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Our view: Odds stacked against baseball in Grand Forks

When the Grand Forks Varmints played their first game in 1996, the crowd stretched Kraft Field to its capacity. Temporary bleachers were filled, while others sat along the fences to watch. The stadium ran out of hot dogs by the second inning.

That scene probably is in the heads of anyone who hopes baseball — other than American Legion ball — will return to Grand Forks. But the reality of these leagues is often far from the misty, romantic memories and optimistic hopes of boosters.

That's why we urge caution before Grand Forks joins the Expedition League, a circuit that plays a 64-game season and is comprised of college players who are not paid.

Monday, the Herald reported the Expedition League hopes to expand to Grand Forks. The league's first season will begin this month, with teams set up in Minot and Dickinson, along with teams in South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska. There are plans to expand to Brandon, Manitoba, next year. That's when the league wants Grand Forks to join.

We don't believe Grand Forks will support summer collegiate baseball, and recent history backs us up.

Yes, the professional Varmints opened to great fanfare in 1996, but attendance waned and the team folded after two seasons. Then came the Channel Cats, who played in a non-professional league for two seasons and also folded.

Years ago, Grand Forks was home to the Northern League's Chiefs for three decades, starting in the 1930s. Willie Stargell played one season here in 1960, was a World Series MVP with the Pirates in 1979 and was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988.

But today, the odds are stacked against baseball in Grand Forks.

Kraft Field would need work. The grandstand is limited to bleacher seating and the bathrooms would need upgrades. Diehards may attend Expedition League games at Kraft Field, but we don't foresee casual fans attending games without major improvements.

How would the new team be scheduled in a way that would not interfere with current American Legion and youth programs? Kraft Field is the premier diamond in town, and the Royals, Blues and other local kids should not be inconvenienced by any outside program.

The other towns in the league are small, and aren't home to a Division I university that rightfully grabs the city's attention and marketing dollars.

Perhaps if UND still had baseball, there would be local players staying in town. But that opportunity left when the program died last year.

Meanwhile, the national sports landscape is littered with the leftovers of teams that have come and gone, left unpaid bills and had other troubles. For example, one of the last games for the Channel Cats was canceled after players intentionally damaged Kraft Field.

The geography of the Expedition League doesn't help, either. A better fit would be the established — and nearby — Northwoods League.

Grand Forks is taking a wait-and-see approach, and that's good. At first blush, it seems like a good idea. After all, nationally syndicated columnist George Will once wrote that "baseball is Heaven's gift to mortals" and we believe that.

But we don't believe summer baseball will ever be successful in Grand Forks.

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