Originally Published: June 2, 2012 9:35 p.m.
PRESCOTT - Scottsdale resident Joe Sperle said he has known for years that the Prescott area and its residents hold a special place in their hearts for baseball.
That was one of the primary reasons why this year Sperle chose to establish the Montezuma Federals - a Prescott-based independent semi-pro team representing one of four new squads in his recently formed Freedom Pro Baseball League.
The Federals defeated Sperle's Scottsdale-based Arizona Centennials, 15-10, in the Feds' wild inaugural home game Saturday at Roughrider Park in front of about 50 fans.
Despite the win, the Federals players and their manager, Pete LaCock, simply seemed happy to be on a diamond they could temporarily call their own.
However, with the league tight on money, LaCock said lodging for his players has become an issue.
He added that the team's looking for host families in Prescott that could give his players a place to stay so they can play here through the summer. The Feds are scheduled to have 17 more home games in June, eight in July and 19 in August.
"Trying to get the team together is always a challenge," LaCock said from the home dugout before Saturday's game. "The kids right now are having to pay for their own hotel here. That has been a big concern of mine."
Federals reserve outfielder C.J. Hunt, who now helps coach baseball at Northland Prep Academy in Flagstaff, said he joined the Feds because he still loves to play the game.
Hunt, a 2007 graduate of Mesa Desert Ridge High, moved on to complete a degree at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. He played at Briar Cliff for four years and soon realized after he left how much he missed baseball.
"I was doing my internship for about six months, and the opportunity came up (with the Freedom League), and I wanted to get back out on the baseball field," Hunt said. "It was a great opportunity being that the league's in the state of Arizona, where I'm from. And I just jumped at it."
Hunt and his teammates earn a modest paycheck from the Freedom League, but they view the experience as an opportunity to get recognized by Major League scouts.
"I want to play baseball professionally in the majors, and still coach at Northland Prep in the off-season," Hunt said.
Sperle, the Centennials' manager who doubles as the owner of Joe Sperle's Baseball School, has a past in this area, as he's worked with prep players from Prescott and Cottonwood.
He said it didn't take him long to realize that central Yavapai County is "big baseball country."
Three years ago Sperle visualized his Freedom League forming a team in Prescott and starting another in Scottsdale.
His primary goals were to "bring high-quality, low-cost, fun and family-friendly entertainment" to central and northern Arizona baseball fans in between Spring Training and Fall League games while giving young-adult players an avenue to resuscitate their careers.
Sperle cited his leftfielder, Jeremy Macklin, as an example. He said Macklin drove 2,000 miles with a 1996 Chevy truck just to play for the Centennials. Recently at Scottsdale Stadium, where the Centennials play, Macklin crushed a 400-foot opposite field home run.
"So many guys are getting overlooked now," Sperle said.
Tim Gross, Sperle's cousin and a successful North Dakota-based farmer, is a majority owner in the Freedom League who's helping Sperle keep the league going without any major sponsors or gate receipts. (Admission to Federals games is $5 per person.)
Sperle said he thinks the league's four teams, which also include the Copper State Prospectors (Phoenix) and the Sonoran Explorers (Peoria), will remain viable because they do not have to travel very far to play each other.
"The players, the umpires, the coaches and the fans can follow the teams, too, now," he said. "Our fans and family like coming up here (to Prescott) because it's cooler and it's a nice atmosphere."