SideLines: Competition for baseball fans is fierce

The Way Baseball Used to Be is no longer.

At least not in DeKalb County.

That first line was the slogan of the DeKalb County Liners. The college-aged baseball team, which played home games at Sycamore Park the past three years, will not return this summer. The team apparently didn’t draw enough fans to make it financially feasible to keep going here, which is too bad.

Although I had fun at the few Liners games I went to, I’m not really that surprised.

When I first heard a team was forming, I was a little skeptical. I disagreed with a colleague who thought baseball fans would turn out to see any kind of baseball in their backyard.

I think most fans are more discerning than that. As a Cubs fan, I wouldn’t go to Huskie Stadium to see the Seattle Mariners play the California Angels, two teams I’m not interested in. I’d definitely wonder what they were doing in DeKalb, but I wouldn’t go.

The biggest problem for any new team is all the competition. Besides all the great youth programs already entrenched in DeKalb County, there are some pretty good high school baseball programs, as well as the Kishwaukee College and Northern Illinois University baseball teams.

The Kishwaukee College Kougars, in particular, have an incredible history. Besides claiming the national junior college championship in 1999, they’ve had 78 players drafted by major league baseball teams.

Probably the most prominent was Rich Helling. A 1992 first-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers, he compiled a 93-81 major league record in 12 seasons for five teams.

Although NIU is more noted for football, Baseball Reference reports 22 Huskies have been drafted by major league teams, including Fritz Peterson, who went 133-131 in 11 seasons.

There are also two minor league baseball teams within reasonable driving distance: the Kane County Cougars in Geneva and the team in Rockford which keeps changing its name: Expos, Royals, Cubbies, Reds, Riverhawks and now the Aviators.

The Cougars have probably sent as many players to the major leagues as any minor league team in the country, well over 100, including Miguel Cabrera, Josh Becket, Ryan Dempster, A.J. Burnett, Andrew Bailey, Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Huston Street.

At least two Rockford players have reached the big leagues: Delino DeShields, who stole 463 bases in 13 seasons, and Kyle Farnsworth, who has pitched 810 games the past 14 years for several teams, including the Cubs.

For major league fans, you have the Cubs and White Sox in Chicago and the Brewers in Milwaukee. It’s a drive, but you also have the Cardinals in St. Louis.

I think it’s possible a college-age team might work here if it was the right team. A team of local high school graduates who have gone on to play college ball just might catch people’s interest. That’s sort of the thinking behind the Illinois Chaos, a semi-professional summer football team that just started in DeKalb. Thirty-three of its 52 players are from the Barb City.

It’s one thing to say you saw a future big league star when he was just starting out; it’s another to see a future accountant or high school math teacher-to-be struggling to hit a 90-mph fast ball from another young man – maybe an insurance salesman – you’ll never hear of again.

Still, it’s too bad.

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