Down on the Farm: “Corny” Illinois, and the Indy Indians continue to crawl back into the race

This is the third in a monthly series called “Down on the Farm” that will chronicle my visits to various minor league parks throughout the 2011 season. (Part 1 can be found here and part 2 here.)


In June’s edition, I regale you with tales and photos of my weekend journey way down state into steamy Marion, Illinois to watch the Southern Illinois Miners, as well as a Sunday evening tilt in Normal (IL) at the ”Corn Crib.” I’ll also update you on the progress of the Indianapolis Indians.

Mississippi River

Mississippi River

The Frontier League

A few particulars on this Professional Independent Baseball League:

-It formed in 1993, and its 96 game season runs from mid-May through the end of August.

-The league is comprised of twelve teams in the Midwest and is not affiliated with a Major League Baseball team. 

-The level is generallycomparable to Single A ball.

-Team salary caps are only $75,000.

-All players must be under the age of 27 (and over 21).

-Players that are selected come from a minor league farm system or went undrafted in Major League Baseball’s Amateur draft

-Though about half the locales are near major cities with big league clubs (Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in particular), no stadium holds more than 7,000 spectators.

-More than 230 players, coaches, managers and trainers have moved on to Major League Organizations. Current players on MLB rosters include Atlanta reliever George Sherrill, Baltimore starter Chris Jakubauskas, Padres reliever (and Indianapolis native/Indiana State alum) Joe Thatcher, and recently-retired World Series champion (2002) and 2003 All Star Brendan Donnelly. Here’s a full list of alumni. (For more league history, click this link.)

Rent One Park and the Southern Illinois Miners

One of the two largest and newest stadia in the Frontier League is four year-old Rent One Park in Marion, a growing area just east of the university town of Carbondale. The park was constructed just west of Marion proper, and therefore was built in a big empty space surrounded by hotels and restaurants that offers no particular view – other than that of I-57 over the right field wall and a lake beyond the left field fence.

Rent One Park, Marion, IL

The 2010 season — just their fourth in existence — was historic for the Southern Illinois Miners, as they set a Frontier League record with a 20 game win streak (June 9-28), getting to 39-9 by the All-Star Break, and winning 64 overall, tying a Frontier League record. However, after capturing their first ever West Division title, the Miners were eliminated in first round of the playoffs by the River City Rascals, who Southern Illinois happened to face this night.

The Miners have also had four win streaks of at least eight games in their franchise’s brief history.

{Notable former Miners are former Arizona Diamondback reliever Clay Zavada, and former controversial Little League World Series star, Danny Almonte}

Rent One Park, Marion, IL

2011 has begun with similar success on the diamond in Marion, as through 28 of the 96 game season, the Miners have rolled to a league best 22-7 record and a two and a half game lead in the western division.

If you like artificial turf, Rent One Park is for you: grass, dirt, baselines, pitcher’s mound, the home plate area, and the warning tracks are all “artificial.” It certainly makes for a different experience while watching the game, but overall the fans of the portion of Illinois historically known as “Egypt” have taken an immediate liking to Rent One Park, as the Miners easily broke the Frontier League attendance record in their first season.

They’ve led in attendance every season since, which is more impressive when you realize the Miners are one of just a couple of Frontier League teams not located within 20 miles of a major city. Then again, as I was told, with nearby Southern Illinois University athletics on hiatus during summertime, the Miners are “essentially competing with County Fairs and American Legion Ball.”

The ballpark doesn’t necessarily have any unique features, and resembles Bowling Green’s semi-new downtown park I visited in April, but it’s a clean, friendly and comfortable place to take in a game, proven by the patriotic crowds continuing to show up despite a rough spell in the Illinois economy.

Rent One Park, Marion, IL

On June 18, however, riding an eight game win streak, the Miners were apparently due for a loss. And though their best pitcher was on the mound, he was uncharacteristically rocked, losing his first contest of 2011. Additionally, this victory was the first regular season win for River City at Rent One Park since September 2009. The Miners have quickly begun another win streak, now at two, after Monday afternoon’s win in Florence (KY). 

The Corn Crib and the Normal CornBelters

Perched atop a hill on the north end of the Normal/Bloomington city limits, The Corn Crib – a 12 million dollar multi-purpose stadium adjacent to Heartland Community College — opened in May 2010, also the team’s first season.

McLean County (pop. 150,000) is the #1 corn producing county in America–and you’re reminded of that feat often while inside the stadium gates.

Corn Crib, Normal, IL

This newest park in the Frontier League is the home of the Normal CornBelters, where we took in a game Sunday evening, June 19. Like Rent One Park, it also holds roughly 7,000, but as a multi-purpose stadium (soccer and softball), seems much bigger, with huge foul lines, abundant berm seating and large backdrops. The clubhouse is actually beneath the center field scoreboard, so when the home team’s hitting coach was ejected, he had to walk through the outfield, up the hill, and into the building.

Corn Crib, Normal, IL

Speaking of the scoreboard, one drawback is that there’s not a lot of information on it, especially for the visiting team (i.e. names, stats, photos). Nonetheless, like Marion, Normal’s Corn Crib is clearly a nice, new, spacious park of which the Frontier League should be proud. 

Corn Crib, Normal, IL

Replete with suites, good amenities, a vibrant atmosphere and passionate crowd, including a catchy “Let’s Go Corn” chant accompanied by enthusiastic horns, crowds continue to fill the yard. That said, a far below average 1,471 were in attendance on Sunday, but those who did show up, saw a come-from-behind win for the club’s 9th triumph in 11 tries.

Normal sits in 3rd place in the west at 18-11, after a 44-52 in inaugural season.

Indianapolis Indians

After a brutal 8-19 start to the season, the Tribe has not lost a series since April 30-May 3, going 27-18 in the process.

They sneaked over .500 last week, and as of 20 June, stand 35-37, 3rd in the brutal International League West – but just six back of the Wild Card with slightly more than half the season left.

Being the Pirates’ top farm club, Indianapolis has gone through many changes in the past 365 days, with just one player (Justin Thomas) is still on the current roster from a year ago today.

Alex Presley by Bill Gentry (Indianapolis Star)

Alex Presley, whose success has inspired #FreeAlexPresley on Twitter and in blog posts by team broadcaster Scott McCauley, should be called up soon. Not having been promoted to Pittsburgh has drawn the ire of some, and perhaps rightly so, with many musing that his diminutive stature is no excuse for him to be overlooked.

Alex’s numbers are top notch {leads the International League in hits (90 in 70 games), is 3rd in average, 2nd in total bases, and 5th in steals}, and having interviewed him back in April, I can confirm he’s a mature, intelligent southern guy.

Garrett Olson by Bill Gentry (Indianapolis Star)

Lefty Garrett Olson, a 27 year old Californian who’s already appeared in over 100 big league games, has been stellar for the Indians (1.61 ERA) since coming off the DL a few weeks back.

John Bowker, of The “Bowker Effect,” continues to hit. The team’s winning ways (now 26 of 42) began when Bowker arrived on May 8.

The Indians also lead the IL in triples and stolen bases.

Julio Teheran by Bill Gentry (Indianapolis Star)

As their performance and weather ha swarmed, so have the crowds at Victory Field. Over 36 home tilts, Indy now stands 4th in attendance at over 7,000 per contest.

Next Indians update at the end of July.

*Editor’s Note on Photos: 

Gwinnett, the Triple A team for Atlanta, came to town June 11-14. Major League All-Star Jason Heyward made a couple of rehab starts (June 13-14), and 20 year-old Colombian Julio Teheran  (the top pitching prospect in all of baseball) dominated the Tribe over seven innings of three hit ball. He has a sub two ERA.

Jason Heyward by Bill Gentry (Indianapolis Star)

 



About AJ Kaufman

A former schoolteacher and military historian, A.J. is now in public relations. As an MSF columnist since 2009, he supports anything baseball-related. Raised in San Diego, A.J. has since resided in numerous parts of America, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio and Washington. After departing the coasts in 2005, he's traveled the backroads of 49 states and prefers the Heartland. Married to Maria, A.J. has authored three books and enjoys reading presidential biographies.

Comments

  1. So Illinois baseball exists outside of Chicago. Who knew? Nice to read the locals down south have somehting to do on the weekend. Solid article by AJ Kaufman

  2. I love reading about all these minor league parks…reminds me of the lazy summer days of watching baseball back int he 50's! The pictures are just beautiful and the details make you feel as if you are right there! Another terrific article by young Mr. Kaufman!

  3. I love these features as well. Being from the home of the Iowa Cubs, I've come to appreciate the game more without having to shell out big bucks to see big-name stars on a regular basis. These players are doing it for the love of the game, not for the love of profit.

  4. Thanks. I try my best

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