UI may land minor league franchise

By Jason Grodsky

Starting in 2009 Illinois Field may not just be the home of the Illini baseball team but could also host an independent minor league team.

Negotiations have begun to bring an independent minor league team to Champaign, officials from the University, the Frontier League, National Sports Services and team ownership announced Tuesday. The team would become a member of the independent Frontier League and begin play in 2009 at Illinois Field.

“Our goal is to have a franchise here by 2009 season,” said Matt Perry, CEO of National Sports Services. “We have a lot of work from now until then to make that happen, but it’s a realistic goal.”

If a team came to Champaign it would not be affiliated with Major League Baseball because the Frontier League is an independent minor league, composed of 12 teams from Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The new team would play an 80-game schedule from late May to early September.

“(The Frontier League) came to us six months ago to pitch the idea of bringing a semi-pro baseball team to play at Illinois Field and with the idea have come a lot of positives both for the University and community,” Associated Athletic Director Dana Brenner said.

Having a franchise in Champaign excites Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb, who said that having a team would draw attention to the program and help boost recruiting efforts.

“Bringing this kind of team to Illinois Field would be extremely positive for our program, the University and the community,” Illinois head baseball coach Dan Hartleb said. “This is a baseball town and having a professional team will be a great boost.”

Since its start of play in 1993, the Frontier League has had more than 500 players sign with Major League Baseball organizations, according to Frontier League Commissioner Bill Lee.

“We’re very proud of the guys who have gone on to play at high levels, but we’ve also had plenty of guys go on and become coaches, doctors and fine family men, and we’re just as proud of them and it shows how we’ve been successful in other areas,” Lee said.

The most recent addition to the league was in 2007 with the welcoming of the Southern Illinois Miners.

The Miners play in Marion, Ill., and in their inaugural season in the league they set a single-season total attendance record with 259,392 fans visiting Rent One Park, surpassing the previous record of 217,500 fans set in 2004 by the Gateway Grizzlies at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, Ill.

“This is a great opportunity for the community because it has the opportunity to bring some inexpensive family entertainment to the market,” Perry said. “We have the start of a very unique opportunity and we will work very closely with the University and the community to bring a quality fan base.”