By Steve Robinson | July 2, 2020 - 10:27 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

Local baseball fans will finally get to enjoy their favorite pastime as the Normal CornBelters will begin their second homestand of the 2020 season with a game which will serve as a benefit for the KBSTRONG Foundation, raising money to fight a form of cancer called gliobastoma.

The event, “Strike Out Cancer On KBStrong Night,” will be held on Friday, July 10, and will spotlight two games featuring teams from the newly-formed Kernels Collegiate League. The first pitch is scheduled for 5:30. Musical entertainment between games will be provided by the Joe Stamm Band on the stadium concourse following both games.

KBSTRONG honors Kevin Brown, the former Lexington High School basketball star who went on to success as a head boys’ basketball coach at Bloomington Central High School and at a high school in Colorado before being stricken by the disease. Brown passed away in June 2019.

To date KBSTRONG has raised $30,000 for the University of Illinois School of Medicine for cancer research, explained Mike Brown, a friend of Kevin’s and an organizer of the event.

KBSTRONG organizers are committed to raising $150,000 for the research over the next three years, Mike Brown added. In addition, money raised at KBSTRONG Night will be put toward grant money which will be given to patients stricken with glioblastoma which will help them financially. With the first year in the books, KBSTRONG has raised nearly $70,000 in its first year. The grants are known as McLean County KB Warrior Fund Grants.

Kevin Brown was a senior at Lexington High School in the mid-1980s, and Mike Brown was a junior when the two were teammates for the Minutemen along with current Normal Community West High School head baseball coach Chris Hawkins.

“He was always figuring out a way to coach throughout a game,” said Mike Brown. “Were he still battling the disease, he would have figured out a way to get his way through this. His goal was to be a survivor. He would have found an avenue to help other people.

“Kevin loved live music and baseball, and so we were just looking for a way to combine the two,” he added.

Lexington Little Leaguers To Get In For Free July 10: Mike Brown said Lexington Little League players will be able to get into the gamer for free. He added they also will be able to join the games’ players on the field for lineup introductions and the National Anthem.

Double-Headers Feature Former Local High School Players: The games fans will see this season will be called the Kernels League. The league will feature just four teams, all from the Twin Cities, but with college baseball players from Illinois State University, Bradley University, Eastern Illinois University, Western Illinois University, and University of Indiana, to name a few, according to CornBelters General Manager Todd Kunze.

All games will be doubleheaders and will begin with first pitches slated for 5:30p.m. The season began on July 1 and will wrap up on Aug. 9.

COVID-19 Precautions In Place: As a precaution to safeguarding against COVID-19, game attendees will be required to wear face masks when on the stadium’s concourse, Kunze explained. He said masks will not be required when fans sit in the stands, but they will need to sit one row and three seats apart, which would fulfill the required 6 feet apart.

He added the team is abiding by regulations established by both the McLean County Health Department and State-mandated COVID-19 safety regulations. He added concessions areas and bathrooms are both thoroughly cleaned.

NORMAL – Prospect League newcomers Normal CornBelters may have been the hosts for the league’s annual All-Star Game July 23, but it was the guests from teams representing the league’s Western Division who stole the show, beating the Eastern Division squad, 11-2, in front of roughly 750 fans.

Cody Orr of the Chillicothe Paints opened the contest with a triple and scored on a single by Max Jung-Goldberg of the Danville Dans, putting the visiting Eastern squad in front, 1-0 in the first inning. The Western Division countered in the bottom half of the inning, when Tyler Clark-Chiapparelli of the Quincy Gems singled with one out, scoring Brendan Ryan of the Springfield Sliders, tying the game, 1-1.

Matt Rubayo of the West Virginia Miners doubled to get the second inning started for the East and scored on a sacrifice fly by Jacob Mulcahy of the Terre Haute Rex, putting the East up, 2-1. Chillicothe’s Gavin Homer walked followed by Orr hitting a ground-rule double, putting runners at second and third with one out. A single by Jung-Goldberg completed the action to score Homer and Orr, advancing the Eastern Division’s lead, 4-1. The Western Division closed in during their half of the inning, cutting the East’s lead, 4-2, thanks to a leadoff walk from league Home Run Contest champ Canyon McWilliams of the Normal CornBelters. From there, McWilliams stole second and scored thanks to a single from DuPage Pistol Shrimp’s Jack Surin.

But McWilliams’ run proved to be the last of the offense the Western Division would produce. With two outs in the top of the third, Rubayo smacked a double to left field and stole third before scored on a West Division fielding error, pushing the East Division’s lead, 5-2.

A one-hit single by Orr starting the fourth inning followed by Jung-Goldberg singling was followed by a three-run home run by Chris Monroe of the Lafayette Aviators, adding to the Eastern Division’s advantage, 8-2. The East would tack on two more runs in the fifth inning courtesy of Mitchell Garrity of the Terre Haute Rex, who singled home Danville Dans’ Andrew Meggs, giving the Eastern Division a 10-2 lead. Meggs reached base on a ground-rule double. The Eastern Division’s scoring was completed when Stephen Cullen from the Champion City Kings drove a solo homer out of the park in the top of the ninth inning, finishing the scoring with the East in front 11-2.

Chillicothe’s Zach Kendall was the contest’s winning pitcher.

CornBelters Front Office Pleased With Overall Event Outcome: Todd Kunze, CornBelters general manager, said both the game and the Home Run Derby which preceded it on Monday were well attended. “We did pretty well because, well, people have jobs and kids, and it’s a transition year for the team with new ownership and new league,” he reminded. “We had a fantastic night Tuesday night for the All Star event. Weather was fantastic, and for as hot as it was, we couldn’t have asked for as well as it was. I thought we did really, really well and had a great showing for the players who came out “

Kunze said the event “was an exciting experience for those young men and we were just excited to host the game in our first year in the league.” Kunze finished by saying the team is appreciative of the support of the Prospect League and Commissioner Dennis Bastien and his wife and Deputy Commissioner Lisa Bastien for “supporting our efforts for having the game here and the opportunity it gave us.”

The Tim Jankovich Connection: In his office, Kunze has a bar graph with an arrow moving upward – something to remind him which direction he wants to see the team move toward. He said the idea for that graph came from his friend, and former Illinois State University Men’s Basketball Coach Tim Jankovich.

Manager Rick White Admits To A “Frustrating Summer”: In assessing how the first version of the Prospect League CornBelters turned out, Manager Rick White said, “I think we played way below what we were capable of playing like way below.” Being 10 games below .500 was a disappointment for him, he said, adding that considering the talent the team assembled, he believed the team at this point in the year should have been 10 game above .500.

“It’s been a frustrating summer,” White admitted, adding, “We weren’t able to get everything clicking at the right time. And then, when we get what we think is the right lineup in, we lose a player here, we lose a player there, or pitching doesn’t perform, or hitting doesn’t hit when pitching is good.” He described what he experienced as “a lot of head banging against the wall all summer long.”

In preparation for the 2020 season, White said, “We’re only going to offer a few guys contracts, if they want to come back. That’s out of the whole 30-plus we’ve had here.” At the most, White said, only five players from this year would be offered contracts for next season, he said. He said when he was hired meant he worked on getting players starting in January. Now that he has a season under his belt, he said, he can work sooner to evaluate and sign players.

White said he had heard that during the All-Star Break, a total of 90 players league-wide exited teams for various reasons. He said those reasons could range from getting ready for the fall semester at their respective colleges to just giving themselves a break between the league season and going back to college.

Just as Major League Baseball and its minor league counterparts do, the Prospect League held a home run hitting contest prior to its annual All-Star Game, held this year at The Corn Crib, home of the Normal CornBelters. CornBelters infielder Canyon McWilliams faced off against 11 competitors each representing the other teams in the league.

The competition had two rounds with every home run accounted for to see how many the players could knock out of the park in a 45 second time period. Each man was permitted to call a time out during his time allotment and they certainly took full advantage of that, with supporters coming to give water or just an encouraging word before the player stepped back into the batter’s box. The participating batter was allowed to choose the person who would be pitching to them. In many cases, it was teammates, or a coach, or in one case, the player’s father did the honors.

McWilliams, a junior attending Ohio Wesleyan University, chose CornBelters head coach Rick White to do the honors. But by no means did McWilliams, or any of the other competitors look like they were facing so-called softball pitches to swing at during the event.

In the first round, Cole Andrews of the Chillicothe Paints, Alex Ludwick of the Spingfield Sliders, and Joey Polak of the Quincy Gems were eliminated, Andrews and Ludwick getting 3 out of the park each, Polak 2. The second round would take the total homers from round one and add the homers from the second round for a combined score.

The man to beat was Andrew Stone from the Cape Girardeau Catfish who hit four out in the first round and 11 out in round two for a !7 total. McWilliams, the second man in batting sequence on the night, hit six out in round one. He said he knew what he was up against. In the second round, spectators marveled at the 10 homers McWilliams sent flying over the fence for a total of 16. Only Stone and McWilliams had numbers which reached that level.

In the two-man runoff final, Stone blasted 8 out of the park to the delight of fans, but McWilliams kept his cool and steadily blasted 13 homers skyward to take the title outright. “I just kept swinging, and I trusted Coach to put it where it needed to be,” McWilliams said. “At these home run derbys, it’s so much on the thrower. I just appreciate everything he did.”

During a recent CornBelters-Cape Girardeau game, McWilliams said Stone hit what he described as “an absolute moon shot in a game against us recently, so I knew he had a ton of power, so I was definitely thinking I was the underdog. But I’m very, very happy to get the win.”

White said he assumed he’d be the man throwing to McWilliams “because I throw to him all the time. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think he was going to hit that many today,” White added. “Once he got in a groove, he just took off.” White said McWilliams’ “short, quick swing gives him an advantage over everybody else.”

East Squad Tops West In Game: As for the All-Star Game itself, the Prospect League East All-Stars outpaced the West All-Stars, 11-2, on July 23.

Former Players Madlock, Ankiel, Dawson, Manager Herzog Make Appearances: Four names easily recognizable to baseball fans signed autographs and shook hands with fans prior to the Home Run Hitting Contest. Former Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Bill Madlock, former St. Louis Pitcher Rick Ankiel, former Cards Manager Whitey Herzog, and former Chicago Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson signed autographs over two days for fans at The Corn Crib. Due to a scheduling conflict, Dawson appeared July 23 while the other men were present to sign mementos the day of the home run contest.

A native of Decatur, Madlock, now 68, played 15 years in the majors including with the Cubs from 1974-76, and with Pittsburgh in the late ‘90s when the Pirates adopted the Sister Sledge disco tune “We Are Family” as their theme and motto. About making appearance such as the one here, Madlock said, “Anytime, you come to a minor league park, you can interact with fans, you can talk to them, and it’s fun that way.” He said that’s not the kind of atmosphere you can expect at major league parks.

Ankiel, who was a fielder who turned into a pitcher, played from 1999-2001 for St. Louis under then-manager Tony LaRussa before injury forced him to be sidelined from the game for two years before returning to Busch Stadium in 2004, said although he could play both sides of the game, “it was clear my strength was pitching. I was throwing with the speed in the mid 90s with a big time curve ball that helped me in the big leagues.”

Such events are humbling because fans remember you and the good times,” added Ankiel, who turned 40 July 19. “You hear the stories they have and you remember the good times and the bad. To be able to shake their hand and say thank you is fun.”

Herzog, now 86, played in the outfield and at first base from 1956-1963 for four teams – Kansas City A’s, Washington Senators, Detroit Tigers, and Baltimore Orioles. But many folks around here will long think of Herzog as the manager who brought St. Louis a World Series title in 1982 and got three National League Pennants in 1982, 1985, and 1987.

“The fans I saw today came from all over Illinois and they were wonderful,” Herzog remarked. “A lot of Cubs fans, Cardinals fans, other teams. But they were really baseball fans and they really enjoyed it and they were so respectful. He was impressed with how polite the teen members of the public were when they asked for autographs. “I appreciate that,” he said. He said he still attends most of the home games at Busch Stadium and takes in spring training games, too.

Dawson, who turned 65 July 10, started his 20 year career with Montreal in 1976 and was granted free agency at the end of the 1986 season signing with the Cubs for the 1987 season where he played for six seasons until beging granted free agency again in 1992. He went to the Boston Red Sox for one season before joining the Florida Marlins, where hefinished his career in 1996.

Dawson spent the weekend before coming to Normal at Cooperstown, N. Y. for the annual Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony. Dawson has been a member of the Hall since 2010 going in on a plaque with the team he entered the Majors with in 1976, the Montreal Expos. Now that he’s in, and has been for some time, he said he goes “to enjoy the festivities and enjoy the weekend.”

He signed all manner of items including balls and bats for fans here as did the other guys who visited. “The fans who go to the ceremony are excited about showing their support for the players who get in,” Dawson said.

“It’s always good to see Cubs fans wherever I go, and as close as I am to Chicago, getting to hear people talk about witnessing me as a player and enjoying me as a player is something that’s always good to hear.”

All in all, it sounds as though, whether fan, player, retired player, or casual spectator, the Prospect League event had a little something for everyone and everyone enjoyed the festivities being held here at home.

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