By JAMES COOK
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Chris Kaminski witnessed a baseball franchise collapse last season.
Which makes him all that more glad he's now with one that's been stable.
Last year, Kaminski played for the Frontier League's London Rippers, a team that started out ominously with its mascot selection that earned a poor reputation from the start. Team officials insisted the name wasn't derived from Jack the Ripper, but the logo said otherwise.
"When I got there, it was a good team," Kaminski said. "Just a lot of stuff that shouldn't be happening was going on."
Kaminski was an early signing by the Traverse City Beach Bums, not long after the season ended.
It was a season in which his team dissolved and suddenly he was playing for a team that roamed the Midwest like nomads without a home. The franchise was taken over by the league and renamed the Road Warriors. The Frontier League purchased uniforms from the Atlantic League, which for several years had a travel team called the Road Warriors.
So, running around the landscape in another team's uniforms, Kaminski was joined by fellow pitcher Shawn Marquardt. They quickly became two of the team's better pitchers.
Not long after the season, the Beach Bums also added Marquardt.
"I was not there for the collapse," Marquardt said. "I heard all about it. It seemed like a tough situation for all the parties involved. Fortunately, I didn't have to go through any of that."
Ticket sales were tough because groups like schools and churches were put off by the team’s name. It didn't help that the Rippers couldn't sell beer at their games — even though the stadium was Labatt Park. The team was evicted from its own downtown merchandise store.
"The management was doing some things they shouldn't have been doing with the finances and expenses of the team," Kaminski said. "And some players — especially the new ones they picked up — weren't getting paid. They were missing checks and stuff like that. One of the sponsors of the team was like, 'Hey, I gave you plenty of money. Where is it at?' And then he backed out. And the head coach was just like, 'We're done, guys.'"
The Rippers — with a 20-33 record — become the first Frontier League team to fold during the season in 19 years.
"(League commissioner) Bill Lee actually came and talked to us when we were in Washington and told us everything that was going on," Kaminski said. "That's when we became the road team."
Some players were declared free agents and went to other teams — or even other leagues altogether — while others like Kaminski stayed on.
"It was tough and made things just a little more difficult," Kaminski said. "Traveling from one place one night to the next town another night and not having a home field and never having a home game."
Marquardt joined the team after Rippers folded.
"I was just happy to be getting innings," Marquardt said. "The travel was tough, but once you get used to being on the bus and being in different hotels, I didn't have too many complaints. A lot of hours on the road, but I was only there a month."
Marquardt made seven starts for the Warriors, going 2-5 with 4.32 ERA. Ironically, his first and last starts of the season were against the Beach Bums.
"All the way down the lineup was threats," Marquardt said. "There's really no one you could take a break on in that whole lineup. And then you've got (Jose) Vargas, who can leave the yard at any moment. They were definitely the toughest offense I saw last year."
It was those two starts — in which he surrendered only seven hits in 11 innings against the league's top offense — that caught the eye of Traverse City manager Gregg Langbehn.
"Right when I got a call from here, I was thrilled," Marquardt said. "This is definitely at the top of my list of teams I would want to get picked up by."
Marquardt hopes to earn a spot in the Bums rotation with his mix of fastball, change-up and curveball in the mid- to upper-80s.
"When he signed, his arm strength just wasn't there," Langbehn said. "He was back home doing whatever he was doing, so he just wasn't there physically. He was a low- to mid-80s guy. But again, the thing that jumped out to me was he wasn't afraid of us, he threw strikes — and he did this with less then 100 percent arm strength. He's left-handed, which was appealing to us. He's got a good change-up and a breaking ball that is good enough. He's got enough on the fastball that he can cause problems when he's already established two off-speed pitches for strikes."
Likewise, Kaminski fared solidly against the Bums' high-powered offense. He allowed only one earned run in 4.2 innings, giving up three hits and striking out five.
The Warriors were 2-4 against Traverse City, with one of those wins a fairly meaningless season-ending game after the Beach Bums had already clinched a playoff spot. In the other win, Kaminski notched the save.
"I loved his aggressiveness," Langbehn said. "He's the kind of kid I and Jason (Wuerfel) look for — they attack the strike zone. He was primarily a two-pitch guy in the outings we saw against us — fastball and slider. I thought we had a pretty good offensive year last year, and whenever he came in and faced us, it was like he didn't care who he was facing. That really stood out to me. He was just as aggressive with our middle-of-the-order guys. It didn't matter. He was attacking. And he did a good job against us."
The Rippers' average attendance was 856 — less than half of the next worst FL team.
"Getting picked up by Traverse is a complete change of things," Kaminski said. "It's a beautiful ballpark out here, which is fantastic. I always liked pitching here. They've got good fans. Even though they might have been razzing us a bit, but even though, it's such a good atmosphere.
"We didn't always fare too well. Traverse is very good. I think we might have beaten them one time. But after we became the Road team, we only won eight or nine games — and Traverse happened to be two of them."