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Wednesday, May 20, 2009 01:02 am

The American game

The play-by-play on baseball in and around the capital city

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St. Louis Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue (red) tags out Chicago Cubs’ Alfonso Soriano (blue).

Not a full year after the first organized baseball game was played in New Jersey’s Elysian Fields, in 1846, poet Walt Whitman is said to have written of the fledgling sport, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game.”

In the years since Whitman penned that line, baseball would indeed become recognized as our nation’s greatest pastime, used often as metaphor for life, love and America itself.

Baseball would eventually take firm root in the Midwest, particularly in St. Louis and Chicago, which became home to some of professional baseball’s most storied powerhouses — and remain on everybody’s list of the USA’s best baseball cities.

Could Springfield be added to that roster?

It’s not uncommon for fans to take a day trip to Chi-town or the STL to take in the old ball game. But traveling great distances for great baseball action is no longer necessary thanks to the addition last year of our championship collegiate league team, the Springfield Sliders.

So take yourself out to a ball game this summer. If you don’t it’s a shame.

Home base

Exciting baseball is only as far as the north end and Lanphier’s Robin Roberts Stadium, home to the Springfield Sliders.

In their inaugural season in the 45-year-old Central Illinois Collegiate League, the Springfield Sliders had the league’s best record of 30-17 and went on to capture the league crown by defeating the Danville (Illinois) Dans in a best-of-three series.

Not bad for the first time out, but look at what’s in store for 2009.

In October 2008, the team announced the signing of Jack Clark — a four-time all-star with the San Francisco Giants and, later, the Cardinals — as coach through the 2011 season. The Sliders, whose mascot is a turtle named Speedy, were quick to add even more firepower in February by bringing aboard Danny Cox as the team’s pitching coach.

Clark, who helped the Cardinals to two pennant wins, and Cox, who won a World Series with Toronto in 1993 and coached the New Athens High School boys baseball team, played together in St. Louis from 1985 to 1988.

Even though just four players are returning from last year’s championship team, expectations are high for the Sliders going into the season, which begins June 4.

General manager Darren Feller sees it this way: “We look to generate more excitement than last year,” he says, noting the Sliders’ impressive per-game attendance of 1,600 fans. “We really want to be here for the fans and the community of Springfield.”

In addition to the “action-packed” promotions (Feller isn’t divulging details just yet), the CICL, which boasts alumni including Ryan Howard, Joe Girardi, Kirby Puckett, and Mike Schmidt, has been rebranded as the Prospect League, adding four teams to the league that now reaches from Missouri to western Pennsylvania.

If all that isn’t excitement enough, Springfield hosts the Prospect League All Star Game on Wednesday, July 15. All Monday through Saturday games begin at 6:35 p.m.; games on Sunday start at 5:05 p.m.

Tickets purchased at the box office range from $6 to $8; season tickets are also available. For more information about ticket pricing, schedules and promotions, call 679-3511 or visit www.springfieldsliders.com.

Just a bit outside of Springfield

One of the coolest things about Springfield is the city’s embrace of pluralism, electing mayors and governors from both sides of the political aisle and agreeing to disagree about who sells the best pizza pie, or for that matter, horseshoe.

Baseball is no exception. Loyalties of capital city denizens are split fairly evenly among the three nearby MLB clubs — the National League’s Central Division rivals Cardinals and Cubs, and the American League’s White Sox.

Any of these storied franchises would be worth a quick weekend jaunt for a day at the ballpark, but the summer also offers several opportunities to catch a contest between these rivals.

The Cardinals-Cubs rivalry — in the sense that the Hatfield-McCoy feud was a rivalry — dates back to the days of baseball’s infancy when several St. Louis clubs, including Cardinals precursors the Brown Stockings, were routinely battered by the Chicago White Stockings, which eventually became the Cubs. One contest between the teams ended in a riot.

If you can score tickets, the Cardinals play the Cubs at Wrigley Field July 10-12, going into the All-Star Game. This year, the Gateway City will host the All-Star game and festivities for the first time since 1966 (good luck getting tix to that). The teams meet for the last time at Busch Stadium for a three-game set Sept. 18-20.

White Sox-Cubs hatred can be attributed to the South Side v. North Side beef that permeates much of Windy City life, but really started around the turn of the 20th century when the Sox moved to town. This was to the displeasure of the Cubs owner, who unsuccessfully attempted to block the new American League from operating in the city.

Since MLB recommenced interleague play, the two teams play a three-game series each year. The first takes place at Wrigley on July 16-18; the south side matchup goes down at U.S. Cellular Field the following week, July 26-28.

Check www.mlb.com for schedules and links to each team’s homepage.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

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