Big-league experience not lost on Illini baseball

ST. LOUIS — All baseball players dream of playing in a big-league stadium. While the ideal scenario involves thousands of screaming fans and playing for a major league team with a contract to match, the Illinois baseball team was granted a fair compromise: a midweek contest against de facto rival Missouri at Busch Stadium.

Though the game ended in a 5-4 Illinois loss, the experience of playing on a major league field was not lost on the team.

“It was the first time I ever played in a big-league stadium, like an actual big-league stadium,” starting pitcher Nick Chmielewski said. “It was definitely something to remember for the rest of my life.”

Chmielewski gave up three runs in three innings of work.

Redshirt freshman Reid Roper played second base for the game’s first eight innings before coming in to pitch the ninth, wherein he threw a perfect inning.

Roper, who grew up a Cardinals fan, cherished his time on the offensive side of things more so than his time on the mound.

“I consider myself a position guy first, so to stand in the same batter’s box as some of my favorite players on the Cardinals — Jim Edmonds, Lance Berkman, Rafael Furcal, they hit out of the left batter’s box — to say I hit out of the same batter’s box as them is pretty cool,” he said.

Roper had played at Busch Stadium before in his high school days, but said Wednesday’s game was more serious, making it a completely different experience.

“That was kind of more laid back because it was in the summer, and I just came out here to have fun and there was the awe factor of playing in a stadium like this, because at that time I hadn’t played on any college fields or anything,” Roper said.

Roper said that, while the opportunity to play on a professional field again was great, the team was able to settle in by the time the game started.

“We got here early enough where we got the awe factor out of the way,” he said. “Once we started taking (batting practice) and in and out and playing the game, it was just going back to things that we do.”

The event started as a contest between Missouri and St. Louis University put on by the Cardinals organization to act as a “dry run” for the Cardinals event staff and game operators before the home opener. Former Illinois player Derek Throneburg worked as an employee for the Cardinals ticket office and saw an opportunity for his alma mater.

Coach Hartleb scheduled the game in 2010, though doing so that year required him to reschedule a game against Illinois State. This is the third straight year the game was scheduled, though last year’s event was canceled because of the forecast.

The NCAA schedules are complete before those of MLB, and so in order to assure an opening to play in the game, Hartleb leaves some midweek dates open on his schedule.

For the Illini, the game’s glamor didn’t overshadow its impact on their season, but the experience of playing at Busch Stadium will not be forgotten.

“It’s a really cool park, a great atmosphere — you get to play where the big-leaguers play,” Chmielewski said.

The event, though helter-skelter in its construction, looks to be an annual event for the Illini.

“(Illinois-Missouri) is a classic rivalry, so for this being the first time to take part in that is a pretty special thing,” Roper said. “It’s something I enjoyed and hopefully we’ll get a shot next year to get back at them.”