In the summer, the Battle Creek Bombers compete in the Northwoods League — a wooden bat collegiate circuit.
During the other three seasons, the Cereal City franchise is competing for players in the ‘Hot Stove League’.
With the dog days of summer still months away, the Bombers’ front office staff remains busy trying to attract some of college baseball’s top talent. And according to team General Manager Brian Colopy, Battle Creek is winning when it comes to assembling talent.
“We’re literally done with our team, the players and signings,” Colopy said. “It starts even during the season a little bit, talking to guys on the team and even recruiting new guys. We’re so competitive, not just in our league, but across all leagues.”
The Northwoods League has helped produce some top-flight Major League talent, including Detroit Tigers’ Max Scherzer, Andy Dirks and Drew Smyly.
The Cape Cod League, which has played summer collegiate baseball since 1885 and is financially backed by Major League Baseball, remains the top destination for many future professional ballplayers. But the Northwoods League has emerged as a major challenger for talent, thanks in part to its ability to mimic a minor league experience.
Unlike many summer collegiate leagues, the Northwoods League spans several states with teams in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ontario. Some teams in the league, including the Bombers, play at stadiums that previously hosted minor league franchises.
Colopy said the minor league experience is something he reminds college coaches of when he makes a pitch for their players.
“When these coaches recruit players to come to their schools, you have to sell the city, stadium, coaching staff, host families — it all comes into play,” Colopy said. “We spend a lot of time on it, making sure we take care of the guys on and off the field. Our guys spend half their season on a bus traveling, so we get the best bus we can. We make sure we treat them right, and when they go back to their schools there is word of mouth. We sell the whole experience. They are playing in minor league stadiums in front of thousands of fans.”
Already, the Bombers have locked up big name players from perennial Division I powers like Arkansas, Arizona State, Cal State Fullerton and LSU, along with talent from Big Ten schools Michigan and Michigan State.
In 2012, the Bombers finished 26-43 overall, the second worst record in the 16-team league. That came off the heels of a 2011 season that saw the franchise claim its first Northwoods League title.
On paper, the Bombers last offseason was very successful. Of the 129 Northwoods League players selected in the 2012 Major League Baseball amateur draft, three were signed to play in Battle Creek. But those players never made it to the Cereal City after opting to sign professional contracts. Injuries also hit the team, as the top two hitters saw their summer seasons cut short.
Second-year manager Brandon Higelin, who was Battle Creek’s pitching coach during the 2011 championship season, said the team has worked hard to be ready in case the draft or injuries affect the 2013 roster.
“The big thing Brian and I leaned, especially myself, was that last summer we didn’t go after temps (temporary players) early,” Higelin said. “When guys were injured, we didn’t really have a plan B. This year we’ve gone out, and haven’t gone after many (draft eligible) juniors, mostly freshmen and incoming freshmen. For any schools we expect to be going to regionals or the College World Series, we have a better plan in place to be ready until those guys can show up.”
The Northwoods League has developed a track record for taking care of college players while providing much-needed at bats and innings against top-level competition. According to Colopy, the Bombers are in a position where they can pick and chose who best fits their roster.
“We have SEC schools calling us. I’m calling and talking, but the league itself now is to the point where these schools are trying to get their guys in our league,” Colopy said. “We’re just weeding them out. There’s no science to it. You just try to get the best, most talented guys you can. Hopefully they come together and their chemistry fits and something special happens.
“We’re getting the top guys we can, offensively, defensively, pitching, … There’s a lot of factors that come into play, but what it comes down to, we’re just trying to get the most talented guys we can. And when you put talented guys on the field together, they are going to find a way to win.”