CANONSBURG — Bill Lee, who has been commissioner of the Frontier League since 1994, used to have a favorite line to describe Washington. Because of it being the Eastern-most franchise and within a three-hour drive of only one other league member, Lee liked to say that a trip to Washington is "like going to Siberia."
After recent developments, Washington has gone from the hinterlands of the Frontier League to its epicenter.
During a news conference Thursday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Southpointe, Lee announced that the Frontier League has merged with the Can-Am League to form a 14-team independent league for the 2020 season.
Five Can-Am teams — the New Jersey Jackals, Sussex County Miners, Rockland Boulders, Quebec Capitales and Trois-Rivieres Aigles — will join nine holdovers from the Frontier League. The River City Rascals, who won the 2019 Frontier League championship, ceased operations after the season. The Ottawa Champions played last year in the Can-Am but were not included in the merger because it had a lease problem at its ballpark.
"This is one of the biggest announcements we've ever made," Lee said. "I can't think of anything that compares to it."
The announcement ended a nearly two-year process, which began in February of 2018 when the Can-Am League invited Lee and Frontier League deputy commissioner Steve Tahsler to a meeting in Florida. Over the next 20 months, the leagues discussed how to make its franchises stronger, either through interleague play or merger. The leagues held a joint all-star game at Rockland this past summer with the Frontier League winning in impressive fashion, 7-0.
"Talks heated up at the Rockland all-star game and during our last several league meetings, where both leagues were represented," Lee explained. "It all came together in the last two weeks."
Lee said the outcome of the all-star game had something to do with the merger coming together. The Can-Am League had a higher salary cap than the Frontier League and did not have an age limit, unlike the Frontier's rule of nobody over the age of 27. The Frontier League's performance and its players' enthusiasm for the game made a strong impression on Can-Am executives.
"At several points during the process, you wonder if this is the right thing. Is this best for everyone?" Lee said. "As time went on, we realized there is strength in numbers."
"We're the biggest and brightest league in independent baseball right now," said Al Dorso, who owns both New Jersey and Sussex County.
With 14 teams, the Frontier League is the largest independent league and spans from the Eastern seaboard to Canada and to St. Louis. A bus trip from Quebec to Sauget, Ill., where the Gateway Grizzlies are located, would take at least 20 hours.
"I think some teams will fly (to road games)," Lee said. "I don't see anybody taking 19-hour bus rides."
"There is a re-energizing in all of us," said Gateway owner Rich Sauget. "The opportunities we are going to have can put us in better position, especially from a marketing standpoint. I have a good feeling about where we're going. We have strong ownership and some urgency to get things done."
The league, which will still be known as the Frontier League, will have a two-division format and play a 96-game schedule that begins May 14 and runs through the Sunday before Labor Day.
Wild Things fans will have plenty of opportunities to become familiar with the league's newcomers. The Can-Am Division will consist of the Wild Things, Lake Erie Crushers, New Jersey, Sussex County, Rockland, Quebec and Trois-Rivieres. The Midwestern Division will be Frontier holdovers Joliet, Schaumburg, Southern Illinois, Windy City, Florence, Evansville and Gateway.
The schedule will be an unbalanced one with each team hosting only 11 of the 13 possible opponents. The schedule will be released Monday.
The league has not announced the site of its all-star game in July but Washington is a possibility.
"It's dead center in the league now," Lee said.
The commissioner said no changes to the Frontier League's age limit, salary cap or rookie/experienced player classifications have been made. They will be discussed at an upcoming league meeting and any changes must be approved by majority vote. It is the belief of some teams and league officials that the age limit will be raised.
"It's a great day for the Frontier League and its members," Lee said proudly.
The merger creates an oddity in that the league now has two teams with the nickname Miners: Sussex County and Southern Illinois. ... A 14-team Frontier League is not new. It operated with 14 franchises from 2012 through 2015. ... The Can-Am League was formed in 2005 but had its roots in the defunct Northeast League, which dated back to 1995. New Jersey, which plays in Montclair, N.J., won the 2019 Can-Am championship. ... Lee said the merger would have happened even if River City would have returned for 2020. ... Sussex County plays in Augusta, N.J., Rockland in Pomona, N.Y., Quebec in Quebec City and Trois-Rivieres in Trios-Rivieres, Quebec. ... Florence is in the midst of a rebrand and will drop its Freedom nickname for 2020.