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A Familiar Evening

Tired of watching the Cubs lose -- and they did again yesterday in Minneapolis, 3-0 to the Twins -- Mike and I decided to take the drive out to Rockford to see Dave's Rockford Riverhawks of the independent Frontier League play last night.

It was perhaps the most perfect sort of weather day you'll ever see in Chicago yesterday -- bright sunshine, not a cloud in the sky, very light winds, low humidity and temperatures in the upper 70's; the sort of day on which the Chamber of Commerce people send out their photographers to take photos for the tourist brochures.

Naturally, that meant that as soon as we arrived in the parking lot in Rockford, it started raining. Last night, Rockford was right on the edge of a fairly large cluster of thunderstorms that was rumbling through northwest Illinois last night; fortunately, it only sprinkled for about half an hour and the game started on time. Dave told us that bad weather so far this season has really hurt their gate; on a Saturday night they normally might get as many as 1,000 walkup tickets sold, but with the threatening weather yesterday the total attendance was 2,341 -- which is about what they're averaging, and not bad for indy league ball.

The Riverhawks opened a brand-new stadium this year, seating about 4,000. It's similar, though somewhat smaller, to the spring training parks I'm familiar with in Arizona, and comparable to Organized Baseball parks at perhaps the high-A or Double-A level. Top ticket price is $15, but most seats are around $8, and concessions are quite reasonable at $2 or $3 for most items (in fact, Mike & I laughed when in the 8th inning, they announced that pizza, priced at $3, was being sold for $2 -- most likely because they'd have to throw it out, so why not try a bargain price?).

They have the usual minor-league promotions and games, such as the giveaway for the "Dirtiest Car in the Parking Lot" (no, it wasn't mine) and the Dizzy Bat Race, one that was new to me (three kids playing Air Guitar, the winner was the one who writhed around on the grass), and one we couldn't figure out (a woman was given five large inflatable cubes with various logos on the side, and had to throw them backwards over her head; apparently if she matched certain ones as they fell to the field, she could win a car; she got five Riverhawks logos and won something, but they never said what the prize was).

As the Riverhawks took the field, I didn't expect to see any familiar names -- but lo and behold (I hate that phrase, but somehow it fits here), who do I see playing center field and batting fifth for the Riverhawks?

None other than former Cub farmhand Bo Flowers, who the Cubs acquired in the Kyle Farnsworth deal in the 2004-2005 offseason, but who washed out of the system pretty quickly with a .238/.286/.353 season at Peoria last year with 121 strikeouts.

The reason why he's now, at age 22, trying to make it back into Organized Ball, was made eminently clear when he was called out on strikes in the first inning, after having been pretty much fooled on every pitch he saw.

I shouldn't just blame Flowers -- the entire Riverhawks team was shut down by Chillicothe (Ohio) Paints righthander Kurt Hartfelder. (No, the team logo isn't a house painter. "Paints" refers to a horse, as in "Old Paint". Yes, I know sports teams are running out of nicknames.) Hartfelder allowed a leadoff triple and a run-scoring double to the first two batters -- and then nothing. Not quite absolutely nothing -- he walked Riverhawks catcher Gooby Gerlits (I mentioned to Mike on the way home that now he can say he actually saw someone named "Gooby" play professional baseball) in the fifth, and Gerlits reached on an error in the seventh, but that was it. Hartfelder's velocity seemed to go up as the game went on; Dave said this is fairly common at this level of play. He wound up giving up only those two hits and the one walk, and struck out seven; closer Eric Teall, a hard thrower, shut down the Riverhawks in the 9th, for a 4-1 Riverhawks defeat.

This isn't the first time Hartfelder, a 2004 graduate of Wittenberg University, has thrown a game like this in 2006; he shut down Kalamazoo a couple of weeks ago. I'm no scout, but I'd think he'd be worth the Cubs taking a look at.

Chillicothe, managed by former major leaguer Glenn Wilson, has the best record in the Frontier League, 21-8; the Riverhawks, at 16-13, still do inhabit first place in the Frontier League's West Division, which includes the Windy City Thunderbolts, who play in Crestwood, near Midlothian and Oak Forest, and also cities in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

These kids (and they are -- the Frontier League has an age limit of 27) really love the game, as there is no guarantee you're going anywhere in indy league ball; you're playing for the love of the game, a small salary, and the chance to have a real championship, rather than just be "developed" to move up to the next level. Not that that isn't a noble goal -- of course it is, for those in major league organizations -- but the people of Rockford have a team that really is their own, and Dave and his ownership group have been warmly welcomed in a city where various minor league affiliates -- including the Rockford Cubbies, a Cubs affiliate from 1995-1998 in the Midwest League -- all failed.

There's not much to say about last night's Cub loss -- another impotent performance by the offense, and a slightly improved outing from Mark Prior. Due to injuries suffered by Tony Womack and Freddie Bynum, Derrek Lee's return is being moved up to today; either Bynum or Womack will likely be placed on the DL to make space for Lee on the active roster (most likely Bynum; Womack is listed as day-to-day with back spasms). Lee has missed fifty-nine games; the Cubs were 19-40 in those games (including eight times being shut out, which leads the majors), an absolutely pathetic performance that would project to a 52-110 record over 162 games.

Lee may not be a savior, particularly not 100% recovered from his injury. But the club HAS to be better with him in the lineup.

The Rockford Riverhawks' Bo Flowers bats in the first inning Saturday night. This sequence was a called strike (note the EMPHATIC 'Strike!' call), a pitch taken for ball two, and finally, a swinging strikeout. Photos by Al

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