Forget Mudville. There is joy in Marion.
After pairing with private investors, the southern Illinois town is poised to become the state's latest home to minor league baseball.
"We're willing to go to bat to help the development of this because we feel it will be a tremendous shot in the arm, not just for the city of Marion, but for the entire area," says Marion Mayor Bob Butler. "We've got a lot of rabid baseball fans in the area. It's amazing. I can go to the grocery store and little gray-haired old ladies will ask, 'Where do I get a season ticket?'"
Optimism is abundant in Marion as the locals look to minor league baseball for an economic boost. By one estimate, a new stadium can bring the area an additional $4 million a year.
But before the project even got off the ground, it was mired in political mud. For Illinois, that's certainly nothing new.
The intersection of sports and politics, is as time-tested as Yankee pinstripes.
In 1986, state lawmakers steered $167 million, mostly from a tax on Chicago hotels, to construction of a new stadium for the Chicago White Sox. In 2000, lawmakers tapped the same tax for $387 million. That picked up most of the cost of squeezing a modern stadium into the historic colonnades of Soldier Field.
That didn't stop Andy McKenna, chairman of the Illinois GOP, from crying foul when Gov. Rod Blagojevich set aside a $3 million state grant to help build a minor league baseball stadium in Marion. McKenna called for an investigation because lead investor John Simmons and his Metro East law firm have given nearly $30,000 to Blagojevich's campaign fund.
McKenna couldn't get a prosecutor to take up the case. Instead, the local state's attorney invited McKenna to come enjoy a heaping helping of "southern Illinois crow" when the Marion ballpark opens.
Supporters say the state will see a return on its investment. They have reason for confidence. A few years ago, the state pitched in $1 million to build a Metro East home for the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League. Club officials figure taxes on team revenues have repaid the state's seed money. After all, the Sauget stadium has led the Frontier League in attendance three straight years, even packing in a record 7,917 fans for this year's season finale.
And it wasn't the first time state money went to stadium construction.
In 1997, former state Sen. Patrick O'Malley, a Palos Park Republican, secured a $700,000 grant to help Crestwood build a home for the Cook County Cheetahs.
"The village of Crestwood came to me and requested assistance," he says. "Our caucus discussed it and decided that they thought it was a very prudent way for us to assist a local municipality." The village, as O'Malley points out, financed more than 90 percent of the project.
Today, six years after the $8 million stadium opened, Crestwood Mayor Chester Stranczek still considers the park a prudent investment. "It will take a number of years to get our $8 million back, but that wasn't the reason that we did it. It's an economic benefit to the community."
For a short time after leaving the legislature, O'Malley was part of an ownership group that gave the club its current name, the Windy City Thunderbolts. He says he sold his interest more than a year ago. Stranczek's son, however, owns a third of the team, the mayor says.
In addition to ticket and concession sales, Marion officials see a new stadium as a major attraction, one that will have visitors plunking down additional dollars at local shops, restaurants and hotels.
While much farther from a major metropolitan area than Crestwood or Sauget, research shows a Marion ballpark could attract at least 2,600 fans per game, says Dennis Poshard, who headed the grass-roots campaign for southern Illinois baseball and now works for Simmons.
The $16 million stadium will have about 4,000 seats. Picnic areas and an outfield berm should boost capacity to 6,000 or more, says Poshard, the son of former U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard. The goal is to provide inexpensive family entertainment. Most minor league parks charge about $10 for the best seats in the house. Tickets to Major League Baseball games start at two or three times that.
To help finance the park, Marion has raised the local sales tax by an eighth of a percent. Mayor Butler says the hike should generate $400,000 a year, enough to cover about 40 percent of the stadium debt.
Private financing covered nearly 70 percent of Peoria's new ballpark. Opened in 2002, O'Brien Field was built for $23 million. The home of the Peoria Chiefs — currently a Class A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs — can hold 7,500 fans.
While new stadiums have proved to be fan magnets, the question for Marion is: What team will the fans be lining up to see?
"There's no doubt that southern Illinois is a St. Louis Cardinals' market," Poshard says. "If we wound up, down the road, being a Cardinal franchise or a Cub franchise or something that local people could kind of identify with, that would obviously be better than winding up with the Florida Marlins or something like that, no aspersions toward those other teams."
Mayor Butler agrees. "It would be a tremendous thing if at some point in time they could become affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals," he says. "That would be the icing on the cake."
The Kane County Cougars have done well hosting far-flung Class A affiliates, first the Florida Marlins and now the Oakland Athletics. Before catering to the Cubs, the Peoria Chiefs — the state's only other affiliated minor league club — had hosted a St. Louis Cardinals' Class A team.
The Cardinals currently have three Class A affiliates. The big-league club owns the Palm Beach County [Fla.] Cardinals. The team has one year left on an affiliate deal with the New Jersey Cardinals of Augusta, N.J., says Bruce Manno, director of player development for the St. Louis Cardinals. And the team also has three years left on a four-year contract with the Swing of the Quad Cities, which plays in Davenport, Iowa. "We're very happy in the Quad Cities," Manno says, declining to discuss the odds of a St. Louis franchise moving to Marion.
The stadium will be built to meet Major League Baseball requirements for a Class A team, which means fans will see players who could be on big-league clubs within a few years. Simmons' ownership group purchased the Savannah [Ga.] Sand Gnats last winter and has reached an agreement to purchase the South Bend [Ind.] Silver Hawks. Those teams are Class A affiliates of the Washington Nationals and the Arizona Diamondbacks, respectively.
While excitement is brewing in Marion, the town could take a lesson from Springfield. The capital city never built a new ballpark for minor league baseball, but in the 1970s it made renovations to Lanphier Park in preparation for it.
The Springfield Redbirds were as good at it gets. Not only were they affiliated with a local team — the St. Louis Cardinals — the Redbirds also were a Triple A club, the highest caliber of minor league baseball. All summer, Springfield fans could watch players that were only a phone call away from performing in the big leagues.
But the Redbirds left for Louisville, Ky., after just four seasons. They were replaced by the Springfield Cardinals, a Class A affiliate of the big-league club. The team played a dozen seasons at Lanphier Park. But crowds had dwindled to roughly 1,200 per game by 1993, the Cardinals' rain-soaked final season in Springfield. They left for Madison, Wis. But minor league baseball would slide further in Springfield before slipping out of town altogether.
First came the Class A Sultans, who played one season as a San Diego Padres' affiliate and another under the Kansas City Royals' organization. The crowds continued to shrink, and Lanphier Park was showing its age. The Sultans were lured to a new stadium in Lansing, Mich.
The owner of the now Lansing Lugnuts wants that city to soften its current stadium lease. It's these sorts of rumblings that Marion must prepare for if it plans to treat baseball as an economic engine. There will always be some city willing to build a new ballpark for a nomadic team. The Chicago White Sox, for instance, used St. Petersburg, Fla., to leverage its new stadium from the Illinois legislature.
Even the last futile incarnation of minor league baseball in Springfield — the Capitals of the Frontier League — left for Rockford three years ago with the promise of a new ballpark. The Rockford RiverHawks move into their new stadium next year.
Marion has a lot riding on minor league baseball. The 30-acre ballpark will anchor a 120-acre development near Interstate 57 and Illinois Route 13. A Marriott hotel chain, a local bank and the Menards chain of hardware superstores already have construction plans, Mayor Butler says.
Marion didn't want to operate the stadium itself, the underlying theory being that a privately owned stadium is less likely to sit empty if shifts in the minor league baseball world lure a team away. That's some reassuring logic because even new stadiums eventually grow old. Springfield's experience offers a cautionary tale. Much like mighty Casey, a town can strike out trying to support minor league baseball.
Pat Guinane can be reached at email@example.com.
Illinois Issues, October 2005