By Steve Robinson | July 26, 2010 - 10:18 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

BaseballThe Normal CornBelters, knowing that, as of July 31, there are 33 games to go in their inaugural Frontier League season, have decided on a new strategy for the second half.

Since coming back from the Frontier League All-Star Game break, Manager Hal Lanier has everyone from the team’s top hitters and pitching staff to the batboys to front office personnel in a frame of mind for the CornBelters to end the season in the second playoff spot in the Western Division, rather than concern themselves with trying to catch the Southern Illinois Miners, the team that has been like a runaway locomotive since the season started.

CornbeltersAs of Monday afternoon, the CornBelters are tied for fourth place, 19 games behind second place River City. The way Lanier sees the situation – and more importantly, how he has his players seeing the situation – with just 10 games separating Normal from River City, the goal for the CornBelters is to overtake second place and stay there in time to make the playoffs. In the Frontier League, the top two teams from each division qualify for the playoffs, playing a best-of-five series. Winners of the divisional series advance to play for the Frontier League championship in a best-of-five series to end the season.

CornBelters fans take note: Lanier has experience engineering a comeback leading to winning a championship. In 2008, the Sussex (N. J.) Skyhawks, under Lanier managerial leadership, defeated Worcester in the division series, and followed that up by sweeping Quebec in the best-of-five championship series to win the CanAm League championship. So it can be done. Regardless of how far back the CornBelters are now, Lanier to get players into the frame of mind that catching and passing River City for second place is doable.

Frontier League“We try to win every game, no matter who it’s against – whether it’s against the first place club or the last place club,” Lanier said. “We’ve got to get to a point where we can put a good winning streak together and get over .500 You know, there are teams in our division that, if you beat them, then you gain on everybody. That’s the way you have to look at it.”

On July 30. Lanier’s CornBelters will finish a three-game road trip in Florence. On July 31, the CornBelters return to the Corn Crib to face the River City Rascals for three games through Aug. 2. The Evansville Otters visit the Corn Crib for three games Aug. 3-5. Lanier’s crew goes on the road Aug. 6-8 to visit the Gateway Grizzlies. Normal is 1-6 on the season against River City, and 5-5 against the Otters for the season.

By Steve Robinson | July 20, 2010 - 10:21 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

BaseballI am certain that most of the players on the Normal CornBelters roster probably had never heard of Bloomington-Normal before being signed to play here for the team’s inaugural season

At least that is what I thought until I began talking to Normal CornBelters right fielder Asaf Shah and left fielder Ross McCoy. As it turns out, Shah and McCoy have played ball here before, as members of the Twin City Stars. The Stars was a team that was in town for years that featured college players who played here when the team was part of the Central Illinois Collegiate League.

Shah, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, became a CornBelter when his playing contract was traded to Normal by the Chico (Calif.) Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League, an independent league like the Frontier League, which Normal belongs to. He, along with McCoy, played for the Stars in 2005.

Shah started his college career at the University of Akron, transferred to Mount Carmel, Ill.-based Wabash Valley Junior College, and graduated from Southeast Missouri State. After college, Shah signed with the Southern Illinois Miners in 2008, but was released in spring training.

CornbeltersShah signed with the Rockford RiverHawks, a team that belonged to the Frontier League last summer, but found himself released on the last day of spring training. Rockford team officials helped Shah land with the Long Beach Armada of the Golden League, where he played last season.

“I love it here,” Shah said about being back in Normal. He said he enjoys seeing the fans come out for CornBelters games.

“Shah has been swinging the bat here as well as anybody here in the last week,” CornBelters Manager Hal Lanier told me on July 16. “We moved him from left field to right field. He’s a little bit more comfortable out there. He has shown he can hit for an average. He puts his bat in play and we need him to do that as we start the league’s second half.”

Through 48 games he’s played as of Tuesday, Shah has a .287 batting average, having had 47 hits, scored 23 runs, including one home run, one triple, and seven doubles. He has 13 RBIs, been walked 12 times and struck out 15 times.

A Milwaukee native, McCoy was attending Wisconsin-Milwaukee when he played for the Twin City Stars in 2005. He is playing in Normal in what is his third pro season, having played for the Lincoln (Neb.) Saltdogs of the American Association in 2007. He went from there to the Reno (Nev.) Silver Sox of the Golden League in what was that team’s last year in 2008, and spent 2009 with Rockford.

When this season began, he started out with the Evansville Otters of the Frontier League before being released in late June. “I feel pretty comfortable here,” McCoy said. “I played at Rockford last year, so I like it here,” McCoy said. “The fans are awesome.”

“My coaching staff and I thought Ross would be great to sign,” Lanier said of the right-hander. “He’s done everything and more than what we expected. I look at him as a five-tool player. He can run well, he can throw. He’s hitting for an average now, and driving in runs. He’s played excellent defense for us. He’s a kid who comes out and works hard for us every single day. We’re just very, very happy to have him wearing our uniform.”

Frontier LeagueThrough 29 games he’s played as of Tuesday, McCoy has a .343 batting average, having had 36 hits, scored 17 runs, including seven home runs, one triple, and nine doubles. He has 22 RBIs, been walked 14 times and struck out 32 times.

As for the Twin City Stars, they were formed in 1982 by former Illinois State University head baseball coach, Duffy Bass and Eldon Warfield. The team played their final season in 2006. Bass, who served as the Stars’ general manager for much of that time, died in March 2007.

CICL rebranded itself prior to the 2009 season, and now calls itself the Prospect League, with six teams who were in CICL then – Danville Dans, Dubois Bombers, DuPage Dragons, Quincy Gems, and Springfield Sliders – joining 10 other teams stretching from Butler Park, Pa. to Nashville, Tenn. to Hannibal, Mo.

On the injury front, CornBelters first baseman Steve Alexander will be out at least two weeks with a broken right thumb. The CornBelters are looking to find a replacement for him.

The CornBelters will be home in The Corn Crib July 22-24 to face the River City Rascals, and then play host to the Gateway Grizzlies July 25-27. They will play three at Florence, before returning home July 31 to face River City in the first game of a three-game set. Next week, I will let you in on the CornBelters strategy for the remainder of the season.

By Steve Robinson | July 19, 2010 - 10:31 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

Town of NormalNORMAL – Normal Town Council members unanimously passed an ordinance regulating the riding of bicycles in the Uptown area, at the Council’s regular meeting at Normal City Hall Monday.

The ordinance would prohibit anyone from riding a bicycle on a sidewalk or within the traffic circle. The need for such an ordinance came to the Council’s attention during a walking tour of the area around the traffic circle area in the Uptown area last month. Council members witnessed young people riding their bikes in the internal walkways of the circle at an increased rate of speed. Town staff had also reported an increased number of incidents between pedestrians and bike riders in the Uptown area, as well, adding to the need for the ordinance.

The boundaries of the Uptown area are defined as south of Mulberry St., east of Fell Ave., north of the Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way, and west of Linden St. with the exception of area near Constitution Trail.

Although violators of the new ordinance would be subject to a $50 fine, City Manager Mark Peterson said the ordinance “will be enforced gradually. We’re concerned with those persons who blatantly and repeatedly violate the ordinance. It is those people who will be fined.”

Town, Library Enter Into Intergovernmental Agreement: Council members unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the execution of an Intergovernmental agreement between the Town and the Normal Public Library. It is the first time the Town and the library have had such an agreement, Peterson told Council members.

Discussions surrounding Library authorization required to carry out banking transactions sparked discussion for the need for the agreement, Town Staff reports indicate. The agreement also indicates the Town will continue to provide services such as snow removal, sold waste removal, and brush and leaves collection to the library.

Normal Maintaining Near-Perfect Bond Rating: Town Finance Director Ron Hill reported to Council members that, based on fiscal year 2009-10 spending, the Town’s plan to reduce spending at the outset of the oncoming recession almost three years ago proved a smart move. Hill’s report to the Council included the fact the Town’s bond rating from Standard & Poor’s remains at a rating of “AA” — one notch below a perfect Triple-A rating.

Peterson reminded Council members that it was their taking actions to curb spending in light of concerns about an oncoming recession over three years ago that made the news they received Monday possible. “Maybe it was luck,” Peterson said. “Maybe it was good financial management. But whatever it was, it put us ahead of the game.

“We assumed the recession would drag on,” Peterson continued. “We assumed a worst-case scenario.” He credited Town departments with managing to come in under budget in their spending projections. He said he was proud of the heads of the various Town departments for accomplishing their budget reductions in an effort to curb spending.

Public Works Director Hall Retiring: Monday’s Council session was the last one Mike Hall will attend as the Town’s Director of Public Works. He is retiring after 22 years on the job.

“He’s been a tremendous asset to this community,” Peterson told Council members and those in attendance in Council chambers. “He was a great fit to this organization. We could always count on Mike when he is in the mix.”

Hall began his career with the Town as its first Town Engineer. A retirement reception will be held for Hall on July 26 at the Normal Public Works Building on Warriner St., from 1p.m.-5p.m.

Hall is the second high-profile Town employee to retire in recent weeks. Steve Westerdahl, who doubles as both Community Development Director and Purchasing Officer for the Town retires later this summer, having been employed by the Town since the mid-1970s.

Liquor Commission Meets: Council members, serving as the Normal Liquor Commission, met prior to Monday’s Council session. The only business on the Commission’s docket was to approve minutes for four previous meetings: a regularly scheduled meeting held on March 15, and three special meetings held April 5, May 17, and June 21.

Omnibus Agenda Items Approved: Omnibus agenda items approved by the Council included:

• Approval of minutes of the Council’s regular meeting held July 6, 2010.

• Approval of Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of July 14, 2010.

• A motion to accept bids and award the purchase of a front-end wheel loader from Birkey’s Construction Equipment Co., Inc. in the total amount of $84,000.

• A motion to accept bids for the 2010-11 Miscelleneous Sidewalk Improvements – 50/50 Sidewalk and ADA Ramps Project and award a contract to Hammond, Ill.-based Was Con Co. in the amount of $92,314.80.

• A resolution authorizing the release of Executive Session minutes.

• A conditional resolution partially reapproving the Final Plat of South Cottage Village.

• A resolution conditionally and partially approving a final development plan for The Shoppes At College Hills Planned Unit Development – Panda Express.

Unit 5NORMAL – For 10 Wednesdays in the 2010-11 School Year, students in Normal’s Unit 5 School District will be starting their day an hour later than normal so that their teachers can attend professional development sessions.

On the days teachers will be receiving the professional development, they will be meeting for 90 minutes. District Superintendent Gary Niehaus said starting one school day a month an hour later than usual will save Unit 5 close to $1 million which is currently spent on teachers when they travel to professional development sessions and on hiring substitute teachers.

“Late Start Wednesdays” will take place on Sept. 15 & 29; Oct. 13 & 27; Nov. 10; Jan. 12; Feb. 9; March 9; April 6; and May 11. On those days, Unit 5’s high schools will begin their day at 8:15a.m., junior highs will begin their day at 8:45a.m.; and elementary schools will begin their day at 9:30a.m. The schools will be dismissed at their regular times. Buses to school will run one hour later on those Wednesdays, and a flier concerning the late start times advises students to be at their designated bus stop one hour later than the scheduled pickup time on those days. The flier advises all schools will be dismissed at their normal dismissal times on late start days.

The program was proposed to Unit 5 School Board members in March by the principals of Unit 5’s two high schools – Dr. Jeanette Nuckolls of Normal Community High School, and Tom Eder of Normal Community West High School. Board members approved the program in April.

“Parents are accepting the idea that we have to have cost reductions in place for next year,” Niehaus said. “This is one of those reductions. We have done enough research to know that this is the best practice. This is something that is happening in the state and across the nation for professional learning communities.

“From a research base, we think we will do better in the classroom,” Niehaus added. “And we’ll do better with student achievement because we’re better prepared and organized as a faculty and staff through these late starts.”

Niehaus said doing these professional development sessions at the schools means the district is not paying for out-of-town travel – a cost often associated with teachers attending professional development sessions. As another cost-saving measure, Niehaus said Unit 5 is limiting the number of conferences that teachers and staff are attending, as well.

When the idea was first floated, and then discussed, Niehaus said he knew he had resistance from Unit 5 staff members who had never done professional development in that way before, and from those who were unsure of the idea.

“We had Board members who were questioning the inconvenience to parents,” Niehaus said. He added that Unit Five Education Association (UFEA), the union that represents Unit 5’s teachers, reacted positively enough to the idea that UFEA offered the district an additional 30 minutes of flex time for those days with late starts, giving the district 90 minutes to work with. The district had originally wanted to use just 60 minutes for this program. UFEA’s gesture of the extra half-hour bumped the time to be used to 90 minutes.

Unit 5 set up a booth at the Sugar Creek Arts Festival and distributed fliers indicating how the program would work, including the days the delayed starts would take place.

Unit 5 mapState Provides Late Payment: The State of Illinois still owes Unit 5 $5 million in reimbursements for transportation and special education, Board members learned from the district’s new Chief Financial Officer, Erik Bush. Bush formally sat with Board members at his first meeting since being named CFO in April.

Bush said $1.6 million of the $5 million owed would go toward transportation costs, with $3.4 million going to reimburse the district for special education.

Bush said the State has traditionally made four payments to Unit 5 for reimbursement of transportation costs. Unit 5 received $800,000 from the State in January – a payment, Bush explained, should have been in the district’s hands last September. The State’s latest reimbursement to the district was literally very late – given to Unit 5 in late June – totaling $600,000. That means Unit 5 still has two more payments for school year 2009-2010 to yet arrive from Springfield. Illinois also typically provides reimbursement for special education costs, but has yet to send money for special ed to Unit 5, as of Wednesday’s meeting, Bush said.

Niehaus told Board members the delivery of transportation payments by the State has been such that, in the last couple of years, at least one of the four payment due Unit 5 has come in late.

Bush told Board members Unit 5 has managed to reduce staff to cut costs, as well. As school year 2009-2010 began last July, the district had 1,860 employees on the payroll. As school year 2010-2011 opens, there are 1,673 employees.

Bush told Board members the downturn in staffing numbers “isn’t necessarily decreasing the level of services provided by the district.”

Construction Update: Board members were provided with an update on the construction of two elementary schools and one junior high school to be added to the district. Cedar Ridge Elementary School and Benjamin Elementary School will open this coming school year. George L. Evans Junior High was slated to open this fall, as well, but due to lengthy weather related construction delays, will not open until the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year.

Richard Ach, senior project manager for Chicago-based Turner Construction, reported that movers have begun loading furniture into the second floor of Cedar Ridge Elementary, after Unit 5’s having taken possession of the building from construction crews on July 1.

At the site of Benjamin Elementary, Ach reported the school’s first floor classroom wing, including the commons area, have been turned over to the district. The second floor classroom wing is scheduled to be put in district control by July 26. Ach said lighting has been installed in the gymnasium wing of the building.

At the site of George L. Evans Junior High, interior and exterior metal stud framing continues in the building’s north classroom wing, as does glazing in the school’s library, now that curtain wall framing has been completed; window installation is underway in the building’s south classroom wing; and face brick installation will begin on the building outside its kitchen/cafetorium area.

Ach said crews have experienced a total of 165 delay days trying to work on this site. Of those 165, crews have been able to make up for just 19 of them.

No 2nd Meeting In July: As is customary, there will be no second Board meeting in July. The Board’s next meeting will be Wednesday, Aug. 11 at District Headquarters, 1809 W. Hovey Ave., starting at 7p.m.

BaseballLike the Normal CornBelters team he oversees as its president, Steve Malliet is looking forward to the second half of the Frontier League season. I was able to have a quick phone conversation with Malliet about his team July 9.

Anybody who has left a CornBelters game, through either of The Corn Crib’s two main gates has, more than likely, been polled by Malliet on their experience while they were at the game.

“Overall, I would say the experience the fans are having is tremendous,” Malliet said. He said although the CornBelters are six games below .500, at 21-27, and 18 games behind Western Division leading Southern Illinois Miners with the second half of the season about to begin, “that aspect of things is so inconsequential to our fans. They’re having such a great time at the games and enjoying the facility so much that, where we are in the standings is a secondary matter.”

It turns out it’s not just the locals who have made the CornBelters and The Corn Crib a regular destination in the team’s inaugural season.

“Springfield has been a hotbed for us,” Malliet said. He added fans from Champaign have also made the drive. I’d guess the interest from that area has to do with Champaign, like Normal, attempting to seek membership into the league. Champaign’s group could not assemble quickly enough, but we all have been savoring the fruits of Normal’s labor this summer.

CornbeltersThe CornBelters are sixth in the 12-team league in attendance, with 58,599 fans through the turnstiles, an average of 2,441 fans in the stands per game through 24 home games. “We actually think we’re going to climb up that ladder even more,” Malliet said about the attendance figures. “We expect to be over 3,000 people, and we’re confident that we’ll be there at the end of the year.”

Malliet said word spread slowly that The Corn Crib was ready to welcome visitors once it opened in June. But once the word was out, and the people started coming, so did repeat business – in the form of fans who have been back — and back again. Malliet said the team’s group sales office has been busy, too, this season.

That’s not bad for a new franchise which is in the middle of the pack in their division. But on the field, it looks like Manager Hal Lanier’s player evaluations have led to some changes in the dugout.

Since July 1, Lanier has released four players including catcher Mike Hughes and shortstop Andre Alvarado. Could this mean an upturn in the second half the season for our hometown team? We will have to wait and see. But I am sure we are hoping that is the case. Now if we can only find a formula for beating the Miners….

Frontier LeagueSpeaking of the Southern Illinois Miners, they will be the first team the CornBelters host at The Corn Crib after the All-Star Break, with games Friday-Sunday. From there, Lanier’s team will play at the Gateway Grizzlies July 19-21, and return home for a three-game homestand against the River City Rascals July 23-25. The CornBelters will be home July 23-27.

Finally, I need to switch, briefly, from baseball to hockey, as I want to wish a former editor of mine, Bryan Bloodworth, all the best in his new job as vice president of business operations for the Arizona Sundogs of the Central Hockey League, effective July 19. It will be different not seeing him around these parts. The announcement about his job change was announced July 3. Bryan has spent the last three years with the Bloomington PrairieThunder as the team’s director of media relations and also been an assistant General Manager for the club.

I was a sports stringer at The Pantagraph for Bryan about 10 years ago when he served as sports editor. He had me covering Eureka College football, and Peoria’s indoor football team, the Peoria Pirates; and the Peoria Rivermen when they were members of ECHL. Those were fun times. Bryan will pass this way again when the Bloomington Prairie Thunder host the Sundogs, now that the PrairieThunder have joined CHL, beginning in October. Good luck, Lefty!