When you think professional baseball in Kentucky, you might think of the Cincinnati Reds, probably the state’s favorite team, or maybe the minor leagues’ Lexington Legends or Louisville Bats.
Maybe, driving past the “Florence Y’all” water tower, you’ve even taken in a Florence Freedom game in its stadium on the other side of I-75.
But there is almost no chance you’ve heard of the start-up independent baseball league in south Nicholasville.
It is new. It is small. But it is up and running.
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About five nights a week for two months this summer, more than 120 young men fill the rechristened Eagle Sports Complex on the U.S. 27 Bypass to pursue their own dreams of playing in the big leagues.
The organizers of the six-team Thoroughbred Baseball League cannot promise them more a few hundred dollars a month, a place to stay and a chance to build their baseball résumés, but the players don’t ask for much more than that.
“Right now, I’m thinking it’s pretty cool,” said Devin Spurgon of Marion, Ind., who played at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., and was one of the players from a number of different countries to try out and make a team. “It’s a pretty good opportunity for me to showcase my talent and move on to the next level. All we’ve got is talent around here, overall talent. ... It’s been really fun so far.”
If you build it
The league is the brainchild of Dallas Murphy, the man who built the site in 2003 after coming home from one of his son’s tournaments. Murphy didn’t see why Nicholasville couldn’t have its own first-class youth tournament site. So, he bought more than 80 acres of cow pasture and within a year was hosting big events with teams from all over the country on the formerly named Memorial Baseball Complex.
But as the Great Recession set in a few years later, deals to develop other parts of the property fell through. Loans came due. Lawsuits were filed.
Jessamine County property transfer records show the land Murphy bought in 2002 for $375,000 and then transferred to his own limited liability corporation a year later for $1,533,599 was taken over in 2010 by First Federal Bank for $1.
Murphy lost almost everything, including the complex he hoped to make “the Disney World of baseball.”
But Murphy didn’t lose his passion for the game or the connections he made in it.
Buoyed by a new vision and some faithful backers, he’s reorganized the complex and this new professional league in his son’s name. Dallas Murphy Jr., who finished his college career last year at Asbury University, continues to pursue his own baseball dream and that of his father. He plays for one of the six horse-themed teams, the Stallions, while also being the principal owner of the complex and the league.
“The park is something the family has worked for and worked with my entire life,” Murphy Jr. said. “I think it’s just a real blessing that I get to play and we get to have our park back.”
Steadfast friends and business partners, including Jeff Priebe, of Evansville, Ind., helped Murphy regain control of the complex, refurbish it and form the new league.
“The ownership — of which I’m basically the commissioner … believe in what we are doing and have put in individual funds,” Murphy said. “And we’ve gotten a great deal of help from folks.” One of Priebe’s companies bought the complex in 2014 for just more than $1 million and Murphy said his son’s new company has a lease-to-purchase agreement to bring it back into the family.
“The good thing about it is, through his connections he’s been able to sustain and obtain. He’s on his way up,” said Tommy Cobb, president of the Nicholasville Tourism Commission. “It was a terrible time for him with everything he had to deal with, but the end result is that now ... they’re both getting to work together, father and son, on a project that they absolutely love.”
As the league was holding tryouts at the end of May, Cobb got word that restaurants and hotels were filling up with these young players.
“The economic impact of this complex becoming active again is tremendous,” Cobb said.
There are thousands of players around the country hoping to break through with a major league organization. There are drafts. There are tryouts.
But there is also independent baseball where players who maybe never attracted much notice from scouts for one reason or another continue to work on their skills. Many of these leagues charge an upfront fee for trying out and then offer minimal wages for playing over a span of a couple of months. They are pro ball, but they are also more like a training league.
“The way we look at every guy that comes here is that we don’t want him to stay here,” Murphy said. “We want to give them an opportunity, whether it’s a first chance, second chance, third chance, whatever the reason, to get great stats against great opposing players, publish those stats and (to have) those stats be able to be relied upon so that they can move up.”
One of the players at tryouts, Luis Guzman, a 27-year-old Cuban national team pitcher, barely made it out of tryouts before a bigger independent league team came calling. Guzman signed a contract with the York (Pa.) Revolution shortly after showing up in Nicholasville.
Murphy modeled his league on organizations like the United Shore Professional Baseball League in Detroit, the Empire Professional League in New York and the Arizona Winter League, all organizations independent of Major League Baseball.
“I’ve watched it,” Murphy said of independent baseball. “And there are certain parts of it that we wanted to try to change that we think we can make better. And by making it better, I mean getting these guys what it is (they need) to help them make it to the next level.”
One of the people Murphy sought out for advice was Frontier League Commissioner Bill Lee. The Frontier League is the longest continuing independent league in the nation, and includes the Florence Freedom.
“I hope the folks down in that area take part in it and support it for them,” Lee said. “I’ll only speak for the Frontier League: We do everything we can to give (players) every opportunity to succeed, and I do what I do for the kids. I work for 12 owners, but I do what I do for the young men who are trying to further their careers. We’re trying to give them the opportunity to have things that were better than when I played. That’s why I admire Dallas for what he’s trying to do.”
Kayla Thompson, an “avid” baseball fan who maintains a blog dedicated to independent baseball called Indy Ball Island, has been following the Thoroughbred league’s beginnings. She drove six hours from Weirton, W.Va., to Nicholasville to take in opening night.
“It’s definitely lower-level indy ball, but there are some very talented players there,” said Thompson, who began her blog in 2014 and has developed kind of a cult following among indy players. “The complex as a whole is decent and with some work and better organization, I think it will serve its purpose well for games. The players are really enjoying themselves and being taken care of.”
Coaches and players
Over the last year or so, Murphy made fast friends with longtime independent baseball coach Scott “Skip” Nathanson and persuaded him to be a part of his new league.
“I liked what I heard,” said Nathanson, a retired physical education teacher who lives in Fish Kill, N.Y., and is listed as a coach in the Empire and Arizona Winter leagues. “I heard an honest man giving me his ideas and feelings. … This has been going great.”
Nathanson in turn brought other coaches and players with him to Nicholasville, including Sandy DeLeon, a longtime independent ballplayer and son of former major leaguer Jose DeLeon, who most famously played for the St. Louis Cardinals among others.
“I didn’t even know where Nicholasville was until I got here,” DeLeon said. “When I got here I thought it’s got to be a little country baseball field. But it’s actually what a minor league system complex looks like down in Florida or Arizona. … I feel right at home.”
Home is New York, where, when he’s not coaching baseball, he’s a nurse for a temp agency. But he likes to remain connected to the game. “(I’m here) for the love of baseball, the passion I have for it,” he said.
Rob Buchanan, a former Kentucky player and longtime youth baseball coach and instructor, manages one of the league’s teams as well. He and Murphy are longtime friends.
“It’s pretty neat,” Buchanan said at the tryouts. “You can see there’s a big contingent of guys out there that want to play, and they’re trying to get into the professional ranks in some form or fashion, whether they’ve been there before or they’re trying to get there for the first time.”
Word that Nathanson was here also drew a number of players, including Sheehan Planas-Arteaga of Miami, who had been drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 24th round out of Barry University in 2014. He was released the next year.
Planas-Arteaga, who played for Nathanson in the Empire league last year, quit two jobs back home to come to Kentucky and make another run at getting back into “affiliated ball.” He knows his window is short.
“I just turned 24. Generally the lifespan of a position-player prospect (I’m an outfielder) to remain relevant is 25 or 26 or so before you’re considered a lost cause,” he said. “Because 26-27 you’re considered that’s as good as you’re ever going to be. If you haven’t figured it out by then, you should probably hang them up.”
Lee, the Frontier League commissioner, knows players like Planas-Arteaga, bent on pursuing their dream regardless of circumstances, are the lifeblood of baseball.
“There’s going to be some guys down there at (the Thoroughbred league) that get picked up by major league organizations,” Lee said. “There’s going to be scouts coming down there to see how these guys are doing and some kids will be tearing it up and they’ll get picked up and get out of there.”
Thoroughbred Baseball League
What: Independent professional baseball league
Where: Eagle Sports Complex, 102 All-Star Way
Games: 4 p.m., 5:35 p.m. and 7:05 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 2, 4 and 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: $6 per day