Day or night, there is something about the first glimpse of a ballpark's lighting standards, something to do with the promise of green grass tucked into the urban sprawl beneath them, like an oasis under a pocket of palm trees. The odd thing is, this cheerful association is so strong for a baseball fan it is even noticeable as one approaches Philip Elfstrom Stadium at the Kane County Events Center in Geneva, where the lights rise against a backdrop of flat farm fields and a mountainous landfill.
It is some five miles past the last Kate Moss billboard, down the East-West Tollway to the Farnsworth exit, which leads five miles north to Elfstrom Stadium, home of the Kane County Cougars--about an hour's drive, in all, from the north side on a Sunday afternoon. Yet the ballpark, the game, the fans--the entire atmosphere--seem worlds removed from Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park; it is almost unfathomable that a mere three classes separate the major leagues from the A-level Midwest League, in which the Cougars compete.
After the family fiasco of Father's Day, we resolved we would no longer try to convert the reluctant to baseball this year. Who needs them? As a general thing, this is turning out to be an excellent summer for the devoted sports fan. Walk-up tickets are routinely available at both Wrigley and Comiskey, and early reports from Arlington Park are that the crowds are down and the pleasure level is up with the shortened season. So much the better for people who really care about baseball and playing the ponies. Yet nowhere is the concentration of devoted sports fans so dense as in Kane County this summer. The Cougars drew 11,038 fans to cozy little Elfstrom Stadium last Saturday night, giving them a league-leading total attendance of 231,380 for 35 games. There were 8,572 there Sunday afternoon, and the Cougars were expecting another 10,000 Monday night on the eve of the Fourth of July. Even with the relatively large crowds--large for both the ballpark and for Class A baseball--the outing was delightful.
The wife and daughter dropped us at the ballpark Sunday afternoon and went on to the Kane County flea market in Saint Charles. They returned at five, with the game a blowout in the ninth inning and with everyone in good spirits. They shopped, we watched baseball; everyone was happy. If it didn't exactly offer the best endorsement for family unity, it was a great endorsement, as far as we were concerned, for minor-league baseball in Kane County. And for the mom-and-apple-pie purists, there were plenty of other families enjoying the game together.
We got there a little more than an hour before game time, and we bought a bratwurst and a beer and sat down on the lawn beyond the first-base line. Elfstrom Stadium proper is built into a slope, and the grandstand runs around home plate from just beyond first base to just beyond third base. To the sides is the lawn, which naturally banks toward the field. We sat down and watched families come in and take positions all around us. "Here are your seats, sir," said one boy to his father as he spread a blanket on the grass, and the father responded, "Excellent choice." From there, however, the kids were on their own. They kicked up clouds of dust as they went up and down the bare dirt at the bottom of the slope and as they ran back and forth along the chain-link fence surrounding the field. One pair of two-year-old boys went down the slope on their rear ends and up the slope on their bellies time after time, while their parents turned a blind eye and no doubt plotted a twilight bath.
We finished our brat--decent but unspectacular, although embellished with onions, hot peppers, kraut, and mustard, all available at the condiment counters (family, good riddance)--then settled down with a Goose Island Honker's Ale and a good cigar to watch the warm-ups. Smoking is forbidden in the seating areas but allowed on the lawn, and no one even wrinkled a nose nearby.
This, we thought, is baseball heaven. Elfstrom Stadium is 335 feet down the lines, 400 feet to dead center, and the grandstand is nestled right up next to the field. There is a picnic area and a bleacher section in right, the bleachers backed by a huge inflated baseball mitt marked HIT IT HERE WIN A $ MILLION $. (It would take a Frank Thomas shot to reach it.) The scoreboard, complete with a Torco sign to make a fan of the Cubs feel at home, is in left. In the middle, adding to that peculiar oasis feeling of baseball, is a lush little copse of tall trees.
The pregame public-address music was a pleasantly eclectic mix of country, Motown, Beach Boys, and, of course, John Mellencamp. Then, about 20 minutes before the first pitch, fans were allowed on the field to get autographs from players standing in front of the dugouts. A couple of bold boys even made it down the first-base line to get Kane County starting pitcher Dan Zanolla while he was stretching before beginning his warm-up tosses.
There was, after all, a game in addition to the lovely spectacle surrounding minor-league baseball. And in this we were lucky that the Rockford Cubbies, one of the Cubs' Class A affiliates, were in town. The Cougars are affiliated with the expansion Florida Marlins, and as the Marlins have been picking high in the free-agent draft since before they were a major-league team their minor-league franchises, especially the lower ones, are now stocked with talent. The Cougars were 39-33 in the first half of the Midwest League season, but they were off to a 4-6 start in the second half. The Cubbies, meanwhile, were 7-2 after a sub-.500 first half.
Records, however, are almost inconsequential at this level; it's a game of raw talent mixed in with dreamers who don't have a prayer of making the majors. In one typical sequence in the top of the fifth, Kane County third baseman Tony Darden booted a grounder, then second baseman Walter White started a nifty double play on a high hopper, crisply turned by shortstop Victor Rodriguez to erase the error.
Promising pitchers usually stand out the most in this crowd, and again we were lucky, as Jayson Peterson was making his Rockford debut. Peterson was the Cubs' number-one draft pick a year ago out of a Denver-area high school, and he was freshly moved over from Williamsport, the Cubs' A affiliate in the New York-Penn League.
Peterson is a big, elegant right-hander, and he made for a classic confrontation with Kane County starter Zanolla. Peterson, who turns 20 in October, has excellent mechanics, a high kick, an over-the-top delivery, and overall good stuff, but he is still trying to harness his live arm. Warming up, he was wild in the bull pen with all his pitches--fastball, curve, slider, and change-up--and he allowed three walks in the first inning, giving up three runs on two hits. Another run scored on no hits in the second inning, as he walked the first two men, then allowed a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly. Zanolla, a scrappy little 24-year-old reliever with a bush-league fastball, a crease of a split-finger pitch, a side-sliding breaking ball, and no real major-league prospects, was pressed into service as a spot starter for Kane County, and he stayed around the plate for four innings and allowed the Cubbies to make outs. He gave up two runs on four straight hits in the second, then righted himself and got the game to the Cougars' deep bull pen in the fifth, beginning with Ryan Filbeck and Jamie Ybarra, a couple of decent but unimpressive relievers.
Peterson, meanwhile, was settling down. From the third through the fifth the only base runners he allowed were the results of errors by third baseman Chad Olinde. (He fielded .600 on the day, with two errors in five chances.) But in the sixth Peterson began to tire, got the ball up, walked a man, and with two outs and a 2-0 count allowed a home run off the right-field foul pole by Kane County leadoff man Aaron Harvey. Rockford manager Steve Roadcap went to the mound to change pitchers, and a petulant Peterson tossed him the ball and began to walk to the dugout. Roadcap grabbed him by the arm, handed him the ball, gave him a few choice words of advice, then allowed him to hand the ball back and leave the game. With the score already 6-2, the Cougars pounced on the Cubbies' bull pen for two more runs in the seventh to put the game away. Even so, we'll probably be seeing Peterson in the majors before we see anyone else on that field. Such is the way of baseball.
Otherwise, the strongest impression was made by Todd Dunwoody, a 20-year-old outfielder hitting third in the Kane County order. He had a single, a double, and a sacrifice fly, but what stuck most in the mind was the way the public-address announcer played the Woody Woodpecker theme everytime he came to the plate. Likewise, whenever a foul ball was hit into the lawn areas and a bunch of boys went scurrying in the dirt after it, the announcer played sound effects of monkeys fighting. In the Eden-esque setting, it reemphasized that this was baseball in the state of nature.
The one sad thing to report is there is no escaping "Y.M.C.A." at baseball stadiums this year. It has even infected bucolic Kane County, like an asp crawling through paradise.