Normal CornBelters first baseman Michael Nielsen admits “a lot of people I know mix where I’m from up with Bloomington.” The truth is Nielsen is from Bloomingdale, a suburb of Chicago about 20 minutes outside the Windy City. But the Quincy University student said he’s happy to be playing in the Prospect League again this season.

Fact is, the CornBelters is the third team Nielsen, a junior, has been part of in this league. His freshman season two years ago was spent with the Quincy Gems after his freshman summer and he suited up for the Hannibal Hoots last summer.

A graduate of Lake Park High School in Roselle, Ill., Nielsen said playing in the Prospect League is “pretty cool because you get to play in places like The Corn Crib. This place has the feel of a minor league field, stadium-wise, and you get to play in good parks in front of good crowds,” he explained. “That’s something you don’t always get when you play at school.”

Nielsen is majoring in Criminal Justice with a minor in Business Education. As a result, 21-year-old Nielsen explained, “I’d like to play baseball as long as possible, then after that have something to do with police.” Law enforcement has been part of his family, having had a grandfather who carried a gold shield as a Chicago Police Department detective. His grandfather wore or carried a badge for 35 years, he said. He also had an uncle who was with Chicago P.D., while another uncle of his is a Bloomington Fire Department lieutenant.

His being on three teams in three seasons started when his high school coach during his senior year knew then Quincy Gems head coach Rick Fraire. That got Nielsen his first college team experience. He “was 18 and had no idea I was playing with 22-year-olds, but it was the best decision I ever made to play there.”

After his sophomore school year, an opportunity to play in the Northwoods College League fell through, prompting Nielsen to rejoin the Prospect League playing for Hannibal. But his playing time there last season was short due to injury.

He had planned on playing for a Northwoods League team in Rockford this season, but one of his high school coaches was hired to coach in Rockford before he could play. The Northwoods League prohibits players who had been on a high school team coached by a Northwoods Coach from playing in the league again for that coach. That led to Nielsen finding the CornBelters.

“This league is great, and it’s kind of unique being the older guy in the locker room,” Nielsen said. “I think the cool part of me is getting to see those young guys and be able to give the younger guys some of the information I have learned along the way. You see yourself in the young kids, even though I’m not that much older. That’s the best part of this.”

“Mike is a good all-round player,” CornBelters Head Coach Rick White said of Nielsen. White said neither Quincy nor Hannibal had any room for Nielsen this year but recommended him as someone they thought Normal could benefit from having on the roster.

Corn Crib Hosting Prospect League All-Star Game Events July 22 & 23: On Monday, July 22, the CornBelters are hosting the 2019 Prospect League All-Star Game at the Corn Crib, an event being sponsored by State Farm Insurance, the Town of Normal and Ameren. The league’s All-Star Game will be played on Tuesday, July 23 at 6:30p.m.

All-Star activities begin Monday with an on-field meet and greet autograph session starting at 5:00 p.m. with the Home Run Derby following at 7:00 p.m. Former Chicago Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson and former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel will captain the Home Run Derby and are joined by Cubs infielder Bill Madlock and former Cardinals Manager Whitey Herzog for the autograph session.

The Home Run Derby with the pregame autograph session takes place Monday and the Prospect League All-Star Game is Tuesday. Ticket packages are just $50 and include the Home Run Derby, with the pregame autograph session on July 22, as well as the All-Star Game on July 23. Individual tickets for each event can be purchased separately at $10 each but do not include participating in the autographed session.

Fans will be limited to one autograph per legend. Ticket packages may be purchased at the Corn Crib Box Office or by calling 309-454-2255.

Gates and doors will open at 4:30 on July 22 with on-field activities starting at 5 p.m. Event overflow parking will be available at Heartland Community College next to the Corn Crib Stadium.

By Steve Robinson | June 29, 2019 - 10:13 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

Looking at the roster for the Prospect League version of the Normal CornBelters, you see guys whose hometowns stretch from West Columbia, S.C. east to two players who are from Castle Rock, Colo. the west, and as far north as Rapid City, S.D. to south being from Kearney, Neb. And because these players are still in college, the season at this point has just a little more than a month left.

That means I need to get you as many locals covered as I can in the short amount of time the season grants. So this week, I thought I would start by introducing you to CornBelters outfielder, Bloomington resident, and Tri-Valley High grad Jack Butler. Jack, son of John and Linda Butler of Bloomington, is in his junior year at Illinois State University, who helped his Redbirds team get as far as a regional final game of the NCAA Baseball playoffs this past season.

Jack Butler Is Majoring In Ag At ISU: Southpaw outfielder Jack Butler is one of a trio of players on the CornBelters roster who hail from the Twin Cities. The others are Butler’s ISU teammate, Jackson Bronke, a junior; and redshirt freshman infielder Billy Mote.

Living on a farm and a redshirt junior, Butler is majoring in agriculture at ISU. Butler said since he lives on a farm which produces corn and soybeans, he wanted to continue the family business. “I talked to Billy Mote after I found out he was going to the CornBelters, and after finding that out, I looked into the team because I wanted to stay here for the summer,” Butler explained.

Butler said being home and “all the stuff we deal with outside of baseball is so much easier because I’m in town,” Butler said. He adds that helps him concentrate on the task ahead of winning games. Last summer, he spent his summer playing time with the Muskegon Clippers of the Great Lakes Collegiate League.

Being in that league, Butler said, allowed him to see what the competition is that exists at the Division I level, and added to playing for ISU has helped him, he said, to know how to perform on the field to keep pace with guys on other teams. ISU got as far as and lost in the regional final to the University of Louisville at the end of the current season. ISU got to the NCAAs by being co-champions in the Missouri Valley Conference along with Dallas Baptist. Once ISU was done at NCAAs, Butler reported for duty to the CornBelters.

Statistically, before this week started, it looks as though the CornBelters have Butler’s undivided attention thus far. He has had 58 at-bats in 18 games, where he had 17 hits, including two doubles and 9 home runs knocking in 16 runs. He has walked 11 times, struck out 11 times, and all that adds up to a .293 batting average. His best game to date was against the Quincy Gems on June 26. That night at The Corn Crib, the CornBelters beat the Gems, 14-6, and Butler had two home runs driving in four runs, and walked once.

While 21-year-old Butler said the game is the main reason he’s here, he said he likes also seeing all the activity at the ball park surrounding the games and watching youngsters run the bases after games. And from his perspective, it sounds like he’s enjoying all aspects of being with the CornBelters this season. In turn, he has given the fans reason to enjoy the season, as well.

At the time I did the interviews last Friday, Butler had hit five home runs in the previous four games. “He’s hitting the ball well right now and playing good defense,” said CornBelters Manager Rick White. “His average is steadily climbing. He’s just a great kid all around.”

White explained he saw Butler play in both the MVC and NCAA tourneys. ISU’s coaching staff recommended Butler when White asked about players who would be considered a good fit for the team, he explained. “It’s nice to have local guys here where you play. That’s because fans know and have heard of them.”

Still Trying To Put “Right Lineup Together”: Going into this week, the CornBelters were in fourth place 7 ½ games out of first place Cape Girardeau in the Prospect League’s Western Division. White said that’s partly because the team is still playing different guys in different positions to see what works. “We’re getting ready to start putting out a more consistent lineup now, based on who we think is going to help us win that day,” he explained.

Schedule Has Home & Away Games Around The July 4 Holiday: By the time you read this, the CornBelters will have hosted the Hannibal Hoots Monday and played an away game at Cape Girardeau Tuesday before returning home to continue playing Cape Girardeau Wednesday and Thursday. Thursday being the fourth of July, the game starts at 6:30p.m. Friday, the Lafayette Aviators are in town for one game, and the West Virginia Miners visit The Corn Crib for two games on Saturday and Sunday, July 6 and 7. Games on July 5 and 6 start at 7:05p.m. The team gets two days off on July 8 and 9 before playing two home games against DuPage Wednesday

By Steve Robinson | June 2, 2019 - 10:19 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

After splitting a pair of games with the DuPage Pistol Shrimp to mark their debut as members of the Prospect League, the Normal CornBelters dropped their first home game at The Corn Crib Saturday night. The Pistol Shrimp pounded Normal, 11-1 before a crowd of 800 fans. DuPage’s victory exacted revenge on the CornBelters for their road win over the Pistol Shrimp on May 30 in what was Normal’s debut with the league, 10-1.

The only run of the night for the CornBelters came in the bottom of the first inning as with one out, right fielder Jeremy Drudge’s single helped lead-off man Thomas Parker score from second base to give Normal (1-2 after this game) a quick 1-0 lead. Parker doubled to open the inning. But that would turn out to be the only run to cross the plate for Normal on the night.

DuPage (3-1) would take the lead in the top of the second inning scoring four runs as a single by catcher Hogan McIntosh’s single emptied a bases loaded situation, putting the visitors up, 2-1, allowing shortstop Garrett Goetz and Matt Waznis to score. Third baseman Kyle Kolb followed McIntosh with a single giving DuPage two men on base. After right fielder Anders Davidson struck out for DuPage’s second out, leadoff man Paul Kunst’s single scored McIntosh and Davidson, pushing the visiting team’s lead to 4-1 before Normal fielders would get their third out on DuPage center fielder Steven Hamer to end the inning.

DuPage would go on to score four more runs in the third inning, one in the fourth, and two in the fifth to complete the victory.

“We didn’t play very good at all today,” CornBelters head coach Rick White said. “Our bats have gone dead since opening night. We’re going to come out here and keep working harder and try to get this thing turned around real quick. The good thing is we’re only four games into the season, so I think once we get the right lineup figured out and all that, we’re going to be fine.”

“I don’t know if it was opening night jitters for the home team, but I know how Normal is feeling right now because we were on the short end just a few days ago,” said DuPage head coach John Jakiemiec afterward. Like Normal, DuPage is also an expansion team in the Prospect League this season. Jakiemiec credited CornBelters catcher Tyler Burthay’s throwing arm with keeping many Pistol Shrimp players from advancing to second once they got on or past first base. “Play like that helps pitchers control the running game when you see a kid like that with a cannon like that. You didn’t see us stealing a lot. We’ve got a lot of respect for what he can do behind the plate.”

‘Belters Missing Players Involved In College Postseason Play: White said with some of his players currently away from Normal because they are involved in postseason college play that has hampered the manpower available to the team. Those players are: Illinois State University pitchers Jack Anderson and Jackson Bronke, and outfielder Jack Butler who are with the Redbirds at the NCAA tournament; Outfielder Mike Addante, who is with University of Nebraska at NCAAs, and Pitcher Lucas DeGarmo, who is with his Northern Oklahoma University at Enid team at the national JUCO World Series.

White said that as a result of those players being absent, it has given the team an opportunty to see how other players can play. “We’ve gotten to see quite a bit in the first few days,” White said.

CornBelters Beat Visiting Springfield Sunday Night: Normal’s debut season in the Prospect League saw an improvement on Sunday night as the CornBelters defeated the visiting Springfield Sliders, 5-4. Outfielder Joey Allen got the scoring off to a proper start with his first inning home run. The win improved the ‘Belters record to 2-3 as of Monday morning. Following a road game at Springfield Tuesday and hosting Hannibal Wednesday, the CornBelters will host DuPage Thursday and Friday, and Hannibal again Saturday before playing at Danville Sunday.

By Steve Robinson | May 26, 2019 - 10:16 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

After nine seasons as a member of the Frontier League, trying to help players who might have tried to get into the majors via the minor only to be released, the Normal CornBelters last year opted to go a different route and join the Prospect League beginning this season. The Prospect League, according to its website, “is a summer collegiate wood bat league.”

The purpose of the league is to: Provide family friendly, affordable baseball entertainment in the communities where our teams are located; Provide a summer baseball program for eligible college players to give them experience using a wood bat in a competitive atmosphere; And provide a venue to allow MLB Scouts to watch collegiate prospects using wood bats against live pitching in competition.

After nine years of being in the Frontier League, this will take some adjusting to, but the team’s new general manager, Todd Kunze, assures me fans will enjoy seeing college kids who are looking for their first taste of life in pro ball by playing in this collegiate league. He said scouts come to this league’s games, just as they did in the Frontier League, and the team’s new manager, Rick White. White has two assistant coaches, hitting coach Zach Quillian, and pitching coach Bobby Hunter.

If White’s name registers with fans, it’s because he played from 1994-1995, and again from 1998-2007 for, among others, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, New York Mets, Colorado, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Seattle. He has prior experience in the Prospect League as a manager with a team from Springfield, Ohio.

The players in the Prospect League are all currently attending college and to play in this league “is an extension of their college season and gives them an opportunity to be seen by pro scouts so that, hopefully, the scouts will help them so that teams will draft them,” White explained.

In some cases, White said, some players will get their first chance to be seen at this level, while others will receive additional looks while they’re here, having been seen previously.

“The number one difference between the Prospect League and the league Normal was in before is that these kids are still in college, so they aren’t getting paid,” White explained. “You won’t see much of a difference in on-field performance. The college kids hustle more. They’re always running off and on the field. They’re very personable, and they will always sign autographs.” In fact, for 15 minutes after every game, that’s where fans can find these guys – signing autographs for fans, White said.

Three Local Players On The Roster: In past years, the CornBelters have had many guys come through who, in some cases, literally, had to look up Normal, Ill. To know where they would be playing that summer. For three of the guys on the current 31-man roster, that won’t be necessary. They are: Pitcher Jackson Bronke, an Illinois State University junior; Redshirt freshman infielder Billy Mote; and ISU junior outfielder Jack Butler.

Normal Belongs In 6-Team Western Division: The season begins May 30 with Normal on the road for their first three games over two days. Normal will be a member of the 12-team Prospect League’s Western Division, joined by fellow expansion teams DuPage County Pistol Shrimp and Cape Girardeau, Mo.-based Cape Catfish, Hannibal (Mo.) Hoots, Quincy Gems, and Springfield Sliders. The league’s Eastern Division consists of the Danville Dans, Springfield, Ohio-based Champion City Kings, Ohio-based Chillicothe Paints, Lafayette Aviators, West Virginia Miners based in Beckley, W. Va., and the league’s reigning champions, the Terre Haute Rex. The teams play a 60-game schedule followed by playoffs. The CornBelters play their first homestand June 1 at 7:05p.m. and June 2 6:35p.m.against DuPage.

The Prospect League will hold its annual All-Star Game at The Corn Crib on July 23.

By Steve Robinson | July 22, 2018 - 10:38 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

A 12th round selection in the 2015 draft following some college experience, Normal CornBelters first baseman Chris Iriart signed on with the Oakland A’s. But after playing in their system for three seasons, Oakland management cut him loose during spring training as this season was starting.

“Right after I got released, I talked to my agent who got me here,” the 23-year-old said about how he wound up playing at The Corn Crib this season. “I didn’t ask him many details because I trusted he’d get me somewhere good.”

A Chino, Calif. native, Iriart said he didn’t believe at first that such a place as Normal, Ill. existed until he and his father drove out to see it for themselves.

His introductory appearance in the Frontier League All-Star Game earlier this month showed fans why Normal signed him, as he went 2-for-3, smacking a home run and a double.

About his prior experience, Iriart said, the A’s organization “teaches the game from the ground up on fundamentals like defense to base running, and every other aspect of the game. They’re pretty thorough on developing players so I’d say I’d learned a lot from my coaches.”

Within the A’s system, he has suited up with teams from coast-to-coast – from Vermont, a member of the New York-Pennsylvania League to Stockton, Calif. to Beloit of the Midwest League.

And if any of his previous teams saw his present stats, they would probably be wondering why they let him get away. Currently, Iriart leads the Frontier League in home runs. As of Monday, he had 16.

About trying to find his way back to the minors, Iriart said, “What I learned from the A’s helped, and this off-season, I made some adjustments with my swing. I believe in my ability, so now, I just have to show the people they can’t deny the numbers. My goal is to put good enough numbers up to where they can’t deny it.”

About his time at The Corn Crib, Iriart said, “I love coming out here every day to compete every night. It’s just a blessing to play the game each and every day.”

CornBelters Manager Billy Horn praised Iriart for being the league leader in home runs. “He has a lot of power and is a really great kid,” Horn said. His manager added he’s working, as he does with all his players who have been there previously, to get Horn back into organized baseball.

Road Trip Upcoming: Following the league-imposed Monday off, the CornBelters got back on the bus for a three-game series at Florence, hoping three wins would help the CornBelters to hopscotch into third place. Next Friday through Sunday, July 27-29, Horn’s team is home at the Corn Crib for a three-game series against the Gateway Grizzlies. Friday and Saturday starts are at 7:05p.m., and Sunday’s first pitch is at 6:05p.m.