It's been seven years since the Duluth-Superior Dukes baseball franchise left for the greener pastures of Kansas City. After a decade of rotating ownerships and financial failures, the plug was finally pulled on the Twin Ports.
It was a shame the Dukes never had a formal goodbye at the end of that 2002 season -- instead having to settle for the indignity of a hasty announcement shortly after the final game.
Despite owners promising otherwise, it was obvious a change was in the works as that summer unfolded. Many of the players gave little effort in front of crowds often failing to reach triple digits. Wade Stadium was collecting garbage and dust in an effort to save money.
The closing weekend was abysmal, with just a few dozen people watching an indifferent team play out the string. The experience offered no fun for those attending, which had been a staple since the beginning.
As a whole, the Dukes' 10-year run in the Northern League can't be viewed as even moderately successful. It did, however, provide a fair share of entertainment.
The opening night in 1993 brought a new energy to our city. A jam-packed audience created a festive atmosphere as the St. Paul Saints came to town. The aroma of popcorn, hot dogs and beer filled the historic ballpark, which had been refurbished into a gleaming venue.
Unfortunately for the home team, former Chicago Cubs slugger Leon Durham ruined the evening with a late-inning grand slam home run, a memorable shot that some believe established St. Paul as the standard for independent professional baseball.
The Dukes struggled at the gate in the years that followed. Various promotions would occasionally bring people out in droves, but the play on the field often left much to be desired.
In 1997, a talented squad kept fans riveted for the entire summer. A playoff victory over the rival Saints set up a memorable championship series with the Winnipeg Goldeyes. After splitting four games, the teams met in a winner-take-all contest at Wade Stadium. The mid-September battle drew a standing-room-only crowd on that Friday night, with hundreds congregated several rows deep down the foul lines. The Dukes won a thriller, 3-1, prompting many to storm the field to join the celebration.
It was the greatest highlight in franchise history.
Unfortunately, apathy returned shortly after. Attendance dropped considerably, even during another championship run in 2000. Just a few years later, it was on to K.C.
The Northern League has taken some interesting twists since its inception, when Rochester, Sioux Falls, Sioux City and Thunder Bay joined the Duluth and St. Paul.
Some organizations fared better than others.
Rochester was a disaster, lasting just one year despite a team that went all the way to the championship series. Soon they relocated to Fargo-Moorhead, and have been a stellar member since.
Thunder Bay eventually moved to Schaumburg, Ill., where they've thrived for the past 10 years in a ballpark built as a miniature version of Wrigley Field.
Teams in Madison, Calgary and Edmonton have come and gone, either ceasing operations or moving to other levels of professional baseball.
The league appeared to be in disarray, with changes being the norm. Stalwarts St. Paul, Sioux City, Sioux Falls and Lincoln (Neb.) all jumped to the American Association in 2005, leaving most to believe the league would soon fold.
Despite the defections and uncertainty, things seem to have stabilized again. Kansas City has been a successful addition, while Winnipeg leads in attendance with a beautiful downtown stadium. Joliet, Ill., and Gary, Ind., have had their struggles, but both survived and are now in their eighth year.
While it was disappointing to see the Northern League leave Duluth, in hindsight it was clearly the right thing. The league had obviously outgrown our city. The Duluth Huskies are a much better fit, with a smaller budget and a more workable environment.
While the baseball may not be at as high a level, the young talent and desire make for an entertaining product.