MARION, Ill. (AP) Mike Marchal knows the muddy crater near where Illinois Route 13 meets Interstate 57 may be deceiving to motorists who see lots of heavy machinery and dozens of workers but little else rising from the earth.
But step a little closer, Marchal said, and folks can see the future of baseball in this community slowly taking shape.
In the cavernous hole on what once was a scrubby, 31-acre patch of land, signs of progress are emerging on what by late May will be a new ballpark and the home of the Southern Illinois Miners, minor-league newcomers to the independent Frontier League.
The 4,000-seat stadium’s dugouts are finished, as are the concrete areas for bleachers. Storm sewers, water mains and electrical lines are in. Concrete slabs for the site’s five buildings — everything from concession areas to restrooms and the clubhouse — have been poured.
Sure, little of it is visible from the road in this community of approximately 17,000 people. But just wait, Marchal said.
“Unless you drive or walk right up to it, you don’t see. But once this thing starts coming out of the ground and the light towers get erected, you’ll know,” Marchal, construction chief of Holland Construction Services, the project’s general contractor, said.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but we are going to be playing ball there May 29,” the Miners’ first scheduled home game, Marchal said. “The schedule is a challenge, being finished in five months. There’s a lot to get done. But the good thing is we’ve got a good architect with a good set of plans and a good set of contractors. We all realize what we’re up against.”
Long having dreamed of a sparkling new ballpark in this place, Metro East Attorney John Simmons saw his quest for the Class A team he wanted to move from Indiana hit a snag when the Midwest League signed off on his plan to buy the club but refused to let him move it. So Simmons let an investor group led by former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan snatch up that club.
In August, Simmons’ group accepted an invitation to join the Troy-based Frontier League, whose existing teams — including three in Illinois and one in suburban St. Louis — already had unanimously endorsed an expansion.
Things have been falling into place since then.
In November, the team announced its new name, the Miners — a nod to the region’s long history of coal mining — and trotted out its logo, a caricature of a burly miner swinging a pickax on the end of a baseball bat at a baseball perched on a mound of coal.
The team also tapped as its Manager Mike Pinto, the Schaumburg native who had coached the American Association’s Sioux Falls Canaries. The Miners have signed 14 players to what will be their 24-man roster.
With the team’s $60,000 salary cap, “obviously these guys aren’t becoming rich playing baseball in the Frontier League,” Erik Haag, overseer of sports operations of Jayne Simmons, John Simmons’ wife and the club’s owner, said.
The Miners unveiled the stadium’s design in December, touting the site’s open concourse, children’s playground, picnic spots, year-round banquet area and 14 enclosed corporate suites, each with a dozen seats.
The Miners expect to ratchet up their marketing with commercials in the new year, already finding ticket sales to be “incredible,” Haag said without revealing the specific number of tickets sold.
“We’re pretty happy with the response,” he said.
Organizers have said they will promote the Miners within a 90-mi. radius of the stadium, an area with more than 1.8 million residents. Backers of the project have said studies show that approximately 270,000 people live within 30 mi. of the ballpark, approximately 675,000 within 60 mi. — plenty of prospective ticket-buyers when the nearest big-league baseball city is St. Louis, home of the Cardinals.
Haag doesn’t figure folks will be disappointed with the ballpark, which he said is “pretty much on schedule.”
“There are a lot of moving parts and things going on,” he said. But “the ballpark we’re building is definitely an attraction. I’d put it up against any minor-league ballpark in the country.”