Baseball’s back for Rockford

Wood-bat league move to take over abandoned Aviators Stadium

By Shane Nicholson
Managing Editor

The Aviators have flown the coup but the Rockford area won’t be without baseball for long.

Tuesday, the Northwoods League, a short-season collegiate wood-bat league, announced a franchise will be coming to the former Aviators Park for 2016.

“We’re excited to bring our product to the greater Rockford community,” said league co-founder and chairman Dick Radatz Jr., the son of the former major league all-star pitcher.

“We just finished our 22nd season of play. We had 194 players drafted in last year’s major league entry draft and we’ve got 19 former alums in Major League Baseball right now.”

The yet-to-be-named team signed a five-year lease with Aviators Park owners Northside Bank and plan to begin play in late-May or early-June of 2016.

“It’s an exciting day for us,” said general manager Chris Bauer. “We’re bringing a new baseball team to the Rock River Valley. We’re excited to have this opportunity.”

Bauer previously launched the league’s Green Bay and Mequon, Wisconsin teams before being tapped by Radatz to take on the Rockford franchise.

Most of the cities in the league have had a failed minor league team or two in the past, and Bauer said the challenges presented in the Rockford market are no worse than what he’s experienced before.

“The market is a good size, and baseball once worked very well here and we think it can work very well again,” he said.

“We want to have a clean facility, one that works well with a friendly staff, and we want to have good food and beverage. We want to make it so people want to come out to the ballpark and have a good time.”

The Northwoods League isn’t a home of also-rans and career minor leaguers. The players must have college eligibility left, meaning that the kids taking the field in Loves Park next summer may be future major league all-stars.

“We’ve now put 141 players through to the major leagues,” said Radatz.

“I think we’re bringing a different form of baseball. We’re bringing the up-and-comers instead of the has-beens and wannabes.”

Some of the names  that have passed through the Northwoods League read like a who’s-who of MLB, including White Sox starter Chris Sale; the Nationals Max Scherzer; Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson; and the Royals Ben Zobrist.

Radatz touts the availability of the product as something that will help fans connect to the new club. “We probably have the best video capability outside Major League Baseball, and we plan to (implement HD cameras) at all our ballparks over the next couple years.”

He says that giving fans access to all the league’s games online is crucial to rebuilding a community’s love of the game.

“We’re going to have to overcome some of the things that have happened in the past here in terms of baseball, where people have been let down a little bit. But time will heal that very quickly if we put out a good product and put on a good show for the fans.”

A manager for the new franchise is set to be announced next week, and both Radatz and Bauer feel that a name the team competition to be held in conjunction with the IceHogs will help spur interest ahead of the 2016 opener.

“We’re looking for suggestions from the community,” said Bauer. “This is their team.”

And they said that host families for the athletes will be a vital part of the operation and an important link to the community.

“Our number-one goal is to develop these players, to develop our staffs,” Bauer said. “We’ve had umpires who’ve moved up the ranks to the minor leagues, we’ve had broadcasters and people who have moved onto professional levels.

“This is one of the best training grounds you’ll ever find if you want a career in sports or in baseball.”

For area fans of the national past time, the sustainable and exciting product the Northwoods League puts out may be just the ticket to solving Rockford’s baseball woes.

(Photo: Chad Bauer, general manager, and Dick Radatz Jr., owner, announce a new Northwoods League collegiate summer league team for Rockford, set to start play in 2016 at the former Aviators Stadium, Tuesday at the BMO Center. )

Rockford’s longtime affair with baseball goes on
The 1871 Forest Citys baseball club.
The 1871 Forest Citys baseball club.

“Peaches” may be the first word that comes to mind when Rockford’s baseball history comes up, and the Aviators the most recent in a line of minor league blunders, but this city has been a crucial player dating back to the earliest days of professional baseball in America.

Rockford played host to what is considered the very first major league game in history, a 2-0 win for the National Association’s Kekiongas club of Fort Wayne, Indiana over the Forest Citys of Rockford in 1871.

The Kekiongas failed to complete their schedule, having paid their $10 entry fee but not finding enough revenues to see out the season. Their games were wiped from the record books and they were replaced by the Eckford’s club of Brooklyn midway through that inaugural campaign.

The Forest Citys, who played their home games at a ballpark that stood at the west side’s Fairgrounds Park from 1865 until the turn of the 20th century, finished their one and only season of professional baseball with a 4-21 record, leaving them 15.5 games behind the original Philadelphia Athletics for the league’s pennant. Rockford’s team failed to pull in the fans in that one and only major league season, and the club was forced to close doors before the 1872 campaign got underway.

Fairgrounds Park continued to host a number of amateur competitions until new ballparks began popping up across town in the 1890s. Aerial photos from the 1930s still showed the original layout of the now lost ballpark.

The amateur club that was the predecessor to the Forest Citys– albeit “amateur” in name only as the Rockford side was one of the first to bring professionalism to the sport–featured future Hall of Famers Albert Spalding and Ross Barnes among their ranks.

And the short-lived professional side of 1871 starred a 19-year-old third base prodigy by the name of Cap Anson, who–after four years with the Philadelphia club–would go on to play 22 seasons for the Chicago White Stockings/Colts, collecting 3012 hits. That total remains the Cubs franchise record to this day.

Aerial photography from 1939 shows the layout of the original baseball diamond (upper right portion of the fields) at Fairgrounds Park.
Aerial photography from 1939 shows the layout of the original baseball diamond (upper right portion of the fields) at Fairgrounds Park.

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