Diamonds in the rough
Human bowling balls, grilled corn-on-the-cob and outfield hot tubs bring a touch of Americana to suburban ballparks
The White Sox continue to rack up exciting wins, and the Cubs are, well...they're still playing their home games at that hallowed shrine known as Wrigley Field, but sometimes you just gotta leave the city and get up close and personal with your ballplayers.
Thankfully, Chicagoland has a wealth of minor league parks (and this weekend the Chicago Bandits make the region's first foray into professional fast-pitch softball). With their outfield hot tubs, dirt-cheap tickets, between-inning spectacles and food that's not only reasonably priced but also fresh and delicious, these suburban ballparks are well worth the drive.
We scoured the collar counties and hunted down the best in cheap, family-friendly summertime spectating. Here's what we found.
Sure, they wear shorts and pitch underhanded, but following in the footsteps of the barrier-breaking WNBA and fledgling WUSA, and with teams peppered with recent Olympic gold medalists, the two-year-old National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league has a shot at putting a flame to the feet of its male-dominated baseball counterparts.
The Bandits, whose inaugural season gets under way Thursday 2 with a game against the Australian national team, are an unproven commodity, but they've certainly made a splash in the media, in large part because of the signing of Olympic star pitcher (and Maxim "Hot Lister") Jennie Finch. The team's most obvious market: young, athletic girls whom investors are counting on to show up with families in tow.
Playing their home games at Benedictine University in Lisle, the Bandits will face the four charter NPF teams, as well as the Australian, Chinese and Venezuelan national squads.
To avoid keeping the crowds from tapering off after the first few games, the Bandits' marketing team has come up with some inventive promotions, including Ladies Night games at which all women—or anybody wearing a skirt or dress (that means you, fellas)—get in for half-price.
The Sports Complex at Benedictine University, 5700 College Rd, Lisle (877-722-6348, www.chicagobandits.com). Metra: Burlington/Santa Fe to Lisle, requires 2-mile cab ride from train station to stadium. Reserved $8, box seats $10.
Kane County Cougars
In the affiliated minor leagues, single-A is pretty far down on the totem pole. Still, your best hope for seeing future major leaguers up close (without buying a plane ticket to Arizona for spring training) is in the far West suburb of Geneva.
The Cougars, part of the Oakland A's farm system, have helped groom more than 70 players for the Bigs, including Marlins pitching phenoms Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett; oft-injured Cubs closer Joe Borowski; mullet— and Fu Manchu mustache—wearing Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar; and White Sox speed demon Scott Podsednik.
Philip B. Elfstrom Stadium accommodates more than 7,400 butts, and the team is regularly among the Midwest League attendance leaders. That's due to the fact that the Cougars typically field good teams, let fans sit in a hot tub or on a banked lawn in the outfield, and offer a ton of original between-inning entertainment, including the human bowling ball for grownups and a pedal car race around the bases for kids.
The biggest draw, though, is some of the best ballpark food anywhere, much of it cooked on massive open grills. You can stuff your face with three varieties of hot dogs, bratwurst, pulled-pork barbecue sandwiches, Italian beef or sausage; or feast on sweet corn in season. Wash it all down with your choice of 13 beers, including Leinenkugel's, Goose Island and Warrenville's own Two Brothers.
Great baseball, a winning team, fantastic food and ticket prices even cheaper than in Schaumburg. The only downside: It's a 42-mile haul from the Loop.
Philip B. Elfstrom Stadium, 34W002 Cherry Ln, Geneva (630-232-8811, www.kccougars.com). Metra: Union Pacific W to Geneva, requires 3-mile cab ride from train station to stadium. Lawn $7, reserved $8, box $9.
Part of the independent Northern League, the Flyers play at the positively gorgeous Alexian Field, a retro-style brick stadium that will eventually age into a miniature Wrigley.
As is the case with most unaffiliated minor-league teams, Schaumburg's roster is made up of young players, frequently just out of college, with just a glimmer of major-league hopes. So far, the only former Flyer to make it to the big show is Jim Rushford, who played 23 games (in which he hit a measly .143 with one homer) for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2002.
Seeing future superstars isn't really the point, though. The focus at these games is on family fun, with frequent fireworks displays, themed games (e.g., Hispanic Heritage Night, Vegas Night, Dog Day) and the chance for kids to goof off with the team's mascot, Bearon, a giant bear decked out in a WWII-era pilot's getup. And although hardball purists would be mortified, between-inning entertainment is provided by the Flyers Dancers, scantily clad local girls doing NBA-style cheerleading.
If you just can't live without some kind of celebrity connection, you'll have to make do with this weak link: This season, the team signed relief pitcher Nigel Thatch, the actor and former college ballplayer who starred as the obnoxious prima donna "Leon" in a series of TV spots for Budweiser. With any luck, he'll be too busy to film any more of those awful ads.
Alexian Field, 1999 S Springinsguth Rd, Schaumburg (847-891-2255, www.flyersbaseball.com). Metra: Milwaukee W to Schaumburg. Lawn/bleachers $5.50, reserved $9.50, reserved club $10.50.
Gary Southshore RailCats
Even though you have to cross a state line to get there, the U.S. Steel Yard, home of the RailCats, is closer to the Loop than any other Chicago-area minor-league park.
The stadium is a welcome patch of green just across the interstate from United States Steel's massive lakeside mill operation, Gary Works. The park is another retro-style beauty, with plenty of brick and exposed steel girders that honor Gary's most prominent industry.
Along with the usual grandstand and bleacher seats, the Steel Yard welcomes groups to its three separate party decks—seating areas outfitted with picnic tables (and even a hot tub on one) where you and at least 24 of your friends or co-workers can eat, drink and mingle, paying as much or as little attention to the game as you want.
Good thing, because so far in its three-season history, the Cats have yet to find anything resembling a groove, putting up records of well under .500 each time out.
It's a situation that's perfect for true fans— the kind who suffer through the bad years in hopes that, when the good ones arrive, the victories will be that much sweeter. For them, there's no better time to catch a game than now. After all, The RailCats have no place to go but up.
U.S. Steel Yard, 1 Stadium Plaza, Gary, IN (219-882-2255, www.railcatsbaseball.com).Outfield terrace $5; reserved $8, $7 kids; box seats $9, $8 kids.