The Northwoods is taking steps closer to Milwaukee, at least if you're talking about summer baseball.
Former Brewers second baseman Jim Gantner will manage the Wisconsin Woodchucks, Wausau's entry in the Northwoods League this summer.
A proposal also is circulating through Pewaukee municipal committees to bring a NWL franchise to that community, perhaps as early as 2008.
The NWL is a Summer Collegiate Baseball Association (SCBA) sanctioned summer league comprised of teams of the top college players from across the nation and North America. All players in the league must have NCAA eligibility remaining in order to participate. Players are not paid, thus preserving their NCAA eligibility.
Each team is operated similar to a professional minor-league team, providing players an opportunity to play under the same conditions using wooden bats, minor league specification baseballs, experiencing overnight road trips and playing nightly before fans in a stadium.
Baseball America recently rated the NWL second to the prestigious and long time Cape Cod League among summer developmental leagues.
The NWL currently has 14 franchises: the Alexandria Beetles, Brainerd Blue Thunder, Duluth Huskies, Mankato MoonDogs, Rochester Honkers, St. Cloud River Bats, Thunder Bay Border Cats, Battle Creek Bombers, Eau Claire Express, Green Bay Bullfrogs, La Crosse Loggers, Madison Mallards, Waterloo Bucks and Wisconsin Woodchucks.
The Green Bay and Battle Creek franchises were added this year. Eau Claire came into the league last season.
Under commissioner Dick Radatz Jr., the co-founder of the league in 1994, the circuit has consistently grown and attracted better collegiate players. The league's alumni includes Jeff Weaver, a hero for the Cardinals in last year's World Series, the Dodgers' Juan Pierre, the Tigers' Curtis Granderson and 19 other players on Major League teams' 40-man rosters.
Ben Stanczyk, a standout at UWM and now in the Brewers' farm system, was a NWL all-star for La Crosse.
Ganter is sold on the league. "It's a good league," he said in a recent interview. "It's rated right up there with the Cape Cod League. I'm looking forward to working with college level players. I love that part of Wisconsin during summer. So, I think it's a perfect fit."
Known as "Gumby" during his playing days, Gantner was considered the heart and soul of the Brewers' 1982 pennant-winning team and, along with Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, played together longer than any trio in baseball history.
For a guy who hailed from the tiny town of Eden, Wisconsin, and starred at UW-Oshkosh, to play for the Brewers and now coach for a Wisconsin-based team seems like naturals.
"I've made my life in Wisconsin," Gantner said. "I'm looking forward to working with young players in a league which has a big presence right in the home state."
Gantner's former Brewer teammate, Gorman Thomas, will coach a game for the Woodchucks on the same night that they give away a bobblehead of Stormin' Gorman.
About five years ago, the Madison franchise approached Gantner about coaching for that team. "I wasn't ready at that time, but I kept it in mind," Gantner said. "I contacted the GM of Madison last year and asked him if there were any openings in the league. He told me about Wausau."
Gantner likes the fact that the NWL has looked to expand and said a rumored franchise in Pewaukee for next year would add another dimension to the league.
"I think a team in the southeast part of the state would draw interest," Gantner said. "They're talking about building a sports complex off I-94 near Pewaukee and the Northwoods team would go there. I think it's a great idea."
Radatz said in an e-mail, "The Northwoods League is excited about the prospect of a franchise in Pewaukee, both from a business aspect and geographic aspect."
When originally formed in 1994, the NWL did have a franchise in southeast Wisconsin, with the Kenosha Kroakers, who won the league championship in 1995.
Manitowoc also had an original NWL franchise. It closed its doors in 1998. The Kroakers ceased operation in 1999. Since then, the NWL has not had a franchise in southeast Wisconsin, but has expanded elsewhere.
Madison annually leads the league in attendance, with an average of 6,056 per game in 2006. La Crosse was second with an average of 3,040.
The NWL inked a national television broadcast agreement with the ESPN family of networks to bring three games, including the league All Star Game, to a national television audience this season. The contract is for the 2007-‘09 seasons.
Chad Bauer of Lake Country Baseball Group LLC is behind the Pewaukee attempt.
Bauer has been interested in bringing a collegiate summer-league franchise to the Milwaukee area for a couple years and has set his sights on Waukesha County. A 2004 proposal to the City of Delafield did not move forward.
"Demographically, it is a good fit," Bauer told Pewaukee city officials at recent meeting covered by the Lake Country Reporter. Bauer would be looking for a partnership with the City of Pewaukee, but explained the arrangements differ, depending on the community scenario.
Bauer is co-owner of the new Green Bay team, the Bullfrogs. Bauer explained that Green Bay had a field and bleachers, and the franchise paid for renovations. Pewaukee does not have a stadium, but the city is in the preliminary planning stages for a new sports complex on 60 acres of park land off Lindsay Road.
"We are not expecting people to build a stadium for us," said Bauer at the Pewaukee meeting. La Crosse has served as a model for NWL teams. The Loggers play at Copeland Park, a city-owned ballpark, but the owner of the team has made more than a million dollars in improvements to the park since the NWL came to that town. It is not known yet what the arrangement would be in Pewaukee.