Former RiverHawk Austin to play in Mexican League
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February 13, 2007 - LOVES PARK, Ill. – Former Rockford RiverHawk Rich Austin will spend his summer south of the border.

The 2004 Frontier League Most Valuable Player recently signed a contract to play for the Tabasco Cattlemen of the Mexican League. Austin, who had a brief stint in the Kansas City organization following Rockford’s championship run, spent the last two seasons with the independent Northern League’s Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks – he won another pennant last September – and is coming off a .300 performance in a Mexican winter league.

“I’m really looking forward to getting the opportunity,” said Austin, a career .302 hitter. “Not only do you get to play guys from Mexico and the States, but they’ve also opened the doors to guys from Korea and Japan.”

Austin, 29, will play at a higher level than any former RiverHawk has since leaving Rockford. The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of the major-league affiliated minor leagues, classifies the Mexican League as Triple-A ball, though the Mexican teams operate quasi-independently of Major League Baseball.

Other former RiverHawks who have moved out of indy ball include pitcher Justin Olson, who signed with Minnesota in 2003 and has spent the last two years at Class AA New Britain, and catcher Kevin Ciarrachi, who recently signed with the Chicago Cubs and will head to their minor-league spring camp.

Last summer, Austin hit .296 with 13 home runs and 69 RBI and matched a career-best with 22 steals for Fargo. In addition, he moved from outfield to first base in the final weeks of the season. Anton French, a fellow outfielder and longtime friend, talked him into signing to play winter ball with Dragones Rojos de Coatzacoalcos, which translates roughly into the Red Dragons. The team plays in the Veracruz Winter League, one of a number of lesser-known Mexican professional leagues. Austin hit .300 with 11 home runs in a regular season of roughly 50 games. In a postseason of about 20 games, he batted .439 with four homers and 19 RBI.

“I got tired, like I hit a wall down, there, but I got my energy back up,” said Austin, who is back with his family in the St. Louis area for a couple of weeks before he reports to Oaxaca for spring training. “These couple of weeks, I’m just trying to relax. (Veteran Mexican Leaguers told him) ‘You’re going to need it,’ especially in the place I’m going to.” Oaxaca is in steamy southern Mexico.

Austin, who broke into pro ball in 2001 with the Springfield Capitals, came north when the franchise moved to Rockford that fall. He quickly became a fan favorite by, among other things, running face-first into the right-field wall at Marinelli Field in a near miss of a line drive in 2002. In 2004, he hit a league-leading .359 with 15 home runs and 77 RBI, all of which were team records at the time.

The Royals signed him immediately after the championship, but Austin never had a chance to see a regular-season game in affiliated ball. Kansas City released after a few spring-training games.

“That didn’t pan out, but this is definitely another opportunity to get where I want to be,” Austin said. “One of my buddies told me a while ago, you can make a pretty good living playing this game without making it to the major leagues. I can put myself into a position to be able to accomplish that.”

Austin, father of 2-year-old Rich Jr., said the financial incentives weighed heavily in his decision to play in a foreign league. The Mexican League pays more than twice what he made in the Northern League and more than four times the Frontier League maximum, he said.

“It was a longshot opportunity that I took,” Austin said. “I enjoyed playing in independent ball, but it’s hard to make a living.”

Austin and other expatriot indy-league veterans point to the example of Morgan Burkhart, a slugger who rewrote the Frontier League record book when he played for Richmond in the 1990s. Burkhart, who turned 35 last month, has had cups of coffee in the majors with Boston and Kansas City, but has spent four of the last five seasons in the Japan Pacific and Mexican leagues. Not only is the money better in a foreign league, Austin said, but the level of competition makes it more likely that another major-league organization will see him and give him a second chance.

“Morgan’s been down there for the last few years,” Austin said. “Once you have a good year there, you’re down there all the time. I have a winter job locked up for however long, but next year I’m trying to play in the other league, the (Mexican) Pacific League,” Mexico’s top-level winter league.

“It’s good that I’m making a name for myself down there. I’m really trying to get my name down there, make things happen.”

The RiverHawks are the Western Division champions of the Frontier League, a 12-team independent professional baseball league that will play its 15th season in 2007. Advertising, season-ticket and suite information is available by calling the box office at (815) 885-2255. Fans can also visit the RiverHawks online at www.rockfordriverhawks.com.


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