By Steve Robinson | June 30, 2012 - 10:47 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

NORMAL – The Normal CornBelters are hosting the 2012 Frontier League All-Star Game this year. There may be just one game, but there will be two days worth of events, many of them the community will have a chance to participate in.

“We’re super-excited,” CornBelters General Manager Kyle Kreger said, for this event to be held on their home turf. “We knew about this last year, so we have had a full year of promoting it, and getting support from our sponsors, as well as selling tickets.”

Last year, when the game was in Avon, Ohio – home of the Lake Erie Crushers – League Commissioner Bill Lee announced Normal would host the contest and the hoopla in the days leading up to it – in 2012.

Here is a complete rundown of the entire two-day public schedule of events for this year’s game:

Tuesday July 10, 2012

9:00 A.M. – 10:30 A.M. – Players and Coaches to attend charitable appearances at Advocate BroMenn and The Boys and Girls Club of McLean County.

12:00 P.M. – 1:30 P.M. – All-Star Luncheon presented by the Bloomington Normal Convention and Visitors Bureau at the Marriott. Join us for a luncheon to honor all of our All-Stars! Featuring Keynote speaker Mike Veeck.

5:00 P.M. – 6:00 P.M. – All-Star Autograph Session Presented by Wilber at the Corn Crib.

6:30 P.M. – Frontier League Home Run Derby presented by State Farm at the Corn Crib. Featuring Reggy the Purple Party Dude presented by Illinois Corn Growers and Post-Derby fireworks presented by the Illinois Lottery.

Wednesday July 11, 2012

6:30 P.M. – Frontier League All-Star Game Presented by State Farm. Featuring Reggy the Purple Party Dude presented by Illinois Corn Growers and Post-Game Fireworks presented by Frontier Communications

9:30 P.M. – 11:00 P.M. – Post-Game Party Presented by Mid Illini Credit Union. Stick around after the game to mingle with the All-Stars and catch local recording artist Brushfire! (Must have tickets to the game for entry)

The coaches from the other teams will only be here if they are actually a part of the All-Star Game coaching staff. They will be announced with the team rosters closer to the actual event. The luncheon, Home Run Derby and All-Star game are all ticketed events.

Kreger said the team is estimating as full a house as one can for an event like this. “Right now, we have over 4,000 seats sold for both events,” Kreger said. He said the team is anticipating a crowd of between 5,000-6,000 fans for the game itself on Wednesday.

“We’d love to break the record for attendance for the game,” Kreger said. He said the record for attendance is 6,033 fans.

CornBelters staff have been to the All-Star events held the last two years, first at Rent One Park in Marion, Ill., home of the Southern Illinois Miners, in 2010; and in Avon, Ohio last year when Lake Erie hosted this event and witnessed that the East and West squads were divided to give area kids a chance to meet and get autographs from area ball players – one group going to make hospital visits, the other group visiting a community center.

Kreger said when the CornBelters approached both Advocate BroMenn and The Boys and Girls Club of McLean County about player appearances for kids being helped by them during the All-Star break, officials from both organizations enthusiastically agreed to be part of the players’ calendars.

“When you have the league’s best in your community, you want to get them out to your community,” Kreger said, explaining the logic of sending the players to two locales. “We figured that having them here gave us a perfect opportunity to get them out and get them to places where they can make an impact.”

“The reaction the kids give at these plays is much the same as when major league baseball players come to visit,” Kreger said. “They are surprised, and behind the scenes, the people running these places are honored that the Frontier League sends the All-Stars to their locations.”

In the meantime, while we all wait for the All-Star festivities, Manager Chad Parker and the Normal CornBelters are on another road swing, having spent this past Saturday through Monday at River City; the days around the Independence Day holiday (July 3-5) in Traverse City; and will spend the coming weekend (July 6-8) at Joliet, before coming home for the All-Star Game events.

NORMAL – Normal CornBelters pitching coach Brian Lawrence might have one of the most interesting approaches for a pitching mentor any of us have ever heard of.

“I can take a pretty good look at a hitter during a couple at-bats and know, pretty much, what he can do at the plate,” the 36-year-old said. Lawrence said his philosophy he wants to impart to CornBelters pitchers is “to be a good pitcher, you have to know what the hitters are thinking. You have to know what the hitter is trying to do and manipulate that to your benefit.”

Lawrence’s perspective is “something our guys have picked up on pretty well,” he said. “I tried to get to know everything I could about hitting – the mechanics of what guys can and can’t do, and use that to my advantage,” he explained. “I know hitting very well, just simply for that reason.

“The talent is here in Normal,” Lawrence said of the pitching staff he is trying to guide. “Our kids have physical talent. They have good arms. They are able to throw good breaking balls.” He said while the CornBelters will be adjusting to the kind of heat he wants to see them throwing from the mound, Lawrence himself will need patience because he is dealing with young men starting out as opposed to players in Triple-A, as he has been accustomed to working with while playing six seasons of Major League ball – five of those with San Diego.

He retired from the Majors while playing for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but modeled a few different jerseys in-between, and even sat out of the game briefly to recover from shoulder surgery.

“Eighty-five to 90 percent of my career was in Triple-A and the big leagues,” Lawrence said. His big league days began with being drafted by the Padres in the 17th round of the 1998 amateur draft. From 2001-05, he mounted a 49-61 record and a 4.10 Earned Run Average with the Padres. He is credited with throwing 579 strikeouts in 934 innings of work. He has seen post-season play in a Padres uniform, pitching in two games of the 2005 National League Division Series against St. Louis.

After the 2005 season, Lawrence was traded by the Padres to the Washington Nationals. During the 2006 season with Washington, he had shoulder surgery. In 2007 and 2008, he spent time in the systems of the Colorado Rockies; N. Y. Mets; Kansas City Royals; Atlanta Braves; San Diego (again); Florida (now known as Miami) Marlins; and San Francisco Giants before ending his career last June with the Angels.

He has seen both Major League parks and plenty of minor league ones. In the minors, “I was kind of looked at by younger players as the veteran,” Lawrence said. That got him thinking that he would like coaching as a post-playing career option.

“I decided to call it quits from pitching and here I am now,” he said.

Lawrence’s quest to begin his coaching career started where his playing career started – San Diego – talking to the Padres’ front office. He spoke specifically with Randy Smith, the Padres’ vice president of player development. Smith told Lawrence all of the Padres’ minor league coaching slots had been filled for 2012.

While Lawrence was mulling his options for his post-playing days, and unknown to him, Chad Parker, who had been announced as the new manager of the CornBelters last fall, was seeking an assistant coach. Parker’s quest led him to consult with Smith as well, explaining he was seeking a pitching coach.

Smith led Parker to Lawrence. That led to the pair having numerous phone conversations before meeting face-to-face, and eventually to Lawrence being hired.

“Brian is outstanding,” Parker said. “He is super-knowledgeable, having played at the highest levels that you can play. He has also struggled through the minors, having to figure things out at times, so, he knows how to relate to our guys. So, it’s the best of both worlds.

Parker said, Lawrence having been a player, too, gives CornBelters’ players “the best of both worlds because he can relate to our players. He’s just been a real joy for us. I’m happy to have him.”

“I’m coming here to learn how to talk to players; how to handle players; and communicate with them,” Lawrence said, explaining he needs to learn how to continue moving from the role of player to the role of coach.

I figure if Lawrence can handle a reporter’s questions for what must have been his rookie interview as an assistant coach, he can handle ball players at the Frontier League level, doing it with skill, comfort, and ease.

As of Tuesday, Normal’s play has lifted them out of the basement in the 7-team Western Division. They were in sixth place with a 13-21 mark, and nine games out of reach of first place Schaumburg.

A new month is starting on Sunday, so the CornBelters must be going on the road, right? After all, that is what the Frontier League schedule had the team doing at the end of May. This time, after completing a three-game home series with Schaumburg on Friday, the CornBelters hit the road for nine games leading up to the Frontier League All-Star Game break. The CornBelters and The Corn Crib will play host to the Frontier League Home Run Contest on July 10 and the league All-Star Game on July 11.

Saturday through Tuesday, June 30-July 2, the ‘Belters are in O’Fallon, Ill. to play another team they need to surpass to get into the post-season, the River City Rascals. The Rascals are in second place in the Western Division. First and second teams from each of the league’s two divisions make the post-season. Tuesday through Thursday, July 3-5, Normal visits the Traverse City Beach Bums for the first time this season; and close out the 9-game road tour with three games against the Joliet Slammers July 6-8.

NORMAL – In baseball, the player referred to as “The Closer” is the last pitcher the losing team sees in the game, generally because that team has not played well, and is behind. The Closer is supposed to “close” the book, so to speak, on a victory for his team.

Marshall Schuler went from being middle relief for the Normal CornBelters last season, under their former manager, Hal Lanier, to being tapped for duty as a closer this season under current Manager Chad Parker.

Last season, Schuler pitched 46.2 innings in 36 games in middle relief, earning a 1-2 record, striking out 37. But because of the CornBelters’ struggles early on this season, the 6-foot, 170 pound Anaheim, Calif. native has not been able to close many deals this season. He is 1-1 so far this season.

Schuler moved to the closer’s position after Liam Ohlmann found himself struggling with the role for Normal. “I kind of like the closer’s job,” Schuler explained. “It has a little adrenalin rush that goes with games on the line. It’s important to be able to be in that position to throw hard to get guys out.”

Being a closer is a learned skill, Schuler explained, much like finding out who can play the game as a starter in a rotation. “Not everybody can be a starter because you have to have a certain mentality,” Schuler said. “The same is true with being a closer. You have to be able to get those last three outs of a game.”

Having been here last season and seen the managerial change take place in the off-season, Schuler said he has noticed “a different perspective” on the game this season as opposed to last year under Lanier.

“There are a lot of rookies on this team,” Schuler points out. “But they are a lot of hard-working guys.”

Schuler has been pressed into service and had mixed results this season, pointing to a road loss at London, but then smiling about a victory he was able to ensure against Evansville at The Corn Crib on June 13.

Schuler was signed by former CornBelters pitching coach Brooks Carey. He said until meeting Carey at a players’ combine in Houston, Tex., where he signed to join the team, he had never heard of Normal, Ill.

He said the team is, collectively, still very upbeat about how they will be able to rebound from a poor start to this season, including a discouraging 12-game road trip that only netted them two victories.

The club’s recent three-game sweep of Evansville, he said, although it was followed up with a 10-inning loss to Gateway a night later, did not – nor has not – diminished the optimism the team is expressing toward this season.

Schuler said his hopes are two-fold: Should he advance from Normal before this season is over, he would, like any player at the independent league level, want to find himself in affiliated ball. Barring that, the goal before him is to help the CornBelters win a Frontier League championship.

Following Monday’s game at Southern Illinois, the CornBelters (10-17 prior to Tuesday’s action) have won just one complete series all season so far, and find themselves 7 games behind Western Division leading Schaumburg Boomers, an expansion team welcomed into the league this season.

With that first complete sweep was at home against Evansville last week, it also looked like they were starting this week trying to get their first sweep on the road, too, having won two games at Southern Illinois.

Parker appears unfazed and relaxed about the situation, though, noting that there is still nearly two full months worth of games ahead for his team yet this season.

“You hope to be somewhere around .500 near the All-Star Break, and then make a push late,” Parker said to me on June 16. “That’s all you can hope for when you’ve gotten off to a start like we have.”

The CornBelters will have taken their first three-game road trip to Marion, Ill. to play the Southern Illinois Miners June 17-19, and will have hosted Rockford June 20-22 before another road trip to Sauget, Ill. to face River City June 23-25. Following a day off on June 26, the Boomers make their debut at The Corn Crib, playing Normal for three games, Wednesday-Friday, June 27-29.

“Statistically, Rockford is leading the league in hitting, but they are the worst in the league in pitching,” Parker said. “That doesn’t set things up well for us because we are second to last in hitting.”

As of Tuesday, Rockford was dead last of the 14 teams in the league in terms of pitching. Normal’s is ranked 10th.

“And Southern Illinois is solid all the way through,” Parker added. “River City has been to the league championship three years in a row, and they don’t appear to be slowing down, either.

“It’s not going to be easy, but we just need to suit up and get with it,” Parker said. “We can’t worry about how others are doing in the standings. All we can worry about is just trying to play well every day and every night, and hopefully, those things will take care of themselves.”

As of Tuesday, transactions in the past week for the CornBelters have included signing right-handed pitchers Kyle DiMartino, Robert Hillier, and Stephen Adkins; Placing first baseman Jovan Nova on the 7-day injured list; and releasing left-hand Pitcher Justin Albert. The team also released right-hand pitcher Elio Birones.

By Steve Robinson | June 18, 2012 - 8:56 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

NORMAL – At their regular June 18 session, Normal Town Council members voted unanimously to annex land located west of 1824 W. Hovey Ave. Dr. David Kruger constructed a building on the property, and was proposing to expand it. In addition to the annexation, Council members unanimously approved rezoning the land the building sits on – from being zoned County Agriculture to General Business, and further, granted approval conditionally and partially, to a final plat of the subdivision.

The Animal Veterinary Clinic was built at that location originally when that land was still located within the County. The Town annexed the property in 1998 and approved a final plat for the Animal Haven Subdivision by expedited process in 1999.

Ordinance Related To Liner Housing Passed: Council members also unanimously passed a pair of items related to liner housing, such as what will be constructed to the south side of the College Ave. Parking Garage beginning later this year. First, Council members unanimously approved an ordinance which sought to change some wording within the legal agreement between the Town and the development company that wants to construct the liner housing, G Block Apartments LLC.

Town Corporation Counsel Steve Mahrt told Council members the change in wording would enable the Town to maintain the tax-exempt status of the bonds used to pay for construction of the parking structure.

Because the garage’s construction was funded using tax exempt general obligation bonds, the Town was advised by local attorney Kurt Froelich that the Town should adopt an “ordinance of general applicability” concerning the use of adjacent public parking facilities by those persons who will move into liner housing.

G Block Apartments LLC and Froelich, the Town’s bond attorney, have agreed to changes in the contract, including clarifying a matter concerning maintenance issues.

Council members Cheryl Gaines and Sonja Reece were not present at Monday’s session at Normal City Hall.

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

• Approval of the minutes of the Council’s regular meeting of June 4, 2012.

• Approval of Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of June 13, 2012.

• A motion to waive the formal bidding process and accept a quote from Charlotte, N.C.-based SSI Schaefer for the purchase of wheeled recycling carts at an estimated total cost of $55,784 and a required budget adjustment in the amount of $23,562.

• A motion to accept bids and award a contract to Bloomington-based Rowe Construction Co. in the amount of $13,162 for the Fort Jesse Road Drainage Improvements Project.

• A motion to approve recommended Harmon Arts Grant Awards.

• A resolution approving vending service agreements for various Town facilities.

• A resolution approving an agreement with Bloomington-based PATH, Inc. for homeless outreach services.

• A resolution approving a waiver from the Uptown Design Review Code, Chapter 15, Division 17 for an internally lit wall sign at 200 W. College Avenue (Heartland Bank).

• A resolution authorizing the execution of an interlocal agreement between the Town of Normal, the City of Bloomington, and the County of McLean for the 2012 Byrne Justice Assistance Grant.

• A resolution to appropriate $180,000 of the Town’s allotment of Motor Fuel Tax Funds for the project involving construction of Constitution Trail Extension along the north side of Raab Rd. from Airport Rd. to Normal Community High School, and approve a budget amendment for this project.

• A resolution authorizing an easement grant with Todd Maynor and Ryan Fiala related to the Constitution Trail Relocation Project on the properties located at 121, 123, and 125 E. Beaufort St.

• A resolution authorizing an easement grant with Orval Yarger related to the Constitution Trail Relocation Project on the properties located at 121, 123, and 129 E. Beaufort St.

By Steve Robinson | June 13, 2012 - 10:20 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – During what will be their final meeting for the 2011-2012 school year, members of Normal-based Unit 5 School Board voted unanimously to approve a two-year contract with the Unit Five Education Association (UFEA), the union that represents the district’s 942 teachers and other certified staff. The current contract was set to expire on Aug. 21.

The unanimous decision came during the Board’s regular meeting held at District headquarters on June 13.

Negotiators for the District and UFEA began contract talks in April. UFEA members unanimously voted to ratify a tentative agreement on June 12. Unit 5 spends roughly $55 million on certified staff salaries. The agreement adds roughly 1.89 percent –$1,015,000 — in compensation, such as salaries.

Under the terms of the contract, new teachers with no experience will earn a starting salary of $33,762. At the other end of that scale, a teacher who has 18 years experience, a Master’s degree, and has invested 48 hours worth of graduate studies would see their salary hit $80,354.

The salary and benefit packages for certified administrators, non-certified administrators, technology staff, medical personnel, occupational and physical therapists, and assistants to those types of therapists were also approved by the Board. On average, this group will see increases of two percent in their pay.

Following the Board meeting, UFEA President Vickie Mahrt said her group had spent the past year getting ready for the bargaining sessions that led to the agreed-upon contract. In a prepared statement from UFEA, Mahrt added, “We believe it is a fair deal.”

“We had a good dialogue and I am glad that we could come to a mutual understanding that is fair for both the district and staff members,” Niehaus said in a prepared statement.

Because each of them is married to a Unit 5 employee, two Board members abstained from voting on certain matters at this meeting. Mark Pritchett’s wife works in food service, while Mike Trask’s wife, a teacher, is a UFEA member.

Amended Budget Approved; Spending Up Slightly: With the fiscal year coming to a close on June 30, Board members approved an amended operating budget. The Board approved an increase in spending – from $137 million to $142.9 million. The money increase comes from $5.9 million in late payments that were due the district by the State that did not arrive as they should have last fall. Unit 5’s Education budget has a surplus of $770,000.

West Business Teacher Chapman Moving Up At Evans Junior High: Trevor Chapman, a business teacher at Normal Community West High School was introduced to Board members as the new associate principal at Evans Junior High School, beginning in August.

Insurance Renewals Approved; Claim Amounts Decreasing: Board members unanimously approved renewals of the district’s Employee Group Medical and Dental insurance; Auto insurance; Property, General Liability; School Board Legal Liability; Umbrella Insurance; and Worker’s Compensation policies.

Steve Bushue, the district’s insurance consultant, told Board members Worker’s Compensation Claims have decreased steadily over the past three years. He said claims totaling $1.2 million were filed with the District during the 2009-2010 school year. That total dropped to claims totaling $635,000 during the 2010-2011 school year, and slid lower during the current school year, with claims totaling $272,000 being filed.

Final Enrollment Figures For 2011-12 Reported: Nate Cunningham, assistant superintendent for human resources, reported to Board members on same-day enrollment figures for the last day of the school year. As of May 23, there were 13,229 students in Unit 5 classes compared to 13,029 on June 3, 2010 – and increase of 200 students, or 1.54 percent. The district’s newest junior high school, Evans Junior High School, finished the year with 680 students.

The district, as a whole, had 13,255 students in class when the first same-day enrollment report was rolled out after the school year started and transfers and student moves had been resolved in early October.

Next Meeting On July 11: There will be no Board meeting on June 27. The 2012-2013 school year will begin formally for the school board with their first meeting, to be held on Wednesday, July 11 at District Headquarters, 1809 W. Hovey Ave., starting at 7p.m.