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Take Me Out ...

Spare the expense and trouble of our big league teams and take a trip to one of these nearby minor league ballparks.
Friday Apr 17, 2009.     By Mike Clark
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

So you don't feel like fighting the crowds in Wrigleyville or sitting far above the action in the Cell's upper deck. But you're still in the mood for some baseball. What to do?

Well, you're in luck, because minor league baseball is alive and well in the Midwest. Check out a game in the metro area or take a day trip to see one of the teams a little farther afield. You might get to watch a future major leaguer, and you won't break the bank.

Windy City Thunderbolts
Distance from the Loop: 25 miles
League: Frontier (Independent)
Stadium (year opened): Standard Bank Stadium (1999), 14011 S. Kenton Ave., Crestwood
Ticket prices: $8-$10
Phone: (708) 489-2255
Scouting report: A mostly no-frills park in the shadow of high-tension power lines, Standard Bank Stadium does have the distinction of having one of the few upper decks in minor league baseball. Heads up, Windy City charges for parking ($2 for cars, $5-10 for buses).

Schaumburg Flyers
Distance from the Loop: 31 miles
League: Northern (Independent)
Stadium: Alexian Field (1999), 1999 S. Springsinguth Rd., Schaumburg
Ticket prices: $5-$11 ($6-12 on fireworks dates)
Phone: (847) 891-2255
Scouting report: Minor league baseball is a magnet for publicity stunts and the Flyers have had their share, including the 2005 signing of Nigel Thatch—Leon of Budweiser ad fame—and "Fan Club: Reality Baseball," a 2006 production that allowed fans to pick the starting lineup.

Gary SouthShore RailCats
Distance from the Loop: 31 miles
League: Northern (Independent)
Stadium: U.S. Steel Yard (2003), 5th Ave. and Pennsylvania St., Gary
Ticket prices: $7-$10
Phone: (219) 882-2255
Scouting report: The view from the Steel Yard seats is of America at work, from the massive U.S. Steel plant just to the north, to the semis whizzing past on the Indiana Toll Road, to the South Shore commuter trains regularly rolling by (the Gary Metro Center stop is a block from the park). The park cost $45 million to build and it shows, with a Bennigan's in the right-field corner, well-appointed suites and a concourse that rings the stadium. Best of all is the team on the field, winner of two of the past four Northern League titles.

Kane County Cougars
Distance from the Loop: 42 miles
League: Midwest (Class A)
Stadium: Elfstrom Stadium (1991), 34W002 Cherry Lane, Geneva
Ticket prices: $8-$14
Phone: (630) 232-8811
Scouting report: When the Cougars moved to Fox Valley from Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1991, many wondered if they could survive in the shadow of two big-league clubs. Eighteen years and 8 million tickets sold later, the answer is obvious. Elfstrom doesn't have the amenities of some of the newer parks, but there's nothing wrong with the food (check out the center-cut pork chop sandwich) or the quality of play (Ryan Dempster is among the 90-plus Cougars who reached the majors).

Joliet JackHammers
Distance from the Loop: 45 miles
League: Northern (Independent)
Stadium: Silver Cross Field (2002), 1 Art Schultz Dr., Joliet
Ticket prices: $5-$10
Phone: (815) 726-2255
Scouting report: Not quite as posh as the Steel Yard to the east, Silver Cross is nonetheless an above-average minor league park. Coming to the stadium is a hassle-free experience, with easy access from I-80 via the Chicago St. exit, plenty of free parking nearby in downtown lots and garages and a Rock Island commuter station just down the street.

Rockford RiverHawks
Distance from the Loop: 81 miles
League: Frontier (Independent)
Stadium: Road Ranger Stadium (2006), 4503 Interstate Dr., Loves Park
Ticket prices: $5-$15
Phone: (815) 885-2255
Scouting report: Rockford has a long pro baseball history going all the way back to the Forest Citys of the National Association in 1871, but it also has one of the newest stadiums in the country. This is Cubs country, as evidenced by the giveaways (Mark Grace Bobbleheads on May 30) and the fact that parking is more expensive than at most similar parks (but the $2 fee is a much better deal than at Wrigley).

Beloit Snappers
Distance from the Loop: 99 miles
League: Midwest (Class A)
Stadium: Pohlman Field (1982), 2301 Skyline Dr., Beloit
Ticket prices: $5.50-$7.50
Phone: (608) 362-2272
Scouting report: Considering they're affiliated with the Minnesota Twins—memorably dubbed the "Piranhas" by White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen—the Snappers' nickname is fitting. But these guys are a little nicer; every year, they give away bobbleheads to some lucky fans. This year's honorees: Texas Ranger draftee (and Beloit Turner High School alum) Kyle Murphy (June 14), former Minnesota Twin and Milwaukee Brewer (the team's former parent squad) Paul Molitor (July 12) and Oklahoma City Thunder guard (and Beloit Memorial High School alum) Kyle Weaver (August 30).

Peoria Chiefs
Distance from the Loop: 167 miles
League: Midwest (Class A)
Stadium: O'Brien Field (2002), 730 SW Jefferson Ave., Peoria
Ticket prices: $6-$10 (Mondays are half-price games)
Phone: (309) 680-4000
Scouting report: O'Brien Field is on the south edge of downtown and close to restaurants and night life, making it a distinct improvement over the Meinen Field, the Chiefs' former home tucked away in a remote residential neighborhood. This is a Cubs farm club and legendary Cub Ryne Sandberg is the manager, but Peoria is also a big Cardinals town. That explains why this season's first fireworks display takes place on the first night that the team plays the Cardinals-affiliated Quad City River Bandits (May 15).

 

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