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Thursday, July 3, 2003 02:20 pm

Dream team

The Springfield Rifles keep hopes alive

Kyle Jones

Don Jones had dreams of playing in the major leagues. He was a young pitcher with a good arm, and he was beginning to attract the attention of big-time scouts. But the Army had other plans, and Jones ended up in Korea.

Now Jones's 19-year-old grandson, Kyle, has similar dreams. The 19 year-old pitcher for the Springfield Rifles says his grandpa has been the greatest inspiration in his own pursuit of the baseball dream. "He would drive three hours one way just to watch me pitch," Kyle Jones says. "I still call him every night after the game and we go over everything together."

The Rifles are part of the Central Illinois Collegiate League, an NCAA- and MLB-sanctioned summer program for undrafted college players. They play teams in Decatur, Quincy, Danville, Bloomington-Normal, and Bluff City. The league is meant to give young players experience in a semi-pro environment, while still placing a premium on honing their skills. These games have a lot to offer fans as well. The players are hungry, and at $3 a ticket you'll have money left over for a $1.50 hot dog (which Jones says are exceptional).

Games in Danville and Quincy draw as many as 1,500 fans, but fewer than 100 spectators usually show up in Springfield. Jones says that he plays to win even if nobody watches, but he appreciates a packed house. "The crowd makes the atmosphere," he says. "They may really get on us when we are the visiting team, but I think that just makes the guys play even better."

When they aren't playing or practicing, the athletes work on maintaining the field. On a recent hot and humid Monday morning, Kyle and some of his teammates are painting the outfield wall dark green. After the morning's work, they'll have two hours to get cleaned up and on the bus for a night game in Danville.

Jones, who will be entering his sophomore year at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville this fall, says no one in his right mind would do this--especially when you consider the players are unpaid. The schedule is grueling, and a sunny 95 degrees can make for a long Sunday afternoon. But in spite of the difficulties, there is a sense of satisfaction apparent in these young men that could only come from being exactly where they belong.

"You really have to love the game to do this," Jones says. "I guess it is all I have ever really wanted to do."

Play ball
Remaining 2003 schedule for the Springfield Rifles. All home games are played at Lincoln Land Community College.

1 at Danville 6:30
2 Danville 6:30
3 at Quincy 6:30
5 at Quincy 6:30
6 Quincy 1:00
7 at Quincy 6:30
9 All Star Game TBA
11 Bluff City 6:30
12 at Bluff City 7:00
13 Bluff City 1:00
15 at Bluff City 7:00
16 at Twin City (ISU) 6:30
17 Twin City 6:30
18 at Twin City (ISU) 6:30
19 Twin City 1:00
20 at Decatur (2) 1:00
22 Decatur 6:30
24 Decatur 6:30
25 Bluff City 6:30
26 at Quincy 6:30
27 Decatur 1:00
29 at Danville 6:30

CICL tournament July 31 through August 6

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