By Steve Robinson | July 26, 2011 - 10:20 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

NORMAL – Having a surplus of outfielders who have been hitting around .340 is a great thing for a baseball team. It’s great for the team, but if you are a ball player who signed with the club mid-way through the season, it’s not helpful to you individually. But, when you do get to play, and do it in front of your family and friends, — in your hometown, no less — it’s a great thing.

That would describe how the first taste of big league ball via the minors has gone for University High School and Illinois State University product Tyler McNeely. McNeely signed with the Normal CornBelters mid-way through this Frontier League season and has had limited time at bat since being signed by Manager Hal Lanier.

“We’ve gotten him a few at-bats, to be a designated hitter, late in games whether we were winning or losing,” Lanier said. McNeely signed with the ball club on July 5. On July 23, Lanier put McNeely in the lineup in the DH position. “That’ll get him four at-bats to see what he can do. He had had intermittent at-bats in-between those dates.

“My hitting coach, Boots Day, and I both like his swing,” Lanier said of what they have seen of the 23-year-old in practice. “He’s a hard worker. He comes out every day early for batting practice. He’s very professional. He swings the bat well. We will just have to see if he can hit Frontier League pitching.”

His senior year at ISU, he had a .345 average, having belted 12 homers. “We went on his stats with his having played in a good conference,” Lanier said, referring to the fact McNeely played for the Redbirds, members of the Missouri Valley Conference.

“He put on a pretty good show in batting practice,” Lanier said. “I know it was only in batting practice, but, we saw he had good bat speed. He just needs an opportunity to play more and get more at-bats and see what he can do.”

“It feels great to be here,” McNeely told me. He is the second member of his family to play professional ball. His dad, Mike, played in the St. Louis Cardinals organization for a year in 1985.

“Playing professional baseball has always been a dream of mine,” Tyler told me. “This is something I always wanted to do and looked forward to, and feel very lucky to have gotten the opportunity to do it here.”

It’s crazy and incredible that I get to play in front of my parents and grandparents,” young McNeely said. “It’s been great so far.”

I wondered what being at bat at home, when home is your hometown, is like. McNeely clued me in. “Being able to play this game for a living is the most you could ever ask for,” he said.

McNeely said when he is at bat – at The Corn Crib, particularly – the feeling he gets “is almost surreal,” he said. “It’s just you versus the pitcher. You go up to the plate with a plan, and you have an idea what you want to do and you try to beat the pitcher. That’s kind of the way I look at it. I wait for him to make a mistake and hope I can capitalize.”

As of this past Monday, McNeely has been to the plate 16 times in six games. He has four runs, four hits, one RBI, three walks, and five strikeouts. Time is on McNeely’s side still with one month left in the season for those numbers to grow.

On another subject, press reports indicated Lanier could not hold back his frustration after his team lost its eighth game in a row, to Evansville, on July 22. When I interviewed him prior to the CornBelters’ July 23 game against the Otters, he was still upset and hoping that the team would have a better time of it with what was left of July and all of August. The CornBelters stopped the bleeding at 7 games, thanks to a road win Monday against the Florence Freedom, 7-4. Through Monday’s game at Florence, the CornBelters are a discouraging 5-15 in July.

Understandably, Lanier would like his team to return to the winning ways they demonstrated in June, when the team went 18-10. That June tally included two three-game sweeps – six victories – just against the Gateway Grizzlies alone.

“The players have not performed the way we thought they could,” Lanier said about the ball club as a whole. “When we put this club together, we put it together because of experience, and we thought that it was a championship team.

“We showed that caliber in June,” Lanier said.

As of Monday, River City was leading the Western Division, and Southern Illinois was in second place, 7 ½ games out of first. Normal was in third, 15 games out of first, positioning them just 7 1/2 out of second.

In August, Normal will face Southern Illinois for a three-game series at The Corn Crib Aug. 26-28. But the CornBelters will also get six last shots to gain on River City. Those will come on the road Aug. 16-18, and at The Corn Crib Aug. 23-25.

At this stage of the season, Lanier said it is more important to catch and overcome second place Southern Illinois to get into the division playoffs rather than worrying about trying to lead the division.

“Our focus is to catch Southern Illinois,” Lanier said. “If we can start playing the way we’re capable of playing, there’s no reason why we can’t overcome them. Overcoming Southern Illinois is our goal.”

Lanier is hoping for a repeat of the team’s June winning ways in August to help the team push toward their first playoffs in team history.

“We have not been hitting in the clutch,” Lanier said of his offense’s recent lackluster performance. “We had six errors and one mental mistake against Evansville when that series opened up. When you have that many errors, you’re not going to beat any team, whether it’s a good team or a bad team.”

Here’s hoping Monday’s win at Florence helps get the CornBelters on a long, badly-needed winning streak.

On another subject, Dave Kingman, the all-star who played three of his 16 seasons with the Cubs, was the featured celeb for the CornBelters’ “Star Struck Saturday” last week. Kingman, now 62, was drafted in the 1970 amateur draft by San Francisco, and July 30 will mark the 40th anniversary of his making his major league debut.

Kingman and Lanier were on the 1971 San Francisco Giants roster for what was Kingman’s first season as a major leaguer and Lanier’s last before retiring from the game as a player.

Kingman played four seasons with the Giants, ending in 1975. Between exiting the Giants and arriving at Wrigley Field as a free agent by signing with the Cubs in November 1977, Kingman played for the New York Mets, San Diego, California Angels, and the New York Yankees. The Yankees granted him free agency in November 1977. That same month, he signed with the Cubs, where he played three full seasons – 1978, 1979, and 1980 – before the Cubs traded him back to the Mets in February 1981 for Steve Henderson and cash.

Having gone to high school in the Chicago area, Kingman said his return to the Windy City was great for him because he had numerous friends to see and because he enjoyed playing ball at Wrigley Field.

“Every day the wind blew out at Wrigley was enjoyable,” Kingman said. “You were always checking the flags at the ball park to see what direction the wind was blowing when you drove into the park every day.

“It’s just a great environment to be in, and Chicago was just a great town to play in, and I think the Cubs fans are just the best fans in the league,” he said.

Kingman began his career surrounded by heavy hitters who, to this day, are considered household names in the San Francisco Bay Area: Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, and Willie McCovey. “That was quite interesting to break into the league and be playing with three Hall-Of-Famers. Their talent and their leadership was incredible. They were just great, great guys to play with.”

A three-time All-Star, Kingman said it was “a thrill to be selected by the fans and the league to be a representative” at that game.

The Mets released him in 1984, but he was picked up by the Oakland A’s, where he played two full seasons before the A’s released him. He re-signed with the A’s as a free agent, giving him a third season – 1986 – to play for the A’s before being granted free agency again at the end of that season. Midway through the 1987 season, Kingman finished his career where it had started 17 years earlier, in a San Francisco Giants uniform.

Depending on the club he played for, Kingman was either at first base, third base, or in left field.

As for the CornBelters schedule, they spent most of this week on the road, visiting two Western Division teams that have hindered their progress toward getting into the playoffs – Florence and Southern Illinois. The CornBelters host a brief three-game series against the Gateway Grizzlies Friday-Sunday, July 29, 30, and Aug. 1, before taking on Eastern Division foes on the road.

Saturday, July 30 will be another “Star Struck Saturday” promotion featuring actress Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on the 1960s hit sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.”

The CornBelters’ subsequent road trip which follows begins with a three-game appointment at Traverse City Aug. 2-4, followed by three games at Rockford Aug. 5-7. The CornBelters will get a day off Aug. 8 before facing Traverse City for three games at The Corn Crib Aug. 9-11 and Rockford Aug. 12-14.

NORMAL – At their regular meeting on July 18 at Normal City Hall, Normal Town Council members unanimously approved, without discussion, the preliminary development plan for a 36-unit complex to be known as Healing Stone Apartments. The development is to be located at 1285 Healing Stone Ct., in Eagle’s Landing subdivision.

Developer Erik Sloneker filed a preliminary planned unit development for the property which encompasses about 2.06 acres. The 36 units would be split among three buildings and would be a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments. Sloneker’s development plan provides for adequate parking to match the number of units.

At their July 7 meeting, Normal Planning Commission members heard from residents who live around the proposed development. Among resident concerns of that meeting were to be able to receive a timeline for the construction taking place on the land. That July 7 session was one of two the Planning Commission had recently concerning Sloneker’s development plans.

Liquor Commission Approves Previous Meeting Minutes: Acting in their role as the Normal Local Liquor Commission, Council members met briefly before the regular Council session and approved the minutes of three previously held liquor commission meetings. Those meetings were one regularly-scheduled session held March 21, and two special sessions held on April 18 and May 16, 2011.

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

Approval of the minutes of the regular meeting of July 6, 2011.

Approval of Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of July 13, 2011.

A motion to approve the purchase of pavement marking paint and pavement marking beads from Bloomington-based Diamond Vogel Paints in the amount of $50,664.50.

A motion to waive the formal bidding process and accept a quote in the amount of $21,955 from Lake Mary, Fla.-based Sungard Public Sector, Inc. (formerly

H. T. E.) for the purchase of the Human Resources Software.

• A motion to approve a contract with Bloomington-based Dave Capodice Excavating for the demolition of 211 S. Linden (Old Engineering Office) and 611 S. Linden (NW Storage Buiding) in the amount of $47,380 and an associated budget adjustment.

• A resolution authorizing the execution of an on-line service agreement with, Inc. (d/b/a NeoGov) for the use of NeoGov Applicant Tracking System at a cost of $12,700.

• A resolution authorizing the release of executive session minutes from meetings held on Aug. 10, 2010; and Feb. 7, and March 7, 2011.

• An ordinance amending Section 17.7-1 of the Town Municipal Code – Open Burning.

• An ordinance amending Section 4.11 ( C ) of the Town Municipal Code – Fetal Alcohol Warning Sign.

• An ordinance amending the FY 2010-11 Operating And Capital Improvement Budget.

By Steve Robinson | July 16, 2011 - 10:46 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

NORMAL – Normal’s next police chief will be coming from within its own ranks. At a press conference July 15 in a Normal Police Department second floor conference room, Rick Bleichner, currently an NPD assistant police chief, will ascend to the Chief’s post, effective Aug. 1.

Bleichner, 41, joined NPD as a patrol officer in 1991, and a detective until he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant in 1999. In 2001, Bleichner was promoted to the role of Lieutenant and assigned to oversee the department’s Criminal Investigation Division. From there, he was appointed to Assistant Chief of Police in 2004.

“I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity,” Bleichner began. “I’m appreciative of the leadership City Manager Mark Peterson, the mayor and council provide to all of us. It’s a tremendous feeling to work for such an organization like the Town of Normal, where all departments work together to provide excellent service to the community.

“Everywhere I go in this community, I hear from individuals who have positive comments about the town and the Normal Police Department,” Bleichner said. “Through their interactions with this department, the overwhelming public support that they have of our organization makes it much easier to do the job that we have to do.”

Some of the items Bleichner said he will have his department continue to pursue is using community-oriented policing; NPD’s need to maintain a lead on current technology; continuing training for officers to learn to spot and handle situations involving persons with mental health challenges; and continue good working relationships with other area police agencies.

NPD will continue to have two assistant chiefs. Bleichner will appoint a second assistant chief soon. NPD’s other assistant chief is Kirk Ijams.

Normal’s current police chief, Kent Crutcher, announced his retirement last month.

Bleichner takes command of a department with a total staff of 104 employees, including 78 law enforcement officers.

“It is my firm belief that filling department head positions, such as the chief of police, represent one of the more important decisions a city manager will make,” explained Peterson during his introductory remarks prior to introducing Bleichner. Peterson said that while conducting a national search for a new police chief was an option for the Town, he said his personal preference was to fill such a position using “an internal promotional process.”

Following the news conference, Peterson said talking to Crutcher convinced him that extending the search for a new chief by going outside NPD was not necessary. From there, Peterson spoke to NPD staff as well during what was a three-week process. “As that interview process went on, I became more and more convinced that Rick was the right person for the job.”

Peterson, in complimenting NPD overall as being “a great department,” said he said he was looking for someone who could take it to the next level. “Rick’s the guy with the most chance of getting us there,” Peterson said. “He’s committed. He’s got the right core values, and he’s very experienced.”

Crutcher, in addition to announcing he would retire this month, said he would take the position of police chief in Branson, Mo. Crutcher, a Normal native, said Branson has a police force of about 50 officers.

“If I had to pick one thing that stands out about NPD, it would be the overall professionalism of the officers and the services we provide,” Crutcher said. “It’s the quality of the employees that we have; it’s the quality of the officers that we have; and the level of service that they provide that sticks in my mind.”

By Steve Robinson | - 10:43 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

NORMAL – Living in the neighborhood near Advocate BroMenn Medical Center, Wendell Hess has had seemingly one goal: To preserve single-family zoning of six homes in the area that were destined for demolition by the hospital in favor of a new parking complex.

But Hess spearheaded a movement with his neighbors that worked with the Town of Normal to designate the six homes as single-family zoning.

With the passage of time, the six single residences began to falter and need improvements. When that happened, Hess again took a lead role in pushing BroMenn to approach the Town to separate the hospital land the six homes sat on into six individual lots and sell the homes.

Hess bought one of the six properties. Dennis and Mary Cottier bought the remaining five. These six homes are currently being renovated to be sold or rented as single-family homes.

It is because of the tireless efforts to save those six homes that Hess was named Citizen of the Year by the Town of Normal at an annual function, held Thursday, July 14 at the Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel and Conference Center.

Addressing the audience, Hess said the effort to save those homes was not a one-person effort. Hess, a retired Illinois Wesleyan University Chemistry professor, said “many, many people” had a hand in preserving those homes.

After the formal announcement, Hess told reporters, “I was just doing what needed to be done that I could facilitate doing. That’s all I had in mind. There were six well-built homes that deserved another life, so we worked to get that done.”

Hess, a native of Sweetwater, Texas, continued passing the credit around for his efforts. “All the Town Council and staff helped me make it happen.” He said that included Mayor Chris Koos, Town Planner Mercy Davison and City Manager Mark Peterson.

“I was fortunate that I had the time to devote to it and that I had had experiences that were similar to this kind of thing, so, it was just my turn to step up,” Hess said.

Koos explained to nearly 300 people invited to the function that Hess “has worked tirelessly to enhance the very neighborhood he and his wife, Loretta, call home.

“His efforts to work with Advocate BroMenn Medical Center, to save and restore six single family homes on Prospect Ave., clearly exemplifies what it means to be a neighborhood advocate,” Koos told the audience before Hess was introduced.

Koos listed traits sought in finding the person to bestow the honor to. They include the sense of giving back to the community and taking responsibility for their community.

Koos spoke in general terms of what goes into making the decision concerning who gets this honor. He explained that the honor goes “to someone who has done something exemplary, either individually or in the course of their career, and we feel it’s important to recognize that kind of commitment and volunteerism in the community.”

By Steve Robinson | July 13, 2011 - 10:34 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – During a 40-minute regular session July 13, members of Normal-based Unit 5 School District awarded bids to contractors for one renovation project, one construction project, and a new football scoreboard at one of the district’s two high schools.

Office Renovation At Colene Hoose Elementary: Board members unanimously approved a bid for a renovation project for the front office area at Colene Hoose Elementary School. The work was awarded to Peoria-based Bishop Brothers, Inc., who submitted a bid of $78,266 for completing the job. Bishop Brothers, Inc. was one of nine companies which submitted bids for the project.

Part of the renovation will be to move the school office from the back of the building to its front.

The renovation “is long overdue,” said Board member Gail Ann Briggs. “The time is long past due to move the school’s office.”

Ball Fields Construction At Evans Junior High: Board members unanimously approved a bid for construction of a baseball field and a softball field at George L. Evans Junior High School. The accepted bid came from J. G. Stewart Construction Co., which submitted a bid of $548,867.25.

District Superintendent Gary Niehaus said the ball diamonds were not part of the original construction plan at Evans. He said the ball fields will be taken care of over the course of the next 12 months, in time for games to be played next fall.

New Scoreboard At Normal West: Board members unanimously approved awarding a bid for a new electronic scoreboard/message board for Wildcat Field, home of the Normal Community West High School Wildcats. Board members awarded the bid for the project to Bloomington-based Weber Electric, Inc. Weber submitted a winning bid of $56,000. That price tag includes setting a foundation, wiring, and installation.

The new scoreboard will be relocated to the southwest corner of Wildcat Field, Niehaus told Board members. The current scoreboard is located at the south end of the playing field. Normal West’s Grid Iron Club donated $54,000 for the project.

Niehaus said game play clocks will be placed in the field’s northeast and southwest ends.

Next Meeting Set For Aug. 10: The Board will not have a second meeting in July. The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 10 at District Headquarters, starting at 7p.m.