games.

I did think it a bit curious at the first game I went to when I saw players going to the concession stand to purchase soft drinks.

There are only four teams in the CBL: the Vaqueros, who actually have a "home" at Apodaca Park in Las Cruces; the Big Bend Cowboys; and two homeless "road" teams, the Coastal Kingfish (don't ask me how they got that name) and the Desert Valley Mountain Lions, who share a field at El Paso Community College. The players on these two homeless teams pay $2,000 each to play ball. The Vaqueros and Cowboys (yes, that could be considered redundant) also have "developmental players" who pay to stay on the field. When the CBL first started in 2007, players received a maximum $300 per month salary, but continued financial issues have changed that.

The league also isn't shy about gender, as the Big Bend team boldly announced in March that it had signed 33-year-old Tiffany Brooks as an infielder and pitcher. Brooks, the first woman to sign a professional baseball contract in several years, made the team but lasted only two games.

"She was told that she was the equivalent to the fourth-string first baseman," (basewoman?) says GM Smith, "so she decided that wasn't good enough. She was certainly good enough to make the team, but not quite good enough to step ahead of some of the young men."

The CBL is based in Addison, Texas, and originally offered teams from Texas and Louisiana, all of which have folded, including four from last year, mostly because of poor attendance. The teams were scattered throughout east Texas and Louisiana, with towns including Corpus Christi, Alexandria, Texarkana and Dallas fielding squads, but all are now just part of the field of dreams.

This is not baseball's first "Continental League," although it is the first to actually see play. Back in the late 1950s, after two of the major league New York teams, the Dodgers and Giants, had vamoosed to the west coast, a plan was put in motion to launch a third major league called the Continental League. It would have included teams from Denver, Minneapolis, Houston, Dallas, New York, Toronto, Atlanta and Buffalo. The league was the master plan of William Shea, among others, a New York attorney who wanted a second major league team placed, via expansion, in the Big Apple.

Hands were wrung and teeth were gnashed by executives of the American and National Leagues, especially after the Continental League really did begin to take shape, announcing an opening day of April 18, 1961. Major League Baseball finally took action and granted expansion franchises to four cities, two for each league, and Shea's (second) Rebellion was called off.

Shea probably got what he deserved, since the new team for New York was the Metropolitans — aka the Mets — who set many a dubious record during their formative years. The team's new stadium, opened in 1964, was named after Shea, and remained the Mets home until two years ago. It has since been demolished and is now, of course, a parking lot for the new field, located across the street.

The current Continental League, in spite of its struggles, has already outlasted its predecessor. It has yet, however, to earn official recognition by the Independent Professional Baseball Federation, which does recognize six of the eight leagues. The only other league it snubs has Texas connections as well, but we'll just not go there.


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