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NORTHWOODS LEAGUE: Lunkers fold after three seasons

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Brainerd’s fifth venture into the world of wood-bat baseball may have been its last.

The Northwoods League announced Monday morning that the Brainerd Lakes Area Lunkers, members of the league for three years, have folded.

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Later Monday, the league announced its 2012 schedule, and Brainerd will not be in the league for the first time since 2004.

Curt Carstensen, the league’s director of operations, said in a news release Monday that “Out of respect to the host families, fans and sponsors of the Brainerd Lakes Area Lunkers, we want to make this announcement prior to the release of the schedule.

“Many great people have made the Brainerd lakes area an important part of the Northwoods League for a long time. We want to say thank you to everyone that allowed Stewart C. Mills Field to be a special place to spend a summer night.”

The Lunkers were the third Brainerd franchise in the league, following the Mighty Gulls (1998-2002) and Blue Thunder (2005-08), in a league that features college players. The Brainerd Bears (1994-95) and Bobcats (1996), members of independent leagues, were the city’s first wood-bat franchises and featured minor league players.

Lack of attendance led to the demise of the Lunkers, as well as its predecessors. When including the Blue Thunder, Brainerd finished last in league attendance seven straight years. The Lunkers averaged 555 fans their first year, 515 their second and 528 last summer.

Lunkers owner Joel Sutherland, who also owns the St. Cloud River Bats, said by phone Monday the bottom line was what the decision to fold the Lunkers was all about.

“We just didn’t make it,” Sutherland said. “I would like to say it’s more complicated than that, but we just couldn’t get the response. I thought we did a lot of good things, and I thought we did them well. It came down to it just didn’t work.

“We tried hard. I put on about 160,000 miles going back and forth the last three years. That’s really about it. It’s tough, though.”

Northwoods president Dick Radatz Jr. said there is no plan to bring the league back to Brainerd but he didn’t totally close the door.

“If someone expresses an interest at some point we would certainly entertain it,” Radatz said by phone, “but sort of, to a degree, Brainerd is the odd man out at this point.

“Obviously, they’ve been the weak link in our chain for quite some time, and the chain has continued to get stronger. We have an odd number of teams (with Brainerd). We can’t play with 17.”

The league expanded to Mequon, Wis., this fall where the Lakeshore Chinooks will begin play in 2012. Carstensen said in the news release that since the Chinooks were added it became necessary to close the operation of one team in order to continue with an even number of teams (16).

Radatz said Brainerd continued to have a franchise because the city is a nice fit — geographically — for the league. He also said Mills Field is a nice facility that suits the league’s needs.

“We hate to lose them,” Radatz said. “It truly makes scheduling more difficult to achieve without them.”

Radatz thought the Lunkers were beginning to become viable but factors other than attendance led to their demise.

“I think when you have the history (in Brainerd) it’s difficult to overcome, plus the stadium doesn’t have the best location,” he said. “I think it got worse when (the Highway) 371 (bypass) cut off Brainerd, if you will. I think that hurt Brainerd and hurt a lot of businesses there.”

Brainerd Parks and Recreation director Tony Sailer said the Lunkers paid their June rent but failed to pay for July and August. He said Radatz assured him the league is issuing a check for the $7,667 rent the Lunkers owe the city.

“Whether the league is in town or not it makes no sense to take that reputation with us,” Radatz said. “Any (debts) we know about the league will pay, we will make sure it gets done.”

Sailer expects to receive the two-month rent check this week.

“I give the league a lot of credit,” he said. “They didn’t fight (making the payment).”

Sailer added that he liked having the Lunkers as a tenant.

“They were good to work with, a class organization,” he said, “but I can totally understand not drawing crowds and somehow you have to pay your bills. It’s something that’s a very expensive thing to run, I’m sure.

“We’re used to having (teams) at the field. We will continue to maintain the field. The VFW uses it, we have the 15-under state tournament there. The field will be used and maintained.”

MIKE BIALKA may be reached at mike.bialka@brainerddispatch.com or at 855-5861.

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