Thursday, May 22, 2008

Veeck may return to family's Illinois roots

When it comes to professional baseball, the Veeck family is a batch of travelers from Illinois.

While many remember Bill for his stunts while operating the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns, along with minor league ball clubs in Milwaukee and Miami, the fact is that he was the two-time owner of the Chicago White Sox because they were his hometown team (born in Chicago, he grew up in DuPage County).

THE ELDER STATESMAN of the Veeck family, William Sr., was the Chicago newspaperman-turn-equivalent of general manager of the Chicago Cubs – and he was the guy who put together those teams that actually made the Cubs a baseball power back during the depression.

That’s why it has always been a bit odd that Veeck son (and grandson) Mike had to make his baseball reputation outside of Chicago, as operator of the company that owns the St. Paul Saints and also runs teams in Charleston, S.C., Fort Myers, Fla., and Sioux Falls, S.D., just to name a few.

But now, there’s a chance that Veeck will come back to Illinois to work his promotional stunts that try to make the act of attending a professional baseball game fun – and not just draining on the wallet and/or credit card.

Specifically, officials in Normal, Ill., want to have a professional baseball team in their community (it would be a first ever, although neighboring Bloomington once had teams in the old “Three Eye” League). They are willing to build a new stadium for a team to share with the Heartland Community College athletic program.

THIS WEEK, THEY learned that their professional ball club might very well be owned by Mike Veeck, who runs a company that specializes in operating minor league teams. The youngest baseball Veeck is looking to get more teams in professional leagues not directly affiliated with major league baseball.

So the man who throughout the years has come up with “Vasectomy Night,” hired nuns to work as masseuses and used pigs to work as “ball boys” may soon take on an Illinois team.

In one sense, he owes us a share of experiencing his unique brand of minor league ball. Mike Veeck’s brainchild when he worked menial jobs for the White Sox (similar to how father Bill once performed menial tasks at Wrigley Field working for his father) was to come up with the still-remembered Disco Demolition Night of 1979.

Letting us Chicagoans see his stunts up close (without having to make a lengthy drive to St. Paul or Charleston) would be the way to let us put the memory of a trashed ball field to rest.

SUCH A MOVE also would be a plus for this state’s sporting, and entertainment, scene.

I have been to minor league baseball games in Crestwood, Geneva, Joliet and Schaumburg, along with Peoria and Davenport, Iowa. I also used to enjoy following the old Springfield Cardinals, Sultans of Springfield and Springfield Capitals during the stint I lived in Illinois’ capital city.

Some of those baseball operations are considered among the tops of the minor leagues and others have long glorious histories of supporting low-level professional ball clubs.

But the actual scene for a fan attending a game is cheap and schlock-y. The reason?

MOST OF THESE minor league promoters really don’t have much of an imagination – even though they claim to be putting on a spectacle to keep their fans amused enough to keep plunking down money for hot dogs and beer.

Every single minor league game I have ever attended included a between-innings spectacle known as the “dizzy bat race.” Every team had a fuzzy mascot (with the exception of the old Capitals, who had a guy in an Uncle Sam suit and a giant baseball for a head) that raced a child around the base paths.

Every team had some sort of prize giveaway that was totally worthless (such as a broken-down automobile). In short, minor league ball in Illinois has developed a certain sameness to it.

One literally has to look at the colors of the grass-stained laundry worn by the ballplayers to figure out if we’re in Peoria or Joliet – both of which have developed nice, small-scale stadiums in their downtown areas, although looking out beyond right field at Davenport’s O’Donnell Stadium gives one of the best scenic views available (the mighty Mississippi River) to a minor league operation.

ALL TOO OFTEN, minor league baseball has become an excuse for a lot of people to make significant money off souvenirs and concessions – except for the ballplayers, who at that level usually take in a few hundred dollars per month for the duration of the season.

An imaginative operator has the potential to stand out. If Veeck were to follow through with his talk and actually buy his way into a new team, Normal could become the pre-eminent minor league baseball franchise in Illinois. It could be the one place where fans are justified in making a special trip to see a ballgame.

Now Normal is a college town. The local sports scene focuses on Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State sports, particularly men’s basketball. I wonder if local officials have the ability to see beyond what they already have and appreciate how a ballclub could boost their town’s image (albeit in the symbolic gesture type of way that can’t be definitively measured on a spreadsheet)?

Already, there is some complaining about whether public monies ought to be used to build a new stadium (although officials in Crestwood and Marion both used funds from state grants to build stadiums for their teams).

OTHERS JUST GRIPE about having any attraction that brings people to their community, preferring the thought of isolation – until they realize that isolated places have very little in the way of tax revenues coming in.

As I understand it, Veeck would want to have any Normal-based team play in the Frontier League, an operation that originally began in West Virginia and southern Ohio but now stretches across the Midwest and has Illinois ball clubs in Crestwood, Marion, Rockford and Sauget.

A Normal team would be centrally located to all of those teams and would provide yet another athletic rival, although most people who go to minor league games usually have no clue as to the actual ballplayers.

CONSIDERING THAT MOST of these kids will see their athletic dreams die in places like Normal, it is no wonder they are soon forgotten. But the joy of minor league baseball can be that its small scale allows you to get up so close to the field that you can see in great detail the skills needed to excel at the game.

There also is the off chance of seeing future talent – although one doesn’t get to realize exactly what they have experienced for about four or five years.

To me, when the Chicago White Sox won the American League pennant and World Series in 2005, one aspect that gave me personal pleasure was the inclusion of reserve infielder Pablo Ozuna.

MOST FANS HAD never heard of the guy before that year, or thought he was just a schlep who couldn’t hang on with a major league team. To me, he was the guy I saw up close back in 1998 when (for some reason) I went to a string of Peoria Chiefs games and he was the star shortstop and leadoff hitter who sparked the Chiefs that season.

Professional baseball at any level has its joys. It is the ultimate evidence that baseball is a game that should be enjoyed live, and that having to watch games on television ought to be considered punishment.

Once you realize that, all the silly stunts are tolerable – even the mascot race, since the only times he wins is when he cheats. But if Veeck the youngest were to actually gain a ball club within driving distance of Chicago (Normal is about a two-hour drive each way), then there just might be crowds of people driving on down Interstate 55 on game days.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Mike Veeck is making a living off of focusing attention on the baseball crowds (, rather than the on-field activity. Pay him enough, and he’ll come speak to your group about making money off of having fun.

Some officials in Normal, Ill., want to have their own professional baseball team come ( the 2010 season.

This older interview with Veeck reflects the spirit that could soon be coming to Illinois (, should he manage to gain control of a downstate team. It’s too bad his business group couldn’t buy its way into one of the minor league clubs that exist on the fringes of the Chicago area.

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