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.”

By Steve Robinson | August 29, 2016 - 10:43 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

BaseballThere were hopes – high hopes one has to imagine – that the Normal CornBelters would find a way into the Frontier League playoffs. But the team’s last road trip proved difficult to make that a reality as they lost 2-out of-3 at Evansville, who clinched a playoff spot, and followed that with losing two more at River City before returning home for their final home series of the season.

Before the season ends, the CornBelters got three last games hosting Evansville. The Otters will pay their last visit of the season to The Corn Crib for a three-game series Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 30, 31, and Sept. 1. Normal will wrap up their season at home against the Florence Freedom Friday through Sunday. Friday’s game will start at 6:35p.m. Sunday’s Fan Appreciation Day game will start at 4:35p.m.

Because Illinois State University Redbirds will play their first home game of the season against non-conference foe Valparaiso on Saturday at Hancock Stadium at 6p.m., the CornBelters have moved their game that day to 1p.m. ISU Football tickets will also be available for purchase during the CornBelters home stand.

CornbeltersWhen I interviewed CornBelters shortstop Santiago Chirino after it was announced he would be part of July’s Frontier League All-Star Game at Florence, Ky., representing Normal on the league’s West Division team, I also took time to get an assessment from him of how the 4th season CornBelters veteran was feeling as the second half of the season was about to start.

What he said then would, I believe, indicate how the team was assessing things as the season has begun to wind down. “Brooks was putting things together and I think we’re going to be pretty good,” the 25-year-old native of Punto Fijo, Venezuela told me, explaining how he thought things would go for the team the second half of the season.

That assembly to get the players Carey wanted took a couple of reboots in terms of pitching. I got the impression from my conversations with him that Carey thought he would only have to reboot the team once after they got off on a start which included a 7-game losing streak at the beginning of the season.

That rebooting process includes bringing in new pitchers who must adjust to the ‘Belters’ playing system. As a result of doing that, Chirino explained, established infielders and outfielders must, in turn, adjust to the new pitcher’s style so they can work as a group when playing defense. “That takes work,” Chirino said of what results when it goes well as the fans watch it in action, coming across looking almost effortless.

Frontier League“We all have to be on the same page, the pitchers and the infielders and outfielders, to win,” Chirino said.

Fans could probably tell the ‘Belters have been on the same page throughout the second half of the season as they took their shot toward making the playoffs.

Saying “wait ‘til next year” leaves a sour taste in the mouths of players on teams who have come as close as Normal has. But they were facing improving foes like Evansville and always strong contenders like River City.

Carey will be back next year, as will many of the players he had this season when spring training rolls around. I am sure Carey has some off-season trips to tryouts to scout new talent as well. He has done that in the past. We will happily welcome the CornBelters back to The Corn Crib to entertain and thrill us again then. But for now, they deserve our appreciation and our thanks for the season we had.

By Steve Robinson | August 20, 2016 - 10:42 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

BaseballJustin Fletcher admits that, as far as finding an unaffiliated team to play for with proximity to his native Pekin, he feels very lucky. He’s been playing second base for the Normal CornBelters since signing with the club about a month ago.

Being able to play pro ball this close to home “is awesome,” Fletcher said, because he is able to do it in front of so many people he knows. The situation to join the CornBelters “wasn’t expected but I got an opportunity at a tryout and I had a good day in front of Coach Carey and he decided to sign me.” “Coach Carey” would be Normal CornBelters Manager Brooks Carey.

Fletcher’s folks, Jake and Tammy Fletcher, live in Pekin and have made it to some games as have some of his friends from his hometown. Normal is 22-year-old Fletcher’s first pro assignment straight out of graduation from Northern Illinois University. When it came to adjusting to Frontier League play, Fletcher said the first thing you notice “is that everything at this level is just a little bit better.”

“All the pitching’s a little bit better, all the hitting’s a little bit better, team defenses are a little bit better,” Fletcher said. He said that with the knowledge he came into Normal with – that of a Division I player.

Getting used to the changes a player of his experience needs to “means you have to fine tune your game a little bit,” Fletcher admitted, a process that is in progress at this very early stage of his career.

Cornbelters“I’ve played second base my whole life,” Fletcher said, and he said he is grateful for advice and knowledge about this level of the game he has been getting from ‘Belters shortstop Santiago Chirino, who had been playing some at second base before Fletcher arrived. Fletcher said Chirino has been giving him quick details on opposing hitters to help him tune his defensive play.

Advice like that at this level can be invaluable for rookies, so said Fletcher, “and I listened to Santiago because he’s been here, he’s played pro ball for seven or eight years now. It’s important to listen to those guys.” Fletcher said listening to the veteran players on the team is something he does often.

One of the biggest adjustments Fletcher said he had to make was getting used to playing a longer season than he had been as a college player. The Frontier League season of 90 games is roughly one-third longer than a college baseball season. Another thing he had to adjust to once he got to the Frontier League was faster pitching. Frontier League pitchers throw around 92 miles per hour versus roughly 85 miles per hour in the collegiate ranks.

Frontier League“He’s as good as any second baseman in the league,” CornBelters Manager Brooks Carey said of Fletcher. “I had to move Chirino to shortstop after some injuries this season, and I needed someone who could turn double plays. Wherever he hits is just a bonus. He’s done a good job. He’s going to be a good player down the road.”

‘Belters Present At Top Of Most Categories: If you look at the stat page for the Frontier League, you will find CornBelters players at the top of almost all of the key stats. The only one where CornBelters players aren’t immediately listed is in Earned Run Average. In fact, you can find Normal outfielder Nolan Meadows at the top of two categories. As of Monday, he was leading the league in home runs with 26, putting him nine in front of second place contender Alexi Colon of River City. As a result, he and Normal first baseman Aaron Dudley were tied at the top in runs batted in with 72.

‘Belters Visit Florence Mid-Week, Host West Division Leading Miners: Before the season ends, the CornBelters will get six chances to overtake Evansville, which is in second place in the West Division. Starting with a three-game road trip Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 23-25, Normal will try to overtake the Otters. The Otters will pay their last visit of the season to The Corn Crib for a three-game series Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 30, 31, and Sept. 1. All of those games begin at 6:35p.m.

By Steve Robinson | August 13, 2016 - 10:11 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

BaseballJustine Siegel was never been big on softball. As a kid, she admitted, she always played baseball, a game she said gave her the confidence to know she should continue playing it no matter how many people she knew tried to get her to try switching to softball.

Her standard comeback for those folks who tried to urge her to make the switch to softball was “I love baseball. That’s the game I’m going to play. That was the answer I gave back to them.”

Her line of logic continued: “The two games use different bats, different balls, and are played on different fields.” In addition, for her, she’s a pitcher. For pitchers, she reasoned, the two games are not equals.

So, Siegel played baseball as a kid and young woman. At an Aug. 12 news conference on the concourse at The Corn Crib in north Normal, she was introduced to the media as a coach for the Frontier League’s Normal CornBelters, making her the first female coach the league has ever had in its 23-year history. A native of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, she said her decision to join Normal was based on the fact “I’ve only heard good things about the CornBelters, that they have a family atmosphere and I like being part of a team with that kind of atmosphere.”

CornbeltersSiegel, 40, isn’t just doing this on a lark, nor is she doing this for shock value. She has a doctorate in sport psychology from Springfield College, and got her first professional opportunity with the Brocton Rox of the independent Cam-Am League in 2009, and will be an assistant to CornBelters Manager Brooks Carey for the remainder of this season, including any playoff games. Her other experience in the game has included throwing batting practice for several Major League Baseball teams, and coaching in instructional leagues for the Oakland As.

Carey told reporters he has known Siegel “for seven or eight years. She obviously is a pioneer. She is very knowledgeable about baseball. Her qualifications are off the charts.” Those qualifications include being the founder of a non-profit group called Baseball For All, a group which encourages and provides girls opportunities to be involved in baseball.

“There’s nothing more thrilling than having the honor of wearing a baseball uniform,” Siegel told reporters. “I’m very grateful to be with the CornBelters. It’s been a very long journey from the Rox to the CornBelters, but every inch of the way, I’ve been trying to break down the barrier a little bit further for women.” She added that now, amongst the players and staff here, “I already feel like family.”

“From the Frontier League aspect, I’m proud to have Justine as a part of our family,” Bill Lee, commissioner of the Frontier League, added during the news conference. “Those of you who know me know how much I want the entire league to feel like a family.”

Then, turning to address Siegel directly, but aiming his next remarks to the media, Lee said, “I just want Justine to know you’re a part of the family. I respect you for what you want to do, and I wish you the very, very best.”

Lee said Siegel’s hiring “opens the door for anyone who’s qualified to do whatever they do, and I’ve always been a big proponent of anyone having an opportunity to do a job as long as they’re qualified for it.”

Siegel’s resume indicates she has the skills, qualifications, and persona that will fit in with Carey’s managerial style. She comes across as sincere in her desire to get more girls into the game. Here’s hoping her enthusiasm will help power the team as they get ready to fight for a playoff spot.

Frontier League‘Belters “In The Hunt” In The Final Stretch: The CornBelters got an extra day of rest on Aug. 12 unexpectedly thanks to a rainout then dropped a doubleheader Saturday, and rallied to salvage Sunday’s game to River City. The team has been on a winning tear for the last part of July and the beginning of August. It’s a streak Carey had been waiting to have happen for Normal to even consider thinking about playoffs.

As a result of the winning efforts, “we’re in the hunt now,” Carey said. He then assisted with the next couple logical questions for some fans: “Are we one of the better teams in the league, and do we have a shot at reaching the playoffs? Yes, if we play well against the schedule we have left.”

Going into this week, East Division leader Joliet is the top seed, with West Division leader Southern Illinois as second seed. Evansville and Normal are the current top wild card teams, but as a result of the CornBelters’ struggles against River City last weekend, Gateway has moved to within one game of Normal, and Washington is 2 1/2 games out.

‘Belters Visit Florence Mid-Week, Host West Division Leading Miners Starting Friday: The team has Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 15 and 16 off before a three-game stint at Florence Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 17 and 18, including a doubleheader that first night. The team will return to The Corn Crib for three games against West Division leader Southern Illinois Miners Friday through Sunday, Aug. 19-21. Friday and Saturday’s contests will start at 6:35p.m., with Sunday’s first pitch at 4:35p.m.

Before the season ends, the CornBelters will get six chances to overtake Evansville, which is in second place in the Western Division. Starting with a three-game road trip Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 23-25, Normal will try to make that a reality. The Otters will pay their last visit of the season to The Corn Crib for a three-game series Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 30, 31, and Sept. 1. All of those games begin at 6:35p.m.