Rockford RiverHawks a home run in Rockford

The sound of bats cracking, venders selling beer, programs and hot dogs, and anxious fans awaiting the game’s first pitch. These sounds and more can be heard at Rockford’s very own Marinelli Field, home of the Rockford RiverHawks.

The RiverHawks came to Rockford in November 2001 after their ownership group, Rockford Professional Baseball, moved the team formerly known as the Springfield Capitals to Rockford. Before that move, Rockford had been without baseball since 1999 when the Reds moved to Daytona. RiverHawks General Manager Mike Babcock, said Rockford’s location and size made it the perfect city for a team.

“At the time, Rockford was the largest city in the United States without a baseball team,” Babcock said.

The question of whether a baseball team could be successful in Rockford lingered last season, since the city had hosted four teams in a matter of 11 years: the Expos who came in 1988, the Royals, the Cubbies and then the Reds, who came and went in 1999.

“A lot of people had a feeling baseball didn’t work in the past, so we had to overcome that obstacle last season, and I think we did,” Babcock said.

So far, Babcock appears to be right. The RiverHawks are seventh in total attendance in the Frontier League with an average of 1,676 in 22 openings, and a total of 36,880 fans this season.

The Frontier League is an independent league that has 12 teams from as near as Crestwood, Ill., to as far away as Washington, Penn. Babcock said the independent league was started because Major League Baseball set a limit on how many minor league teams a Major League organization could control. Organizations then dropped certain teams leaving cities like Rockford without baseball, and many players without a league to play in.

The Frontier League, according to Babcock, is a developmental league for players to hone their skills to hopefully move on to the next level.

“It’s a second-chance league for guys who might have been overlooked, Babcock said. Independent baseball has done a great job of showcasing talent.”

The RiverHawks organization has held nothing back to gain fan interest. Every game there is some kind of promotional giveaway such as bobble-head night, travel mugs or seat cushions. If there’s not a giveaway, there is probably entertainment such as The Famous Chicken, Austin Powers night, fireworks or dollar beer night.

With all of the off-the-field entertainment, how is the on-the-field product? Well, a year ago the RiverHawks narrowly missed the playoffs. This season, according to the Frontier League Web site, the ‘hawks are second in the West Division with a 24-20 record. They also have arguably the league’s strongest pitching staff led by All-Star Jason Shelley. Shelley leads the league in wins (7), strikeouts (82), and has pitched four complete games. The ‘Hawks pitching staff is rated first in the league with an earned run average of 3.00 and has three hurlers rated in the league’s top 10: Shelley rated No.1; Joshua Tomsu rated No.4; and Frank James rated No.10.

The ‘Hawks are sending four players to the All-Star game July 16 in Sauget, Ill. Pitchers Justin Dowdy, James and Shelley, and third-baseman Ben Fjelland will all be making the trip.

The next home game for the RiverHawks is this Friday, July 18 at 7:05 at Marinelli Field. For more information and ticket prices, call 964-2255.

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