By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
STORM LAKE, Iowa, Aug. 5, 2018 — The second season of the summertime Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League came to a crazy end — a crazy-fun end — here Friday night. Albert Lea’s Lakers clinched the championship with a 12-11 victory over defending champion Storm Lake’s Whitecaps. It was a storybook worst-to-first reversal by the Lakers from south central Minnesota, after their cellar finish in the 5-team league in 2017. The champs close 2018 with an astonishing 34-6 record.
I spent three innings leaning on the fence down the rightfield line in Memorial Field, chatting with Donnie Roberts, the most unlikely-looking baseball executive you can imagine. But the congenial 52-year-old pipeline worker and farmer from Spooner, Wis. — always in a ball cap, T-shirt and cargo shorts — is indeed the owner of the PCBL.
He hires college coaches for the summer, and they recruit college baseball all-stars from across the nation to play 35- or 40-game schedules for teams in Albert Lea (pop. 17,000), Storm Lake (10,000), Carroll (10,000), Bancroft (732!) and this summer for the first time in Ames (66,500).
It seems to have been successful. This second season had record crowds, a first player drafted into professional baseball, a first no-hitter, 96-mph fastballs, nasty curves, yet some epic 400-foot homers, sharp line drives, some thrilling speed on the bases, and flashes of defensive brilliance.
Donnie Roberts is the owner of the Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League. He is shown here during a 2017 game in Albert Lea.
But I was pushing Roberts for meaningful confirmation of that success — like the financials and what the future holds.
He wasn’t avoiding my questions, but it took him a few minutes to get to his answers. And his baseball philosophizing enroute was well worth the wait.
FIELDS OF DREAMS. He gazed across the historic Storm Lake ball diamond, where young men have been chasing baseball dreams for 80 years, and actually got a little sentimental on me.
“Look at this,” he says. with a big sweep of his arm “I love it. It’s hard to describe this to people until you get them out here, but there’s something special about being at a baseball park on a summer night. You see families coming out here, young people, older people, all ages. The first three innings are like a picnic, with the concession stand and the beer tent getting real busy. There’s some kind of entertainment between most innings. About the fourth, fifth and sixth, people start paying more attention to the game. If it’s a good one, they’ll often spend the last three innings hanging on every pitch.
“Watch our players here. Great young guys. They take time to talk to the little kids, doing fist bumps with them, and they wind up being heroes to these kids. And they’re real-life heroes, not some figure in a video game on a phone or tablet.
“But maybe the biggest thing — how valuable is it for these towns to have 25 or so college athletes, coming every year from all over the U.S., to spend a summer? They live with host families, and start friendships that in a lot of cases will last for the rest of their lives. The players’ own families are flying in and out of here, watching their sons play a few games.
“So, let’s say this goes on 10 years. Then you’ll start seeing the impact of having 250 or so college graduates, by then out in all kinds of professions, who have great memories of their time in an Albert Lea, or a Storm Lake and imagine that for little Bancroft. Good things will happen for years to come in these towns because of the relationships they’ve had with these young ball players.”
I say “amen” to all of the above.
We then turned to the actual product — the quality of the baseball — and the boss pronounces it “good and getting better all the time.” He says word spread among baseball coaches after a good first year of operations in 2017, “and we’ve already got more of them calling us, wanting to send good players to us for the summer.”
These are better-than-average college ball players, a few of them coming from NCAA Division I schools and others coming from top small college and community college programs. Albert Lea pitcher Ben Madison, who had been playing for Central Baptist College in Conway, Ark., only got to play one game for the Lakers this summer — he struck out 15 in six innings — before he was drafted in the 9th round by the San Francisco Giants. He got a signing bonus and is now playing in the Arizona Rookies League.
Speaking of money, I say, as I began guiding our conversation back to the financials.
THE BOTTOM LINE. “Well, I haven’t made any money yet on this league, but I’ve had a lot of great times,” Roberts said. “And I’m coming a lot closer this year to breaking even. That’s really the goal of this anyway.”
Let me remind you of the Pioneer League’s roots. Donnie Roberts grew up playing baseball around Spooner, a town of 2,500 in northwest Wisconsin. “I always loved baseball the most, but I was a better hockey player,” he says. After high school, and as he started a young family of his own, he and his parents, Don and Dora Lee Roberts, decided to build a ball diamond behind their farm home, outside town. They did that, and in 1999 started up a “town team,” the Spooner Bandits, to give young fellows in the area a chance to continue playing baseball after high school. They also hosted tournaments for youth league teams, American Legion teams, and others. “We’ve had that town team for almost 20 years now,” Donnie said.
His own son Donald “Bucko” Roberts III played on that Bandits team and wore No. 7 on his uniform. Then in the summer of 2013, the 20-year-old Bucko was killed in a tragic auto accident.
Donnie Roberts decided after that there was a good way to memorialize his son and celebrate their love of baseball — by putting together these college all-star teams so more good players would have a chance to play in the summertime. And thus we now have the Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League. He picked southern Minnesota, northern Iowa and initially the city of Sioux Falls to start the league, because he knew there were many cities and towns in that area with deep baseball traditions, tracing back to the Iowa State League that flourished from the 1930s into the 1960s. Those earlier teams were usually a mix of local adult men and good college players brought in for the summer.
So now, for his new league, Roberts works out operating agreements with a non-profit committee or board in each town. He buys the equipment, pays the coaches, the umpires, and provides the team buses (he is often the driver, too). The towns have a general manager and in some cases other staff members — a few of them paid, more volunteering. Roberts and the communities negotiate agreements on revenue from ticket sales ($5 per adult) and concessions. The towns get sponsorship fees and donations.
Financial management for Roberts and the league itself is handled by his significant other, Tracy Field, a nurse from Spooner who now works in the Twin Cities. “She loves baseball as much as I do,” he said. “She really likes coming out to the league towns for games, but with her career, she can’t be away as much as I am.”
He says “if you total up what I’m putting into each team, and add what the local operating committee is putting in, each team runs on about a $40,000 budget for the summer.”
The players do not pay a fee to play. They do buy their uniforms, but they get to keep them, too. Most host families do not ask for compensation, and most provide some meals. The league buys meals and motel rooms when road games require overnight stays.
GROWING THE LEAGUE. Roberts is indeed looking to expand the PCBL.
“With five teams, it makes scheduling much more difficult — somebody is always idle,” he said. “We’d like to add at least one team for next season, and have six, and I’d like to get it to eight eventually.”
He is already meeting with groups in Fort Dodge “and a town I can’t name yet in southern Minnesota.”
He is looking over four other Iowa towns, too. He gave me the names, but said contacts with them are in the very earliest stages, so I’m not identifying them. But I will tell you that the four he mentioned all like their baseball. He said he’ll spend much of the rest of August, and probably some of September, making community visits.
HAIL TO THE CHAMPIONS. We cannot close the books on the 2018 Pioneer League season without a salute to the champion Albert Lea Lakers and their head coach, 24-year-old Michael Keeran, who is from the Clear Lake-Garner area in north central Iowa.
He was a terrific player at Clear Lake High School, then at Waldorf College and in the 2017 season when he played for the summertime Ozark Generals of the MINK League. He spent four of his college summers as an assistant coach for the Clear Lake High team, and during those years, the Lions won three high school state championships. Michael’s brother Mitchell Keeran was one of the Clear Lake players on the title teams — and Mitchell played for his brother at Albert Lea this summer.
This past spring, Michael Keeran was an assistant coach for the Grinnell College women’s softball team, before Roberts signed him to coach the Lakers.
How on earth did this young coach manage to recruit and then coach this Albert Lea team that went from being the doormat last year to being a juggernaut in the 2018 season?
“Well, good players, obviously,” Keeran told me. “I’m real proud of the turn-around. Our 34-6 record is a winning percentage of 90 percent, which is almost unheard of at any level of baseball. I’ve already done some research, and I can only find two or possibly three other summer college teams around the country who’ve won as much as we did.”
So, how’d he do it?
“The truth is, I went into the recruiting with kind of a chip on my shoulder,” Keeran said. “There’s a perception out there that young coaches don’t know what they’re doing. As I was getting started on finding players for the Albert Lea team, I decided, what the hell, I’m going to go 100 mph at this and give it all I’ve got.”
He first began researching what the college teams around the country were with the most pitching success, then making contact, talking to coaches and players, and telling them about the Pioneer League.
SHOOTING FOR THE STARS. When he found Ben Madison in Arkansas — the pitcher who wound up being drafted by the San Francisco Giants — he knew “he was the real deal, such an athlete he could’ve made it in either baseball, football or basketball.” Madison, a right-hander, had a 95-mph fastball “and I thought his curves were actually better than his fastball,” Keeran said. In 96 innings last spring, he’d struck out 172.
When the coach started landing commitments from players with Madison’s level of talent, he found that other good ones wanted to come to Albert Lea, too.
“I spent a lot of months recruiting,” he continued. “It starts with networking and connections. Then it’s about the players you get sometimes, and the talent and tenacity they have — it’s not all about Xs and Os of the game. Get the right players and it builds a winning culture and environment fast and rapid.”
One such “right” player is Robin Allen, who became the Lakers’ “closer.” He is a star right-hander at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. For Albert Lea, he had an ERA near 1.0-0, eight “saves” and not a single “blown-save.”
“Robin’s as good as it gets,” Keeran said. “He was the clutchest pitcher in the league. And he’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around. He wants to be a NASA astronaut!”
He was always back there ready to tidy up for the starting pitching rotation that at first had Madison, Reid Feeley of Bellevue University, Cole Edgens of William Carey University and Luke Hastings of Mobile College. Coach Keeran referred to them as his “Four Horsemen” pitching staff.
Albert Lea also had utility player Josh Dudden, of Central Arizona Community College, who Keeran says might well have been the MVP in the league. “He was an unreal hitter,” the coach said, “batting average near .400.”
They were not only good, but fun, too. We’re looking at you, Joey Ponder. The Waldorf University player from Mission Viejo, Calif., was listed this season as another “utility player.” He proved it July 28 in Albert Lea’s 8-6 victory at Carroll –switching every inning, Ponder played all nine positions!
Now it’s over for 2018. Coach Keeran has landed a new job as assistant baseball coach at Valley City State University in North Dakota, but he says he’ll be back in the Pioneer League next summer.
And more than 100 good college ball players are now back home or at school, telling great stories about their summer experiences in Iowa and Minnesota.
Just as Donnie Roberts says, “There’s something special about being at a baseball park on a summer night,”
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.