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Bush leagues: There’s baseball in them thar ’burbs

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By Dave Chamberlain

It is a game. Nothing more.

But over the course of its 150-year evolution, baseball has grown into America’s great—summer—pastime. Though other sports during other seasons may have used the 1994-95 strike to vault over baseball in terms of viewership and advertising dollars, (specifically, basketball and football), baseball is as much a part of the typical American family’s summer as trips to the beach and amusement parks. Like hockey in Canada, it’s a cultural distinction.

And also like hockey in Canada, baseball’s talent-development system reaches much further than basketball and football’s high school-college-pro succession. Baseball’s minor leagues, more than 300 teams playing in every city from Rochester, NY to Spokane, Washington, provide young baseball players—right out of high school or college—a chance to play at whatever level they’re deemed ready. Every American-born player, whether highly touted youngster like J.D. Drew or journeyman middle reliever like Eric Plunk, starts in America’s minor league baseball system.

But regardless of comparison sports, modern-day baseball has become an expensive proposition. Salaries for incoming players have broken the million-dollar mark—before a player has played an inning—and superstars of the Major League game now command tens of millions, even with declining careers. And for every million-dollar bust, Major League baseball expects the fans to pick up the tab. In the nineties, mom, dad, bro and sis are paying for Mel Rojas and Kevin Orie.

A family of four venturing to Wrigley Field for a weekend game will pay at least $100 dollars for seats, hotdogs and beverages. Add another $10-15 for parking if necessary. With Wrigley one of the least expensive baseball experiences in the country, fans are finding alternatives. Primarily, minor league baseball.

It is with this in mind that Newcity introduces you to the newest entry into Chicagoland’s growing ranks of minor league baseball: the Cook County Cheetahs.

Sick of watching the Cubs blow leads and sure those kids can’t play? Chicagoland is crisscrossed with baseball options. For roughly one-third the price of a day at Wrigley or Comiskey a Chicagoan can travel north to watch the Kane County Cougars, west to see the Schaumburg Flyers, and south for the newest entry into the local diamond pantheon, the Cook County Cheetahs.

And they’re starting out in class. Slated to be open in time for opening day, Hawkinson Ford Field (named after a primary sponsor, Bob Hawkinson, of Bob Hawkinson Ford car dealership fame) is a beautifully sculpted microbe of any major league park. Cement cast with an upper deck, Hawkinson Ford Field sparks memories of old Comiskey Park—without bleachers. Designed by the Devine deFlon Yaeger architecture firm and costing $9 million, the field rises out of nowhere in the south suburban emptiness of Crestwood, just over the border to Midlothian. The stadium can hold 3,400 fans, and—in the spirit of modern-day baseball—even has two luxury suites. At present, the stands are essentially complete, with just bells and whistles left to be added. (“The stadium will be ready for opening day,” stresses head scout Larry Malar. “The mayor guaranteed it.”) With expanses of open space around it, Hawkinson Ford Field has alotted growing space, Malar says, just in case the team’s popularity necessitates growth.

And popularity is the only thing likely to stimulate growth. Unlike both the Cougars and the Flyers, the Cheetahs—playing for the first year in the Frontier League in its second year of existence—are unaffiliated. In the words of Malar, the bottom line difference is such: “Affiliated teams get their money from the Major Leagues, independent teams get their money from the fans.”

As a member of the Frontier League (the Cougars and Flyers are part of the Midwest and Northern League, respectively), the Cheetahs play a shortened, 84-game scehdule. The Cheetahs are joined in the League’s Western division by the Springfield Capitals, Dubois County Dragons, Evansville Otters and River City Rascals. The Eastern division consists of the Canton Crocodiles, Chillicothe Paints, Johnstown Johnnies, Richmond Roosters and London (Kentucky) Werewolves. Although the Cheetahs played in the now-defunct Heartland League last year, they are considered an expansion team by the Frontier League.

As an independent league, the 6-year-old Frontier League is not a member of the National Association of Professional Baseball, the 99-year-old organization designed to regulate and moderate contract disputes between teams. (Formed because, in 1900 with the inception of the then-new American League, players under contract with National League teams signed American League contracts. A star of the time, Nap Lajoie, was banned from playing in the city of Philadelphia after jumping the team he was bound to, the Philadephia Phillies, and signing with the American League’s Philadelphia Atheletics.)

By virtue of a shortened season, players’ statistics can be both underwhelming and exaggerated. But the superior players will stand out. Last year’s Frontier League MVP, Morgan Burkhardt of the Richmond Roosters, hit 36 homeruns and 98 RBIs while batting a robust .404. The Frontier League set itself apart in 1994, when one Kendra Hanes played ten games for the now-defunt Kentuckey team. She did not return to professional baseball, however, posting a goose egg against ten at-bats in ten games.

Under restrictions imposed by the Frontier League, the Cheetahs are limited to having three veteran players on its twenty-four man roster. A veteran is defined by either two years experience at the professional (i.e., paid—semi-pro experience does not apply) level or more than 160 at bats. Additionally, no player can be older than 27 years on opening day (June 3).

Understanding that local interest is the only way to grow, The Cheetahs have made moves pique baseball fans’ memories. The team manager is Chico Walker, former utility man for Boston, California, the Mets and, North Siders already know it, the Cubs. Assistant coach Ron LeFlore carries more name recognition, having starred in the mid-seventies for Detroit, Montreal and, South Siders already know it, the White Sox. (LeFlore also holds the distinction of being the only player to lead both the American and National League in stolen bases.)

And in the tradition of minor league baseball, ticket prices lure fan away from the major financial investment that is Wrigley Field or Comiskey Park. A single season ticket located in the lower deck of Hawkinson Ford Field, will run between $292-308, for forty-four home games. For the upper deck, $250-264. Single game tickets run accordingly, between $4 and $7.

But there is a catch, or a muff, as it were. A recent nine-inning scrimmage of players attempting to make the team revealed why no major league teams have snatched up these youngsters.

The game was the culmination of a two-day camp, the second held by the Cheetahs coaching staff. Of the thirty or so baseball hopefuls, three from each camp are invited to compete against the Cheetahs’ veterans in spring training, which started May 17. There’s no guarantee the players will make the team, but they will be given an even shake to show what they’ve got. “We want to show these kids,” says Malar, “that they have a chance to make the team, and that we’re not just inviting them here to take their fee money and send them home.” Malar proudly notes that the Cheetahs have been attempting to build a reputation that will bring more players to the tryouts next year. It’s worked so far, as baseballers from Canada, California, Iowa and even Australia, in addition to local boys, showed up for the second tryout.

If the players don’t make the cut, they have one more chance: the Frontier League will hold league-wide scouted open tryouts later this month in Richmond, though Malar quietly notes “there won’t be much there, because if they were any good, another team would already have them.”

For these players, this is where professional baseball begins or ends. Right out of college or junior college or high school, without the fanfare or talent of an Albert Belle or Will Clark (both of whom came out of college as sure-thing draft picks, from LSU and Texas respectively), they must begin at the very bottom.

And once the game starts, under the cloudless sky and in the cool breeze of early May, it’s clear that few—if any—of the hopefuls have a life of major league baseball in front of them. In the first inning, three throws to first fly wildly over the first sacker’s head—not entirely unexpected, as the plumpish first baseman appears to boast a two-inch vertical leap. Team A features a bleached-hair lefty (“sent to us from Ron Kittle over in Schaumburg,” confides Malar), with zip on the fastball and good control. He’d put the batters down in order, if not for the slow grounders that hop over the third baseman’s glove, and balls bouncing out of the first baseman’s mitt. Errors run rampant. Few balls travel to the outfield off the bat.

Flashes of brilliance, or at least potential for brilliance, can be found. The starting right fielder, with four years of experience at Iowa State (again, confided by Malar) makes a diving stab of a line drive that actually makes it out of the infield. The Belgian southpaw strikes out two in the second inning, nearly striking out the side save for a shallow pop fly.

Then it gets really ugly. In his last inning of work, the lefty gets shelled—no thanks to a left fielder who sprints backward on a fly ball that falls forty feet in front of him. Baserunners are stealing second, then third while the hopeful catcher—generally one of the best positions to break into because nobody wants to play behind a swinging bat and in front of a sweaty ump—throws the ball with gusto into center field. In turn, the center fielder’s throw back to second makes it all the way to the backstop behind homeplate.

By the third inning, it’s getting downright horrifying. The Belgian lefty’s replacement on the mound (“Johnny,” everyone finds out, thanks to a supportive dad sitting alone in the stands) begins by putting his first pitch in the batter’s mouth. As the innings drag on, more and more batters are getting dusted. While the hopeful hurlers of the Cook County Cheetahs are not exactly zipping fireballs, they are bringing lightening bolts without direction. The catcher, after dropping a third strike, rifles the ball—instead of to first base—into the back of the runner heading for first. A late-inning replacement at third base can’t seem to make the throw all the way from first to third. Twice.

All the bad, unfortunately, overshadows the good happening on the field. When batters draw walks, they all sprint to first base. Players hustle to back up bases (good thing, considering the pinpoint accuracy of everyone’s arms). Many help each other out, shouting encouragment or giving advice on machanics. Every player on the field is trying as hard as they can. Only three will move on.

The players who are invited to spring training and make the Cheetahs will by no means be rich. According to Malar, first year players will make around $500 per month. The maximum any player will make (primarily veterans), is $1,100 per month. Though they won’t be making early retirement plans, players get free room-and-board in Louis College dormitories for the duration of the season, and the Cheetahs have worked out agreements with area restaurants to hook the players up with deals on food. It is the model of community-supported minor league baseball.

After the scrimmage, players scatter. Local boys head home, out-of-towners stick around the field for extra batting practice and to snag some (necessary) practice. Players stand around manager Walker and coach LeFlore, asking for autographs. The kid from Iowa State (who asks his name not be used, in case he doesn’t make the team), when asked what he thinks his chances are, modestly answers “that depends on what they’re looking for.” All the same, he inquires about the Richmond tryouts. He’s trying, and he wants to play. And that is all we can ask.

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