Monday, July 22, 2013

Playing in Peoria: Game 82 in Peoria

After a wee-hour return to Davenport from Beloit, we whiplashed back into Illinois merely hours later, heading south this time to Peoria’s O’Brien Field, as it was then known, where the Midwest League’s Chiefs share their home with the Bradley University Braves.   

The urban setting of O'Brien Field
To say that there are competing or conflicting baseball alliances at the ballpark and in Peoria is to put things mildly.  When Peoria joined the Midwest League in 1983, it played its home games in Bradley’s ballpark, which was then named for its longtime athletic director John “Dutch” Meinen.   A decade later, the stadium, which was still home to the University’s baseball team, was renovated and renamed for the owner of the Chiefs, Pete Vonachen.   The complex relation between the Chiefs and the Braves continued when both teams transferred their homes to the city’s new ballpark in 2002.

While the stadium was built by the Chiefs, its display of retired numbers and tributes to area baseball heroes creates some confusion about who actually controls the facility.  On the concourse behind third base is a permanent display case featuring the numbers, photographs, and brief biographies of former Bradley Braves:
outfielder Kirby Puckett (#14), a first-round draft pick by the Twins in 1982 and subsequently a perennial American League all-star, Gold Glove award winner, and Silver Slugger recipient; pitcher Mike Dunne (#11), a seventh-round draft pick by the Cardinals in 1984 who ended his five-year, four-team Major League career with a losing record (25 wins and 30 losses); and coach Leo Schrall (# 2), an inductee into the Hall of Fame of the American Baseball Coaches Association for his twenty winning seasons, seven Missouri Conference Championships, and two College World Series appearances.  Their numbers are also displayed on baseballs at the top of the right field wall adjacent to the foul pole.  In addition, while most Minor League ballparks feature a roster of former players who made it to The Show, the prominent list of honorees in Peoria’s ballpark is of the former Bradley Braves who were signed by Major League teams to Minor League contracts.

By contrast, I couldn’t locate a list of former Chiefs who had made it to the Majors.  There were, however, large action images of several former Peoria stars in their most appreciated Major League uniforms, at least for the fans at the ballpark.  And two of the recognized players had had their numbers retired by the Chiefs: Greg Maddux (#31), who started twenty-seven games for Peoria at age nineteen and later won almost 200 games while pitching for the Atlanta Braves and winning three Cy Young awards with them, is portrayed as a Chicago Cub, the parent club of the Chiefs at the time that he broke into the Majors and achieved initial stardom; and Mark Grace (#17), a “doubles machine” and lifetime .300 hitter who played for the Chiefs in 1986, similarly appears in Chicago gear, his identity for most of his career.  Replicas of their Cubs jerseys—featuring their names and numbers—are also found on a banner slung over the lower outfield wall in deep centerfield.  Missing from the honorees, however, are current stars, and perhaps future Hall of Famers, Albert Pujols (whose action image swings near that of fellow first-baseman Grace) and Yadier Molina, both of whom achieved All-Star honors and other accolades as Cardinals.

…. which brings me to another confusing aspect of Peoria’s baseball allegiance. The city itself lies on the chalk line between upstate and downstate Illinois, the Cubs’ den and the Cardinals’ nest.  Baseball fans in northern Illinois have long followed the Cubs on WGN while those in the southern part of the state have cheered for the Cardinals on KMOX.  Memories of the Brock-for- Broglio trade—infamous for Cubs and divine for Cards—continue to slash the divide.

Now to complicate these matters of baseball identity further, here’s the Chiefs’ imbroglio: After a decade of functioning as the A-level affiliate of the Cubs during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Chiefs aligned with the Cardinals’ system for almost a decade before resuming their formal connections with the Cubs.  (And as I write this paragraph in a season following my tour, Peoria’s organizational vacillation has continued with the Chiefs’ shift back to an alliance with the Cardinals!  Does that portend that Pujols and Molina will soon get their numbers retired?)  Is it any wonder, then, that Peoria might suffer from baseball schizophrenia?

Thinking about Peoria’s muddled baseball identity as Bonnie and I approached O’Brien Field, I found a parking spot in front of the Rescue Mission on Walnut Street about a block from the front gates.  Opening the car doors, I could hear a choir singing gospel hymns, the most robust being “Amazing Grace.”  I figured that the doors to the chapel must be open as an invitation for wanderers to join the service before the soup supper.  Yet as we walked away from the Mission and toward the ballpark, the music got louder.  It was coming from inside the ballpark!  Did the Chiefs or visiting Bees from Burlington use Evangelical music to inspire their batting practice?  Did the ballpark play recordings of hymns as pre-game entertainment for the crowd?  Yet the blend of voices and the articulation of phrases suggested the performance had a local character.

One of Bethany Baptist's hymn-singers.
At the Will Call where I gave my name as the anthem singer, the agent looked startled when she could not find tickets filed under my name, nor could she locate my name on the list for complementary admission. “What group are you with?” she asked.  When I replied, “None,” she looked puzzled as my anxiety soared, especially since the choral music, now sounding live, poured past our ears.  Had I been replaced at even “a laster-minute” than the game-morning notification that I received from the Naturals when I had been replaced by an enclave of grade-school choirs at Northwest Arkansas?

“Who set up your appearance?” she continued. 

“Megan Miller,” I said as I checked my notes.  Thankfully, that name spelled relief.  The tickets had been filed under her name; and the choir, from nearby Bethany Baptist Church in suburban Edwards, simply provided live entertainment before the game, finishing their repertoire with a rendition of “God Bless America” immediately before I sang the anthem.

Also a part of the pre-game ceremonies were two Goth-dressed guys whose costumes looked like a rejected wardrobe for archenemies in a failed, super-hero comic strip.  They were there to throw out the first pitches to celebrate “Asian Carp Night.” 
Modeling carp fishing gear.
Initially, it wasn’t clear whether the garb of these first pitchers was meant to mimic the ugly, thistle-finned fish or whether the spikes on the helmets, shin guards, and breast plate were to protect prospective fishers from possible attack by the carp.  When asked, one of the guys smiled, confirming that the jocular gear was designed to protect his jugular. 

The satirical tribute, as I later learned from advocates at kiosks along the concourse, was to heighten awareness about the invasive piscine species in the Illinois River, which flows through Peoria at the base of the hill a half-mile below the ballpark.  Information about the fish and methods to control and eradicate it were also featured in mid-inning fan activities and video clips throughout the game.

In recent years the spread of the fish throughout the river has begun to threaten Lake Michigan; and in a protective move, the Illinois wildlife authorities have spent millions of dollars erecting an elaborate, electrical set of gates to prevent the fish from moving upstream to Chicago.  That effort, however, has not proven very effective.

A different set of carp gear.
One of the tragedies about the Asian Carp invasion is that the fish’s introduction into the Southeast was intentional.  Hoping to control various weeds and parasites, aquaculture industries in the Southeast interjected the species into their operations, only to suffer worse destruction by their incursion into the Mississippi River watershed.  Not only have the fish rapidly reproduced, they have also moved into the River’s tributaries through their own aggressive behavior and through unintentional transportation its roe by boaters moving from between bodies of water.   Flooding has also facilitated the carp’s spread into lakes and ponds normally separate from the free-flow of streams.  In fact, following expansive high waters in central Illinois, one fisherman killed—rather than caught—a forty-pound carp in a cow pond by using a pitch fork to spear it.  The dangers posed by the fish are not simply its encroachment into other species’ habitats or its decimation of plant life; the fish also pose a safety hazard to humans since they are able to jump eight feet out of the water and potentially injure unsuspecting boaters or knock them into the water.

In the playful spirit so typical of Minor League promotions, the Chiefs had floated a number of thematic ideas about the evenings opportunities, such as offering free admission to anyone escorting an Asian carp to the game.  But fearing the possibility of fetid fish driving away fans, the Chiefs rejected that idea.  Still, MiLB Blogger Ben Hill mused in anticipation, maybe the Chiefs could transform Ladies Day—one of Bill Veeck’s earliest promotions—by providing a discount for female fans wearing “fishnet stockings.” 

Such ideas lend credence to the cliché that if it (an event or product) will play in Peoria, it will be well received throughout America.   Yet while it’s not clear whether the Asian Carp Tribute had positive, educational and environmental effects on fans, it is certain that the Chiefs played well enough to win 5-2, with clean-up hitter Richard Jones leading the offense with two hits, including a home run, and two RBIs.

In front of the sculpture of Pete Vonachen giving a ball to a kid, Bonnie and I pose
with good grad school friends Kathy and Bob Fuller who joined us for the game
and then hosted us for dinner. 



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