The future of the Frontier League – An interview with Manager Phil Warren.


The Frontier League was forced to suspend the 2020 season on June 24th.  The longest running independent baseball league in the United States was looking at a banner year.  The recent expansion with the Can-Am League in the offseason was not only going to add five new teams to the league but was also going to expand the league into another country.  The expansion was going to lead to a new level of exposure for the league that is known more as a midwestern league.  The Gateway Grizzlies were going to celebrate their 20th season as a part of the Frontier League.  Their manager Phil Warren was going to enter his 14th season with the organization.  He was excited to get a chance to see arguably the most talented collection of coaches and players come together during the tenure of the season.  He won’t get that chance.  I got a chance to talk with him about that and what he thinks about the future of baseball. 

With the addition of an unlikely ally the upcoming season was going to have a new look and a new voice helping to guide the Grizzlies. Cross town rivals the River City Rascals closed operations after winning the Frontier League Championship in 2019.  Long time Rascal’s skipper Steve Brook signed on to work alongside Warren bringing along a load of talent from the championship squad. 

“We anticipated several “hard” releases that would have to be made before opening day, which means we had done a great job this off-season.” -Grizzlies Manager, Phil Warren

Warren will be looking at the first season since he was in 8th grade that baseball wasn’t his main priority.  While he is excited for the chance to fish as much as he would like and go on vacation with his family the question of “what if” is going to be on his mind and the minds of the fanbase.  

“We now have turned our attention to building on the assembled 2020 roster to ensure that 2021 has the same outlook.  The work never stops if you want to ensure a successful future.” 

While the coaching staff will work to replenish the roster, there will be plenty of options available in the open market.  With professional teams continuing to cut costs at different minor league levels the access of talent will be available.  Warren spoke about the continued issues between Major League Baseball and the Player’s Association.

“In terms of the future between the players and the owners, this isn’t anything new. Money will always be the driving force.  I think we are simply getting a taste of what’s to come by 2022,  they are able to hide the real issues under the smoke screen of COVID-19.  Ultimately the fans are the ones that will suffer.”

Unlike the MLB season the Frontier League season was not able to make the finances work heading into 2020.  The loss of nearly three months of income along with the limitations of event hosting forced the hand of the ownership groups across the league. Most teams have found ways to supplement their facilities with high school, littel league and other events that can bring in some income but the loss of the season could lead to a lot of different issues down the line for every organization. 

The Frontier League will plan to be back in 2021. The question will be what players and staff will return for most of these organizations.  With a large portion of the staff being forced to be furloughed alot of these talented employees and players could find themselves working in either a different organization or changing their careers completely.  The future is uncertain for the entire league but the Gateway Grizzlies and Phil Warren still see a future in the smallest town in the United States with a professional baseball team in Sauget, Illinois. 

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Gateway Grizzlies add two!

Sauget, IL- The Gateway Grizzlies have announced two recent additions for the 2019 season. The team has come to terms with Dominic Topozian, a pitcher acquired from the Sioux Fall Canaries of the American Association, as well as infielder Rafael Valera, formerly of the Pittsburg Diamonds of the Pacific League.

Topoozian, 24, played his final two years of college at Fresno State playing his biggest role his senior year appearing in 30 games for the Bulldogs as a relief pitcher in 2017 tying for sixth-most appearances in the Mountain West. The Clovis, California native started in nine games for the Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific league and appeared in 11 games, starting two for the Sioux City Exporers of the American Association, finishing with a 7-1 record and a 2.91 ERA. 

Valera, 24, began his professional career in 2011 as a non-drafted free agent of the Minnesota Twins. After spending eight seasons in the Twins organization reaching as high as the Fort Myers Miracle (A+ level). The Venezualan native spent 2018 with the Pittsburg

Diamonds of the Pacific League, where he posted a stat line of .294/.401/.467 adding 11 homeruns and 11 stolen bases. 

The Gateway Grizzlies will begin their season on May 10th when they take on the Shaumberg Boomers at GCS Credit Union Ballpark.  For ticket call the box office at 618.337.3000.

Who is Trae Santos?

The Frontier League Homerun Derby took place at Carshield Field in O’Fallon, Missouri this week.  Fans filled the stadium for a chance to see former Cardinals greats compete with Frontier League All-Stars in matchup of local favorites vs. unknown up and comers.  Former Cardinals Mark Whiten, Ray Lankford, Kerry Robinson and Rick Ankiel were set to put on a show for the thousands in attendance. To their surprise they were upstaged by a little known first baseman playing just across the river for the Gateway Grizzlies.  His name was Trae Santos.

Trae Santos put on a show from the first pitch launching mammoth homers over the giant right field wall at Carshield Field.  Santos ran through the Frontier League competitors smashing 22 homers in the first two rounds, setting up a matchup with former Cardinal P/OF Rick Ankiel.  Santos dispatched of Ankiel rather quickly beating his 3 homers in just a few swings.  Fans that had come to see the former Cardinals greats swing left wondering who was this power hitting machine manning first for the Grizzlies.  Who was Trae Santos?

In 2005, star pitcher and first baseman Trae Santos led the Guam Little League team all the way to the semifinals of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. With that success, the Santos family made a momentous decision. They decided to move their family to America where Trae began to make his mark the baseball community. Drafted in the 17th round of the 2013 MLB draft by the San Diego Padres out of Troy University.  Playing 4 seasons in affiliated ball Santos had trouble standing out.  Hitting his peak during the 2015 season, Santos hit 14 homers and drove in 60 runs for the Fort Wayne Tincaps of the Midwest League. Unable to improve on those numbers the Padres released Santos after the 2016 season, leaving Trae at a crossroads in his career.

“The phones weren’t really ringing last year.  I just kept working on my swing and hitting the gym everyday. Waiting for that opportunity.” said Santos when asked about taking the 2017 season off.

Manager Phil Warren gave Trae a call with an invite to tryout for the Gateway Grizzlies.  With the departure of long time first baseman Craig Massoni their was an opening on the Gateway roster.   Looking for pop in the middle of the order Santos seemed to fit right into the needs of the team.  Beating out Kristian Brito for the starting first baseman spot, Santos jumped right into the middle of the Gateway lineup.  Santos came out the gates struggling in 2018.  Showing signs of rust from the year off of competitive baseball.  After a few weeks into the season Santo was hitting well below .200.  Phil Warren refused to give up on the young slugger.

“I sat Trae down and told him to stop putting so much pressure on himself.  These guys are out here trying to get you out.  Stop worrying so much and just do what you know you can do.” said Warren.

The brief conversation paid off huge for Santos as he was able to turn things around almost immediately.   Hitting .288 with 11HRS, 34RBI’s, earning himself a slot in the Frontier League All-Star game his comeback was complete.

Santos has had a roller coaster career so far in baseball.  Right now he is heading towards the top of the coaster in hopes that there will not be the long drop this time.  At the age of 25 getting a call back to affiliated ball will be a long shot.  But the statement he made during the Homerun Derby will live on in the history of the Frontier League.  Maybe Santos will not be the second player ever to make it to the Majors but he will go down in the Frontier League history books along with the creation of the Baseball’s Best Burger and Brett Gray’s 25 strikeout night.

Come see Trae Santos lead the Gateway Grizzlies in the second half of the season beginning July 14th vs. the River City Rascals.

Grizzlies All-Star Reliever set for new role

In the summer of 2017 Micheal Elwood was in Kansas enjoying a Country Stampede concert.   No longer thinking about continuing his baseball career after a Gateway Grizzlies Manager Phil Warren said that there was no room on the roster for him. “I figured that was the end,” said Elwood. He had accepted that maybe his time as a baseball player was over.  Then right as Chase Rice took the stage Elwood received a phone call  from Normal Cornbelters Manager Brooks Carey.  Carey was calling Elwood to offer him a spot on the Cornbelters roster based on his tryout with Gateway. His time as a baseball player was not over yet.

Micheal Elwood, 25,  spent his college career pitching for Canisius College located in Buffalo, New York.  Originally a shortstop/first baseman made the transition to full time pitcher his sophomore year.  “I was pitching in a summer game in Buffalo and after the game a few scouts came up to me and said every pitch I threw was over 90 MPH. I was shocked.”   The transformation into full time pitcher had become official.  He began to focus on pitching, having his most successful season during his senior campaign finishing with 5-4 record, and a 4.26 ERA having thrown in 57 innings throughout the year.

Elwood struggled through is first Frontier League season finishing with a a 7.12 ERA while appearing in 13 games for the Cornbelters.  Despite the rough start Elwood received an invite back to spring training for the 2017 season. Making the 13 hour trip from his home in Texas to Bloomington, Il ready to make his mark in the Frontier league, another call came from Brooks Carey.  Carey informed Elwood that he had been traded to the Gateway Grizzlies the original team that he had tried out for.  Elwood turned his car around and began to head to Sauget, Illinois.

Elwood made an immediate impact with the Gateway Grizzlies  becoming a force out of the bullpen. Working 32 innings across 21 appearances  with a team-leading three wins against zero loses holding a 3.09 ERA in the first half of the season earning him a spot in the Frontier League All- Star game as one of three Gateway Grizzlies representatives. Elwood continued to impress finishing the season with a 3.05 ERA over 42 appearances.

Entering the 2018 season the Gateway Grizzlies had to fill the void left by departing veteran pitchers, JaVuan West, Will Landsheft, and Vince Molesky.  Starting pitching became a need.  Elwood was given the chance to fill one of the holes in the rotation.  “I realized that I can be most helpful to the organization as a starter. I have a knuckleball that I can use more as a starter.” said Elwood when asked about his new role. “We have so many strong arms at the end of the bullpen and the front of the rotation hopefully I can give us six or seven strong every night.”

Elwood will be entering his third season in the Frontier League, for the first time going into the season with a defined role and high expectations.  “We have five guys in the rotation that have been in pro ball for a long time. I learn from them everyday. I think we have all of the pieces to have a championship team.”

Elwood’s new role has will be tested for the first time Wed. May 16th at the Washington Wild Things.  If all goes to plan he will be making his first home start for Gateway will be their next home stand May 22-24 against the Lake Erie Crushers.

 

Former Grizzlie makes MLB start

When you are a kid playing little league you dream of making it to the big leagues.   You imagine yourself on the mound with thousands of people cheering your name.  The reality is most players never live that dream.  Thousands of players play professional baseball for pennies in stadiums that are falling apart, eating peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and dinner.   The lucky few that do get signed by professional organizations never actually make it on to a Major League Baseball mound.  But they continue to play, they continue to hold on to their childhood imagination.

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Former Gateway Grizzlies pitcher Trevor Richards, 24,  was one of those that held onto to the dream and it paid off on Monday Night in Miami. Richards made his major league debut just 21 months after his signing by the Marlins organization.  The local product from Aviston, Illinois (about an hour from St. Louis) didn’t get the win but he did inspire the baseball community.  Richards struck out 5 allowed 5 earned runs while going 4.1 innings. The biggest impact he made was on the world, social media blew up seeing the kid that came from obscurity to the majors.

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Richards played his college ball at Drury University a division 2 school in Springfield, Missouri. Never touted highly by pro scouts he went undrafted after his graduation.  Not willing to call it quits yet he signed with the Gateway Grizzlies in 2015. Richards did not disappoint immediately taking a leadership role with the team at the top of the rotation.  His ability to mix up his pitches and locate made him an asset to Manager Phil warren. In 2016 Richards continued his role at the top of the rotation for the Gateway Grizzlies.  While he was pitching well in the Frontier League scouts were still not taking notice.  It was shear luck that a scout was able to see Richards pitch.  The scout that signed Richards, David Espinosa, was actually at a game to look at two relievers from the other team.  “His changeup is an anomaly,” Espinosa said. “According to analytics, the spin rate on a changeup is slower than it is for a fastball. We call it a ‘white ball.’ But the spin rate on his changeup is almost as fast as it is with his fastball.” Richards changeup and poise was enough for Espinosa to pay the $3,000 contract buyout from the Gateway Grizzlies.  It small price to pay for the potential that he saw.  Richards rewarded Espinosa by pitching his way right through three different levels of the Miami system eventually being named 2017 Marlins Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

Richards followed in the footsteps of guys like Scott Patterson former Gateway Grizzlie turned Yankee reliever and St. Louis Cardinal First Baseman Jose Martinez. Before Martinez was hitting in the middle of the beloved Cardinals order, he was hitting dingers for the Frontier League Rockford Aviators.  Richards is just one of the examples of players that have made it from obscurity.  The Frontier League is one month away from beginning its historic 26th season.  While this league may not have . the affiliations of a major league team, they do have players with real ability.  Trevor Richards start was not only a great moment for him and his family, but a great moment for the league as a whole.

The Gateway Grizzlies will look to honor Trevor Richards this season as they host a bobblehead on Friday July 20th.

Come see the next wave of hungry athletes, the Grizzlies season begins on May 11th when the Grizzlies take on the Schaumberg Boomers.