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Northern League pushes for expansion

FARGO - Eight is great. But Northern League commissioner Clark Griffith has his eyes set on further expansion for one of the nation's premier independent baseball organizations.

Griffith is now looking for a perfect 10.

Griffith said Tuesday that he's confident the Northern League will be at 10 teams by the start of the 2011 season. The league in February announced expansion from six to eight teams.

"I am a paragon of optimism," Griffith said. "We'll be at 10. Absolutely."

Griffith said the Lake County Fielders in Illinois are in the advanced stages of preparing their franchise to enter the Northern League next season.

The Fielders, whose majority owner is actor Kevin Costner, are preparing to break ground soon on their new ballpark in Zion, Ill.

Griffith said plans for the other team that will begin play in 2010 have not been finalized.

He said he is working to put new franchises in three cities within the Northern League's geographic footprint.

The first priority is adding another privately owned franchise with Lake County in 2010, Griffith said.

However, the eighth team could be owned by the league and set up a temporary home in an existing ballpark.

Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks owner Bruce Thom said the plan for the new team could be set when the league begins working in September on next year's schedule.

"We want to have an eighth team next year," Thom said. "You can't go with seven. There is no way the schedule would work. If we have to put in a traveling team, we'll put in a traveling team."

Griffith would not disclose which cities he is eyeing for expansion.

However, he did say the league learned from its past mistakes.

"Realistic travel," Griffith said. "Not like Calgary and Edmonton."

Calgary and Edmonton bolted from the Northern League at the end of 2007 to join the Golden Baseball League largely because of travel issues.

The Northern League lost former members Lincoln (Neb.), St. Paul, Sioux Falls (S.D.) and Sioux City (Iowa) to the American Association after the 2005 season.

Griffith said he is "very deep" and "very far along" in discussions with three potential expansion cities.

He said the league would likely announce the league's eighth team in the next two or three months.

"They are all making progress," Griffith said of the three possible expansion cities. "They are all talking to me in terms of playing in 2010. I'm just being realistic. I think the odds of adding all three at once are just astronomical."

Current Northern League teams are located in Fargo-Moorhead, Gary (Ind.), Joliet (Ill.), Schaumburg (Ill.), Winnipeg and Kansas City (Kan.).

The league reformed in 1993 with six teams following a 20-year stretch of dormancy.

The Northern League had 10 teams from 2002 to 2004, and expanded to 12 teams in 2005.

"I think the Northern League is preeminent among the independent leagues," Griffith said. "We just want to maintain that."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heath Hotzler at (701) 241-5562. Hotzler's blogs can be