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Wednesday, June 3, 2009 09:01 am

The electric Sliders

The capital city’s collegiate baseball team promises to continue dazzling fans on and off the field

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In their first year in the Central Illinois Collegiate League, the Springfield Sliders ranked second among all teams both in team batting average (.268) and ERA (.330). The Sliders also ranked first or second in slugging pct. (.355), hits (448), RBIs (218
PHOTO BY JEREMY WILBURN

Darren Feller recalls that while he was attending the 2002 winter baseball meetings in Nashville, a prospective employer asked a question right out of the job interview playbook. “So where do you see yourself in five years?” the recruiter asked.

Feller’s response, a most ambitious one, seemed to come from the same text. “To be the general manager of a baseball team,” he said.

After a stop with the Appleton (Wisconsin) Timber Rattlers, a Class A minor league baseball team affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers, and a stint as director of development with the Wisconsin Sports Development Corporation, Feller hit his mark when a friend introduced him to Jesse Bolder, who asked him to run a new collegiate summer wooden bat team he was starting in Springfield called the Sliders.

Naturally Feller jumped at the chance. Not only would the job allow the Oregon, Wis., native to remain in the Midwest close to family and his beloved Brewers, but the situation had all the necessary elements for building a successful ball club — a supportive fan base, available facilities, potential sponsors.

“This area is rich in history with the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry. It reminds me of the rivalry between the Bears and Packers,” Feller says, referring to the professional football teams in Chicago and Green Bay.

But while those pro contests are all about bragging rights for the fans, and feature legendary teams that are perennial championship contenders, Feller understands that the Sliders’ success will not rest entirely on what the players do with their bats and gloves. Because of the nature of amateur summer sports leagues, high player turnover is a fact of life. So just as important as what the Sliders do on the field is what happens off the field, between innings, and in the off-season.

PHOTO BY JEREMY WILBURN

For this reason, Feller, who has a master’s degree in sports management from the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, sleeps with a notebook next to his bed to jot down the promotions ideas he dreams up, like the toilet seat horseshoe contest.

Despite the franchise’s early success on the diamond, the soon-to-be 34-year-old Feller has trained himself to think of the Sliders as more than a baseball team.

Basically, he says: “It’s all about entertainment.”

Two years ago, Feller, along with co-owners Clark Eckoff and Bolder, who handles scouting and recruitment for the club, began by determining how a new college-level baseball team would stack up against existing competitors.

But the Sliders didn’t consider their primary competition to be the St. Louis Cardinals or Chicago’s Cubs and White Sox, or even the Cubs’ AAA minor league team, the Peoria Chiefs. Instead, Feller says, the Sliders would compete against more traditional family-oriented entertainment venues such as Knight’s Action Park and Caribbean Water Adventure and the Kerasotes movie theaters.

They liked their odds. Just consider that a night at the movies runs two adults close to $20 and one day at Knight’s Action Park costs an adult $25.95. Compare that with the cheapest general admission Sliders ticket of $6, Feller says. One of their aims is to make mascot Speedy Slider — based on the red-eared slider turtle, which is common in Illinois and other parts of the U.S. — “the biggest celebrity in Springfield.”

“We want to create a carnival atmosphere,” Feller says. They started creating buzz by carpeting Springfield with Sliders merchandise such as baseball caps, T-shirts, batting helmets, pennants, foam fingers, miniature bats and broken game bats last season. For nightly promotions they hooked up with County Market, St. John’s Hospital, the Carpenters Union and Allied Waste.

The 2008 Central Illinois Collegiate League, now the Prospect League, championship Springfield Sliders.
PHOTO COURTESY SPRINGFIELD SLIDERS

Although he was a gifted player in his own right — while attending Edgewood College in Wisconsin, Feller was twice named to the all-Lake Michigan Conference, hitting .389 and leading the Eagles in runs scored and stolen bases during his senior year — he remains only tangentially involved on the baseball side of the Sliders.

However, he’s the first to admit that a guy in a turtle costume squirting fans with a gigantic water gun during the seventh-inning stretch can, by itself, only keep butts in the bleachers for so long.

Winning baseball games certainly helps.

In 2008, the Sliders’ inaugural season in the Central Illinois Collegiate League, the team went 30-17 for tops in the league. The team’s performance propelled the Sliders into the CICL playoffs and, ultimately, to winning its first championship. And average attendance of 1,600 spectators per game ranked the Sliders a respectable 18th among the teams of the National Alliance of Summer College Baseball.

The Sliders aren’t confident their experiment is a home run just yet. In fact, local amateur baseball has seen its share of successes and failures, starting with the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (Three-Eye) League. Springfield teams, which included the Hustlers and, later, the Senators, played in the Class B minor league from 1903 to 1949 and won six pennants, according to a Web site maintained by baseball historian and McLean County history museum librarian Bill Kemp.

“Throughout its storied history, the league was nationally recognized as a wellspring of Major League talent,” Kemp writes in “Minor-league miracles: The story of ‘Three-I’ baseball, where champions and spitballs ruled,” an article published in Illinois Heritage in 2003.

Jack “The Ripper” Clark, a four-time major league all-star who helped the St. Louis Cardinals to two World Series games in the 1980s, has signed on to manage the Sliders.
PHOTO COURTESY SPRINGFIELD SLIDERS

No matter how successful the teams were, the Three-I league was not impervious to the realities of the world beyond the first- and third-base lines. The league halted play during the Great Depression and for World War II. The nation’s then-oldest class B minor league was finally disbanded in 1961.

The next year, several Three-I teams would join the Class A Midwest League, and over the next three decades, Springfield would swing and miss with several other amateur and pro teams.

Before the Sliders, Springfield was home to the CICL’s Caps, from 1963 to 1978, and the Rifles, which played off and on from 1983 to 2006. The capital city would then host the AAA Springfield Redbirds from 1978 to 1981 then the Class A Springfield Cardinals — both teams were affiliated with St. Louis’ pro club — from 1982 to 1993. After the Cardinals left town, the Class A Midwest League Sultans, who were affiliated for one year each with the San Diego Padres and later the Kansas City Royals played here in 1994 and 1995. In 1997, the Capitals of the professional independent Frontier League filled the baseball void until the team was moved to Rockford in 2001. Sliders officials believe they’ll have a different story to tell, however.

“This isn’t a short term venture for us,” says team co-owner Bolder, who in addition to running the Sliders front office operations from Wisconsin, serves as chief operating officer of the Wausau-based Woodchucks Baseball Club, also a collegiate summer team. In fact, the Sliders signed a five-year $300 per game agreement with the Springfield Park District to play its home games at Lanphier Park.

According to Feller, the difference between the Sliders and previous baseball endeavors is the fact that “there’s something going on every night.” Besides promotions typically found in the big leagues such as bobblehead figure nights, fans — and residents on the north side of town — are treated to fireworks every Friday night.

When he’s not rallying the Sliders faithful on game nights, Feller busies himself performing outreach with a Sliders reading program in local schools and cross-promotions with other sporting events such as Junior Blues games, the Springfield Mile motorcycle race and the Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament.

While disruptions in the national economy have had negative consequences for amateur baseball in the past, the current slump has been somewhat of a boon for the Sliders.

“With gas prices hitting $4 a gallon, people chose to stay close to Springfield,” Feller says of last season.

Sliders fans are electrified every time the home team takes the field.
PHOTO COURTESY SPRINGFIELD SLIDERS

For added excitement this season, the Sliders have juiced up their coaching staff by signing a pair of champion big leaguers in pitching coach Danny Cox and field manager Jack Clark, who replaces Ryan Sawyer, who left after last season for a job with Purdue.

While the former Cardinals, who played together from 1985 to 1988, are expected to draw crowds, Feller has also planned to give away bobbleheads of Cox, Clark and Speedy, the mascot. The season begins with an away game against the Quincy (Ill.) Gems on Thursday, June 4.

In addition, the CICL rebranded itself in the off-season as the Prospect League, expanding from seven to 11 teams that span Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Still, Feller is confident that the Sliders remain the team to beat this season.

“With Jack and Danny and the guys we have returning, yeah, we’re going to have a bull’s-eye on our backs,” he says. “We just plan to defend our championship.”

The Sliders first home game is Wednesday, June 10, against the Hannibal (Mo.) Caveman. For complete schedules, ticket prices and promotions information, call 679-3511 or visit www.springieldsliders.com.

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

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