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Howie Hanson: Wolff not surprised

Northern League founder Miles Wolff isn't surprised that the Dukes pulled out of Duluth. Wolff fought hard to keep a Northern League (NL) team in Duluth. But when he stepped down as commissioner of the NL Central about a year ago -- while continu...

Northern League founder Miles Wolff isn't surprised that the Dukes pulled out of Duluth.

Wolff fought hard to keep a Northern League (NL) team in Duluth. But when he stepped down as commissioner of the NL Central about a year ago -- while continuing as commish of the eight-team NL East, and owner-operator of the Quebec franchise -- the Dukes lost their staunchest supporter.

"I knew things weren't going well in Duluth, and knew that John Ehlert was looking at other options," Wolff said this week by telephone from Quebec. "Since Duluth was the reason I started the Northern League, it pains me a little bit. What a great stadium you have, what a great history of baseball in your community. In the early years of the rebirth of the league I felt Wade Stadium was the liveliest ballpark in the league, and the fans really reacted strongly. But I'm not sure we gave Duluth the best operations that we could have."

There was an early commitment in Duluth, and all along Gary Doty was a big fan and supporter, Wolff said. "But in the end I know the various owners wanted more support from the city," Wolff said.

Duluth also never had any local people involved in ownership, which ultimately hurt the team, Wolff said. "As much as I love Wade Stadium, it (no local ownership) was ultimately the downfall for the Dukes," Wolff said.

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And even though it is historic, Wade Stadium may have been a barrier for success, Wolff said. "Wade seems to be located in the coldest part of town, and people always said it was 10 degrees warmer over the hill. And the fogouts hurt," Wolff said. "The population base is there, and at about 200,000 regionally it's larger than Sioux Falls, Sioux City and Fargo-Moorhead. But the Dukes couldn't draw."

Mike Veeck, an outside-the-box thinking son of former Chicago White Sox owner and marketing genius Bill Veeck, almost purchased the Dukes after the team's Central Division championship in 2000, when former operator Harry Stavrenos exercised an option not to purchase the team after one season and returned it to the league.

"Mike had the financial backers for Duluth, but his already being a partner with the St. Paul Saints created concern," Wolff said. "Maybe Mike could have made it work in Duluth, but the Ehlerts really wanted to own it.

"I don't blame the Ehlerts because I'm not sure that anybody could have turned it around. And I wouldn't knock any of the Dukes' owners -- it's just that there were too many of them. You love Ted Cushmore, and Jim Wadley is a great guy. If Mal (Fichman, 1993 Dukes field manager) had better ownership behind him, and Bruce Engel not chose to sell the club to Ted to start his Western League, it maybe would have created more stability."

Wolff said his first ownership choice for Duluth before the NL's rebirth season in 1993 was New York Yankees minority owner Marv Goldklang and Veeck, who eventually partnered in the St. Paul start-up.

"Marv didn't want to change planes twice to reach Duluth and chose St. Paul," Wolff said. "At the time, we didn't know that St. Paul would be that much better than Duluth."

Meanwhile, Wolff continues to be amazed by the growth of the NL.

"We simply wanted to survive in that first year with the six teams," Wolff said. "Would this thing survive? And then all of a sudden new parks started to spring up, which brought new ownership. We started out with baseball guys, but now it's different."

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The Northwoods League, a wooden bat college league for players with NCAA eligibility remaining, has targeted Duluth for possible expansion in 2003.

Northwoods League President Dick Radatz Jr. and Duluth Mayor Gary Doty met in Duluth on Thursday, when they toured Wade Stadium and met with city attorneys to work on a stadium lease.

Doty said the meeting with Radatz was to determine if the Northwoods League and the city of Duluth are a good match.

"If that is the conclusion, then we must come to agreement on the stadium use which includes things such as rental rate, concessions, sign boards, field responsibilities and much more," Doty said. "We are not yet at that point. I will not let this linger so I want to see a decision made by both sides within the next couple of weeks."

The Northwoods and the city exchanged draft leases in preparation for Thursday's meeting.

"I'm very excited about Duluth, which fits geographically for our league, and, from what I see, it's all there for us," Radatz said. "A number of people have lined up to own the team, nobody local, and the first step is to get a lease signed. Pretty much everyone who has expressed an interest in owning the team has ties to baseball, either in professional baseball or the Northwoods."

Radatz said Nov. 15 is a target date for the new team to begin operations in Duluth -- for play starting next summer -- if everything moves along as he expects.

Howie Hanson writes a weekly sports column for the Budgeteer News. He may be reached at 726-1610 or by email at Howie@duluth.com .

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