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.

By Steve Robinson | July 14, 2018 - 10:46 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

The Normal CornBelters sent six players to the Frontier League annual All-Star Game at CarSheild Stadium in O’Fallon, Mo., home of the River City Rascals, but only one of those players – right fielder Derrick Lawless – saw action from first pitch to final out.

The game’s teams were divided a little differently other that by what division their home team belonged to. This year, the league billed the two sides as Rookies versus Experienced Players. And Lawless, having been through the minor league system of the Toronto Blue Jays, showed plenty of experience, hitting two home runs to help the Experienced squad win the game, 8-3.

“When we took the infield for the All-Star Game, our side only had four outfielders, so two of us would be playing a full game,” Loveless said of his most recent All-Star contest. “I wound up playing right field the entire game.” Not only did he shine in the outfield, but at bat, too, hitting two homers out of the park. This was his second such All-Star event, having played in the Midwest League’s mid-season affair.

If Lawless’ performance startled fans, they were not alone. “I was actually startled about that myself,” Lawless said, explaining he had only done that a couple of times his whole career.

The 25-year-old started his playing career in 2011 in the Toronto system until he was released at the start of this season when he didn’t get resigned and did some job hunting which didn’t see any offers from other teams materialize. But a player friend of his put him in touch with CornBelters manager Billy Horn to see if there was the possibility of playing here.

Coming to Normal wasn’t foreign to Lawless and not just because it’s within driving distance of his native Solon, Iowa, near Iowa City. But rather, his familiarity with Normal comes from having participated in a baseball showcase event at The Corn Crib when he was 17.

Lawless said his faith is helping him through his wait to get back into the minor league system. “God is a big part of my life and if it’s meant for me to go back into the minor leagues, I’ll put in the hard work and enjoy the time that I’m here.”

“I definitely hope that if I get looked at, teams will know ‘he’s a guy who knows what he’s doing and does it every day’ and hope it pays off,” Lawless said.

When he was in the Toronto system, Lawless played in six different cities, including with the Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League, an opponent of the Peoria Chiefs.

“When I came to Normal, I was just expecting a good crowd of people who love to come and watch baseball being played,” he explained.

Loveless and his wife of 2 ½ years, Ashley, live in another minor league baseball hub, Durham, N, C. and have a 5-month-old son, Derrin.

Statistically, just before games played July 15, Lawless has appeared in 49 games, had 54 hits including 5 home runs, 8 doubles, and 3 triples in 178 at-bats while playing for Normal. That has given him a .303 batting average. In addition, he has driven in 24 runs, been hit by a pitch once, and struck out 46 times.

Loveless said he has tried through actions moreso than words to show his teammates what they should do to get to the minors. If he gives advice at all, it would be “to learn from any failures you might experience,” he continued. “If you don’t learn from it, those failures could be repeated.”

Of Loveless, his current manager said, “He should still be in an organization’s system. There’s no doubt about it.” Horn said he has managed to interest 15 teams in Lawless, but those teams currently have full rosters, so it now a waiting game to see where a spot opens up. Horn added that since the annual draft in June, it takes teams about a month and a half or slightly longer to start thinking of making moves which would involve calling out for players if drafted players don’t pan out with some clubs.

“We’re just hoping Loveless gets picked up any day here and off he’ll go,” Horn said.

Until that day comes, the CornBelters and their fans are glad to have Lawless here.

Road Trip Upcoming: Earlier this week, Eastern Division leader Washington visited The Corn Crib to try to stay atop their division while attempting to spoil Normal trying to gain ground in the Western Division. Friday through Sunday, the CornBelters are at Schaumburg. Following the league-imposed Monday off, the road trip continues with Normal visiting Florence. As of Sunday, Florence was holding on to fourth place in the Western Division four games out behind division leading-River City. The CornBelters are were in fifth place 5 ½ games behind River City.

The CornBelters will be back at The Corn Crib on July 27-29 for a three-game homestand against Gateway Grizzles.

By Steve Robinson | July 7, 2018 - 10:37 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

Normal CornBelters pitcher Jack Landwehr smiles when he explains he played college baseball while attending Illinois State University , graduating in May 2017, but had to be discovered by the team at a Frontier League tryout in California during this past off-season.

In the year he was waiting to be picked up, Landwehr played college summer ball “just to try to get some looks” by teams, he said. “But, unfortunately, nothing panned out.” But going to the California Winter League in Palm Springs this past January aided Landwehr being found and signed by the CornBelters.

Going into games last Saturday, Landwehr pitched 38 innings in his last seven games striking out 29 and walking 8 while carrying a 2.60 earned run average, putting him among the top three pitchers on Manager Billy Horn’s squad.

Landwehr had a 2-2 record when he and I sat down for a chat before games played July 6 and will turn 24 Aug. 16. He said the ‘Belters’ current situation of being in next to last place in the league’s Western Division just a few games away from hitting .500 “doesn’t really affect me because I just keep going out and competing each and every time. When I’m on that mound, I’m competing. And when I’m at practice, I’m out there to get better each and every day.”

As a starting pitcher, Landwehr said, “I want to give my team the best chance to win that day and that’s not allowing any runs. Just keep retiring, retiring, retiring batters with next pitch, next pitch, next pitch. Coming out with a lead is the big goal.”

Although he’s a starter now and was one in high school, at ISU, his assignment was as the closer for the Redbirds his last two years there.

The best thing Landwehr said he has enjoyed about being a professional ball player has been working with guys who have played affiliated ball and been through the minor league system. “I’ve just been picking these guys’ brains and just getting better from watching what they do,” he explained.

Landwehr said he and the catchers he’s worked with thus far, Cody Erickson and Tanner Lubach, have “developed just incredible chemistry. I couldn’t have had this start without them because they have called just great games for me. We’ve got incredible chemistry out there and I couldn’t have had this start without them because they are so knowledgeable. Erickson, like Landwehr, is a rookie straight out of Minnesota ’s St. Paul College while Lubach has played for the St. Paul Saints of the American Association.

His folks, John and Maribeth Landwehr, have been down to see him pitch knowing now that he’s working as a starter. “They’re really, really happy for me because they knew I could play at this level and it just took a little bit longer to get picked up,” Landwehr said. “They’ve been a huge support reminding me to keep believing in myself.”

Normal Gets Pitcher Zach Kirby In Trade With Freedom: Prior to opening the final series before the All-Star break, the Normal CornBelters have announced the trade for Zach Kirby from the Florence Freedom for a player to be named later and the release of David Perez.

Kirby joins Normal after he threw five shutout innings with only giving up two hits and one walk against the ‘Belters on Sunday to earn his first victory of the season. He is entering his second stint in the Frontier League as he played for Florence part of last season and was signed to an extension last November. This season Kirby is 1-4 in nine games (5 starts) and has thrown for 35.1 innings along with 19 strikeouts.

Season’s 2nd Half Starts With Otters Visiting: This past week has been Frontier League All-Star Break week at O’Fallon, Mo. , home of the River City Rascals. But it will be back to work for the team Friday as they host Western Division leader Evansville Otters for three games Friday through Sunday, half of a six-game homestand. After the Otters leave and the league-imposed off-day Monday, the Eastern Division leading Washington Wild Things will be at The Corn Crib Tuesday through Thursday, July 17-19. Weekday and Saturday games start with first pitch at 7:05p.m. and Sunday first pitch is at 6:05p.m.

The weather on Media Day for the Normal CornBelters of the Frontier League on May 3 was something more appropriate for April, possibly even late March: Cold, gusty winds, and a threat of rain. As a result, new manager Billy Horn abbreviated the session and made sure his team got their work done plus took care of the obligatory head shots used on the scoreboard and by the media.

With Brooks Carey moving on from the CornBelters to manage the New Jersey Jackals of the Can-Am League, Normal hired Billy Horn during the off-season to serve as the new manager. Last season with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League, another independent baseball league, Horn served as pitching coach and assisted in player procurement related activities. During the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Horn was pitching coach and oversaw player procurement for the Ottawa Champions of the CanAm League as a part of Manager Hal Lanier’s staff. In 2016, Billy helped Ottawa to a CanAm League Championship. Lanier was Normal’s very first manager when the team debuted in 2010. Horn began his managerial career in 2012 with the Roswell Invaders of the Pecos League in 2012.

By the time you read this, the ‘Belters will have played five exhibition games under their skipper as preparation for opening day on Friday when Traverse City comes to The Corn Crib for a three-game series.

“We’re going to come out and play hard, and our expectations, obviously, are to win as many ball games as we can and give this city a chance at a Frontier League title,” Horn said. There are 35 men in spring training and Horn has been conducting evaluations to try to get that roster down to 24 by opening day.

Six of the players on ‘Belters roster are returning players who have demonstrated what they can do: Pitchers Anthony Herrara, Scott Sebald, Jonathan DeMarte, and Matt Portland; and infielders Justin Fletcher and Santiago Chirino.

Horn said he and Brooks Carey have a similar managerial style, so playing for him, he feels “will be an easy transition” for the team.

Justin Fletcher: Pekin native Justin Fletcher is the closest central Illinois native who will be slugging away at the plate for the CornBelters this year. His first season with Normal began midway through the 2016 season. “Billy’s a great guy,” said Fletcher, an infielder who has divided his time between playing second and third. “You can see he cares about his players, so we’re all excited to get this season going.”

Santiago Chirino’s Last Season Here: CornBelters fans have become accustomed to watching Santiago Chirino bring in runs at the plate and prevent opposing scoring while in the infield. But because he will turn 27 during the next offseason, under Frontier League rules, 2018 will be his last as a member of the CornBelters. He began his career in Normal in 2013.

“I want to win a championship,” Chirino said as the chief goal for his teammates and himself at the end of this season. “That’s something I want to give this organization, to the town, and to the fans.”

League Continues Taking Mondays Off: The Frontier League continues taking Mondays off for most of the season. Games at The Corn Crib will start with first pitches at 7:05p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and at 6:05p.m. for Sunday games. The gates open one hour prior to first pitch.

By Steve Robinson | May 29, 2017 - 10:05 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

BaseballWith Cubs great Ryne Sandberg coming to The Corn Crib on Sunday, May 28 to coach third base for the ‘Belters against Frontier League opponent Lake Erie, and then meet, greet, and sign autographs for fans, you would expect a large crowd for the occasion. And there was one – a total of 3,525 faithful showed up to get a chance to see the one-time Cubs second baseman and third baseman give directions and encouragement to guys trying to either get into or back to the minors thanks to a shot with the CornBelters.

And the autograph line stretched from the entrance to Suite 201 at the ballpark, where Sandberg awaited the folks — all the way to the very first concession stand nearest the stair entrance that leads to the parking lot, a distance I would guess is about 250 feet. I met up with some folks, one before she entered the ballpark, and one in line, who both had interesting stories of their own growing up Cubs fans and looking forward to a chance to meet the guy who fans came to know simply as “Ryno.”

CornbeltersFor Bethany Theobald, being a Cubs fan who grew up in enemy territory (aka St. Louis), “We would go to at least one game at Busch Stadium in full Cubs gear and take pictures at the St. Louis Zoo, which, of course, got us a couple of funny looks..”

“We did this for years from when we were young until we were 17,” Theobald, now 34, said. She carried a sweatshirt and a couple of Sandberg baseball cards she said were part of her collection and in better shape than the bulk of the cards she had saved over the years. She wanted to get the two 1985 Sandberg cards signed.

The second person I saw that really intrigued me was in line to get a second base bag signed. Paul Slack, an Ottawa resident made the trip down to The Corn Crib with his wife, Shelli and his teenage daughter to get the mission accomplished. The base was purchased at a Cubs game during which Major League Baseball was selling game-used merchandise. Slack bought the bag at a Cubs game against Cincinnati on Aug. 12, 2012.

“I made the decision to buy the base in hopes Ryne Sandberg would sign it for me,” Slack said. The base isn’t the only item in Slack’s collection, it turns out. His basement man-cave at his two-story home is all-Cubs, the majority of it a shrine to Sandberg. He has more than a few items personally autographed by the guy who spent a career defending either second or third base.

Frontier League“I told my wife she could have the rest of the house, but to just give me the basement” for the extensive collection, Slack said. He has other items Sandberg has signed for him in the past, mostly when he was managing the Peoria Chiefs of the Midwest League in 2007 and 2008 before the Cubs moved him to the Tennessee Smokies of the Southern League in 2009. From there, Sandberg was promoted again to manage the Triple-A Iowa Cubs for a single season in 2010, which was followed by managing the Lehigh Valley IronPigs of the International League for two years. Toward the end of the 2012 season, the team that drafted Sandberg out of high school in 1978 in the 20th round, the Philadelphia Phillies, hired him to manage the Phillies and finish out the 2012 season. Sandberg would manage the Phillies for one more full season in 2013 and for 74 games in 2014 until he was fired and replaced by Pete Mackanin.

Slack didn’t have the base when Sandberg was in Peoria, he said. “So basically, I’ve been waiting for the right time ever since.”

Slack said he spent Game 6 of the Cubs’ World Series against Cleveland last year “pacing a lot” as he watched the Indians lead that game in the late innings before the Cubs came from behind for the victory.

“He was my favorite player growing up,” Slack said of Sandberg. “I’ve stuck with him and he’s a class act.”