Little teams getting big in the burbs

It's a Friday evening in August, a perfect night for baseball in Chicago. In Comiskey Park on the South Side, some 30,000 fans have turned out to watch the White Sox open a weekend series against the Oakland Athletics. That's a good-sized crowd, which is not surprising. The White Sox are sporting a big lead in their division of the American League.

But the Sox are not the only game in town.

Thirty miles west of Comiskey, in the suburban village of Geneva, Ill., the Kane County Cougars of the Class A Midwest League are hosting the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels. They'll draw a crowd of 10,000 - a third as many as the White Sox - to see two teams at the lowest level of minor-league ball.

There's more. In the northwest suburbs of Chicago, the Schaumburg Flyers are taking on the Duluth-Superior Dukes of the Northern League. They'll play to 5,000 fans. And on Sunday, yet a third Chicago-area minor-league team, the Cook County Cheetahs, will begin a homestand against the Canton (Ohio) Crocodiles of the Frontier League. The Cheetahs play in south suburban Crestwood, Ill., where they typically draw a couple of thousand fans.

Suburban teams are leading a minor-league renaissance. Attendance started to plummet as major-league games began to be widely broadcast on television 50 years ago. But last year, minor-league attendance (35 million) approached its all-time high set in 1949 (just under 38 million).

To a major-league fan, the concept of minor-league clubs playing in major-league cities may seem strange indeed. How can teams made up of unproven prospects and veterans far past their prime hope to compete with the White Sox and the Chicago Cubs of the National League - teams that boast some of the best players in baseball, such as Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa?

More and more traditional "farm teams" are moving into new ballparks on the outskirts of big cities. According to Lacy Lusk, who covers the minors for Baseball America, some two dozen minor-league teams now play within an hour's drive of big-league stadiums. These teams can be found all across the country - from the Staten Island (N.Y.) Yankees to the St. Paul (Minn.) Saints (whose Midway Park is just seven miles from the Metrodome of the major-league Minnesota Twins) to the Everett (Wash.) Aqua Sox, a scant 30 miles from the Seattle Mariners.

The Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks of the Carolina League play within driving distance of two major-league ballparks - Veterans' Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Baltimore Orioles' Camden Yard. "I don't think it hinders us, being so close," Blue Rocks general manager (GM) Chris Kemple told Ms. Lusk last year. "We have never viewed them as competition."

Take in a few minor-league games around Chicago, and it's clear why these teams are carving out a niche in big cities.

Watching a game in Geneva, says Michael O'Brian, a Kane County Cougars fan, is relaxing. "Driving into Chicago is a stressful experience."

And a lot more expensive. A Cheetahs fan in blue-collar Crestwood can buy a season ticket to 44 home games for $264. Major-league fans may spend that much to take their families to a single game.

"It all comes down to price, proximity, and price," notes Steve Arch, director of administration for the Cheetahs. "Oh, and 'price' - if I haven't mentioned that yet!"

Minor-league games are family affairs, with intimate parks and picnic stands - smoke from barbecue grills wafting over the outfield. Sing-alongs to a litany of tunes have become minor-league anthems: "YMCA," the Chicken Dance, the Hokey Pokey. A minor-league game is an audience-participation occasion. At the first chord of "YMCA," fans of all ages are up and dancing.

Indeed, minor league general managers are famous for trying nearly any stunt to get fans through the turnstiles.

GM Ripper Hatch of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Canaries of the Northern League came up with a '50s Night last year. Usherettes took tickets in strapless formal gowns, and between innings two fans engaged in a TV- dinner-tossing contest.

General manager Jeff Sedivy of the Kane County (Ill.) Cougars in the Midwest League thinks up gimmicks by asking his staff, "What are the things you always wanted to do as a kid?" One of the Cougars' stunts is firing water balloons from giant slingshots into the stands (and press box).

"We set out to fill a family niche, and baseball's a slow game," Sedivy says. "We've got to do something for the kids, and for Mom in particular. Baseball is what we do, but we're in the entertainment business." (The Cougars' mascot, Ozzie, sponsors a reading club for children at 364 Chicago-area schools.)

The majority of fans are baby boomers with young children. And the games are staged as family outings.

"This isn't a place to take a date," says Rich Ehrenreich, managing partner of the Schaumburg Flyers. "It's a place to bond with your families and neighbors."

During a pitching change, the Flyers hold a dance contest between two families - each on the roof of a dugout. As the contest heats up, one of the mothers breaks into a half-remembered disco dance routine. She is wearing a shirt from a Boy Scout uniform.

All the teams have mascots that look like overgrown stuffed animals. In Geneva, the gigantic Ozzie T. Cougar lines up to race around the bases with Jillian O'Connor, age 6. The mascot mounts a big lead, until he trips over third base and Jillian dashes home the winner. In the course of many races with his diminutive fans, Ozzie the Cougar has never won.

That's minor-league baseball in Chicago. "We're developing childhood memories that'll last a lifetime," says Ehrenreich of the Flyers. "You'll remember you had fun, and you were with your family when you did it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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