Monday, June 11, 2012
All photos of Foresters Home Opener available on Flickr.
When we embarked on The Tour five years ago, the only summer collegiate leagues I knew that existed were the Cape Cod League and the Northwoods League. Over time, my appetite for this type of league has become insatiable, and almost every summer I read about a new one sprouting up, or uncover a league that I've never heard of. I now know that these leagues exist in almost every state in the country, even Alaska. It's a unique experience in which smaller cities and towns welcome budding young ballplayers to compete in their forgotten old stadiums and community fields during an exciting and compact 2-month season. I was thrilled earlier this year to find out that there is another summer league practically in my backyard, so Erik and I drove to Illinois for the Rockford team's home opener, and in so doing reached the milestone of my 100th ballpark attended.
The Midwest Collegiate League was created in 2010 and currently fields 8 teams. It was formed with 4 founding members who later merged with two other teams from the long-standing Prospect League, and there are two expansion franchises this season. The league as it stands today has a very tight footprint which encompasses the northern Illinois and outlying Chicago areas. Any expansion plans would have to compete with the Northwoods League to the north and the aforementioned Prospect League to the south and east, as well as various independent leagues, so the future growth and quality of this league is uncertain. It was very apparent from our visit that the talent of this league pales in comparison to the Northwoods League. Attracting upper-echelon, non-local college athletes will definitely be a struggle and a process for the MCL.
We left Madison a little after 5 and arrived at the park around 6:30 for a 7:05 first pitch. Erik is now unemployed following the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election, so Rockford was our first new park in a long month of ball-watching we have planned before he eventually moves back to Minnesota for law school. The park sits just south of downtown Rockford and right on a river. Having a waterfront site, it's easy to notice that the ballpark does not interact with the water whatsoever, which seems like a missed opportunity but could just be a product of budget and when the park was built. It costs $1 to park at Marinelli Field but all the proceeds go to a fund for ballpark improvements - and boy, could this park use a little TLC.
There was a long string of oddities that occured on this night from the moment we walked in the gate up to the last pitch, some fixable and some out of the team's control. First of all, the ticket booth is just a small out-building with a piece of paper taped to the window with the hand-written word "Tickets" on it. I can see this being the case for a new team, or later in the season, but not for Opening Night. You'd think they could have prepared a better sign in the last 10 months. We bought reasonably priced GA seats here after walking past a booth that was giving away sunflower seeds. We tried to acquire some but it was apparently a post-game giveaway and we were not able to parktake in the seeds inside the ballpark. Then, at the front gate, the General Manager of all people was taking tickets and tried to get us to sign up for a bunch of crap and handed us pocket schedule business cards. We were bombarded with all of this hilarity in the span of a minute and then we had to get our bearings inside.
The first thing you notice when you walk in is a giant poster displaying famous major leaguers who have made a stop in Rockford, including Johnny Damon and Matt "The Professional Hitter" Stairs. Marinelli Field's original tenant was the Rockford Expos in 1988, followed by several other A-ball teams and an independent league team. After the Frontier League Riverhawks left in 2005 for a new facility in the suburbs, the park sat dormant for 5 years until, in true summer collegiate fashion, the Foresters swept in, slapped on some paint, and gave the park a chance to live on. I'm not sure the Foresters could do much better here without an extensive remodel. It's a pretty nuts-and-bolts park and is the type where the grandstand is hidden and supported underneath by imposing masonry walls, which restrict you from seeing the field from the councourse, a la Riverfront Stadium in Waterloo. The two biggest problems with the park are the orientation and the scoreboard. The batter faces northwest and it made it very hard to watch the game until the sun set in left field. Many numbers on the scoreboard are either burned out or are assigned random numbers, and the balls-strikes-outs markers do not work. It's something you take for granted in most parks that you will always know the score and what the count is, so we really had to pay attention.
There was a pretty clear indicator for how the night was going to go when the power went out just before first pitch. We got to the concession stand just before that so we lucked out, but for awhile they had no hot food, only beer "which we colded earlier," as the concession lady told us. Since the sun was obviously still up when the game started, I didn't notice anything was wrong until the PA guy emerged from the pressbox to bellow out the starting lineups to the crowd sans microphone. Showing he is a man of many talents, he also sang the National Anthem acapella featuring a mid-stanza key change. Erik and I would not at all have been surprised if we saw the GM and PA guy raking the infield between innings, it was just that kind of place. After the anthem, we noticed that the scoreboard was not on and we could smell a propane grill firing up, so then we definitely knew something was afoul. All of the shortcomings of the park packaged with the low quality of play and eerily quiet crowd made it kind of an uncomfortable game to watch. The Foresters ended up losing to the Chicago Zephyrs 4-1. According the box score posted on the league website both starters went 9 innings but that is not accurate. I would guess the Foresters starter pitched into the 7th and he had at least 5 walks and 2 hit batsmen, he was very erratic. Rockford committed 4 errors in the field and made at least 3 outs on the basepaths, including the shortstop for Chicago tagging a guy out who rounded 2nd and was not paying attention while walking back to the bag. Nobody on either team hit the ball over 200 feet and only a couple batters actually pulled the ball. It was pretty clear that these kids were overwhelmed by seeing 85 mph fastballs and using wood bats for the first time. I'm sure it will improve as the season drags on but it was a very sloppy game. I don't regret going - let's be honest, we knew what we were getting into. But if this was any indication of how the Midwest Collegiate League operates, I will not be returning for another game. Although, there is a team in the league called the Illinois Lincolns; if they have a mascot that would be tempting to see.
park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 2
views from park - 2
view to field - 7 (grandstand is high above field)
surrounding area - 2 (downtown about a mile away)
food variety - 2
nachos - 2 (were not available due to power outage)
beer - 7 ($4 tallboys)
vendor price - 9 (free popcorn with purchase of beer)
ticket price - 8 ($6 GA)
atmosphere - 1
walk to park - 2
parking - 9 (adjacent lot $1)
concourses - 2
team shop - 6 (bonus points for cool logo/retro gear)
best food - cheeseburger meal
most unique stadium feature - semi-functioning scoreboard
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - kids' toy horse race
field dimensions - 330/400/330
starters - Chris Richter (CHI) v. Brady Stanton (RCK)
opponent - Chicago Zephyrs
time of game - 2:10
attendance - 641
score - 4-1 L
Brewers score that day - 4-3 W
STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 06.11:
Brewers 28-32, -4.5 (3 @ Royals, 3 @ Twins)
Reds 32-27, -- (3 v. Indians, 3 @ Mets)
Twins 24-35, -8.5 (3 v. Phillies, 3 v. Brewers)
2012 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 4
Peter - 14