Beloit marks 35 years of pro baseball

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Todd Mishler | March 31, 2016

Nobody appreciates history more than Kim Fischer. And nobody loves baseball, especially the minor league variety, more than the Chicago area native.

Fischer has lived in Huntley, Illinois, since 2004, a year after retiring from a career as a history teacher. He attended his first Midwest League game in 1990, watching the nearby Kane County Cougars.

“My friend said I would like it up in Beloit, so I attended a game up there,” Fischer said. “I slowly got more and more interested, but for me it got really big in the mid-1990s. I'm a lifelong (Chicago) Cubs fan, so I went over to Rockford a lot when their team played there. But I saw Beloit more and more, and then the Cubs left (for Peoria).

“It got so I was planning my entire summers around the various minor league baseball schedules,” Fischer added. “One year I attended over 100 games and I realized that this might be a sickness.”

Beloit's Pohlman Field became his second home despite the 100-plus mile roundtrip. The 2015 season was no exception as Fischer attended nearly all of the Snappers' 70 home contests. One of his few misses was last year's season opener that was washed out during storms that featured a tornado ripping through the hamlet of Fairdale southeast of Rockford.

“I put on about 11,000 miles going to games last summer, including two in Cedar Rapids (Iowa) for the league finals,” Fischer said.

The Beloit Snappers kick off their 35th year Thursday, April 7, against in-state rival Wisconsin. The Class A franchise will celebrate for many reasons: the support of fans such as Fischer, its stable of volunteers that includes its board of directors and baseball itself. And it will celebrate surviving for 35 years in one of minor league baseball's smallest markets.

“It's always an uphill battle trying to keep up with standards that are required and expected by minor league baseball, so there are fewer and fewer like us,” said Dennis Conerton, board president and interim general manager. “It's an issue all small-market teams are facing. With 30 major league clubs, all having teams at five levels, some at six, meaning there's around 160 total, and we're one of only two in Wisconsin after we used to have six. So we're proud of that. And we're thankful for the community and the board supporting us all of these years.”

And fans such as Fischer are near the top of that list. He said one factor that attracted him to Pohlman Field was the inherent small-town atmosphere.

“As an urban kid, I never really had seen or experienced what life was like in a small town, so that aspect really interested me,” Fischer said. “And that's why I truly love going to Beloit and Clinton.”

Fischer has become such a familiar face that many people figured he was a scout.

“One time me and a buddy went over to Beloit's game in the Quad Cities and were keeping score like always, and a couple of guys walk up to us and say, 'You must be scouts. Which team do you work for?'” Fischer said. “We looked at each other and had a little fun with it. It's just little things like that that make it a fun experience at the ballpark.

“But the special thing about the Beloit ballpark is that it's one of the few in minor league baseball in which the players have to walk across an open concourse to get to the field … in most stadiums the locker rooms are under the stands and they enter directly into their dugouts,” Fischer added. “But in Beloit that's where part of the fan experience comes into play. It's an out-of-the-way place, but it really has serious memorabilia people and they know they can get autographs and everything right there. It's access that you don't get anywhere else.”

However, Fischer has earned celebrity status with fans and team officials alike. So much so that he owns a sign on the outfield fence under the scoreboard: It advertises the Beloit Snappers Fan Club of Huntley, Illinois, which has a membership of one. He also helps sponsor the July 3 fireworks. And he branches out occasionally and helps sell 50-50 raffle tickets.

The team also purchases six dozen baseballs every year for Fischer to hand out to kids throughout the summer.

“That's a lot of fun because I'll look around for a youngster who's paying attention to the game, not one who's running all over the place,” he said. “Maybe a kid who's sitting there with his dad watching the game, and I ask him if he would like a baseball. It's nice to do things like that because I want to, not because I need to.”

Still, Fischer is an avid, educated baseball fan, so the nuances of and watching the games themselves remain the best part. So, he religiously fills up what has become a library of scorebooks.

“One thing about minor league baseball is that some folks are there only for all of the entertainment going on. But I try to mind my own business and I'm there to watch baseball. For me, the entertainment is on the field.”

Erin Pingel would agree. She is a big fan, but she also helps create that positive experience at Pohlman Field.

Pingel and her husband, Jon, are among the dozens of regulars among the 100 or so volunteers who help make the game experience interesting and exciting for Stateline area fans.

They are split into five groups, and Pingel is one of the team leaders. They rotate responsibilities around the complex.

“We run the concessions about 13 or 14 times a season, we've run the grill, we take tickets,” Pingel said. “I've been a volunteer for 20 years and have been a team captain the last 12 or 13 years.”

And nobody sees the fruits of those labors more than Conerton and the other board members.

“Whenever we get tired, we keep reminding ourselves about the 21 individuals who each gave $3,000 to bring a franchise to Beloit,” Conerton said. “George Spelius, Joe Moen and Everett Haskell did the legwork and raised additional funding. All of those original donations and volunteers … it was something. And we still rely heavily on those kinds of people, even more now. For example, we're finishing a new indoor batting cage that has been done by all volunteer help.”

Pingel fits that description. The Turner High School graduate learned to love the game and being around the ballpark at a young age.

“I guess it started because our grandfather used to work at Beloit Corporation, and they and other businesses got tickets,” she said. “So me and my brother, Josh, would beg our parents to take us around and we would have to go in and ask if we could get any free tickets.

“Our dad (Carl Schliem) was a big Brewers fan, so it was hard to get used to things after the Brewers left and the Twins came in. But a great thing about Pohlman Field is that you can see and talk to the players in the concourse, and you get to watch them on the field and in the dugouts. I remember seeing guys like Prince Fielder and Tony Gwynn Jr. Our kids, Mikaya (10) and Carson (8), love baseball. So it's neat to turn on the TV and see players in spring training games that you watched play here in Beloit.”

And Pingel and her family simply want to do what they can to preserve minor league baseball in the Stateline area.

“We want to see them do well because we want baseball to stay in Beloit, so we do what we can, and if that means volunteering to help keep costs down for the team, then so be it.”

And that's been the story since the franchise was formed in 1981 and started playing in '82, the first 23 years as a Milwaukee affiliate and the next eight with Minnesota.

And Conerton knows that a fourth summer affiliated with the Oakland A's will be a 35th challenging year, especially with the ever-present stadium issue moving back to the front burner as the end of another decade looms.

“The last time minor league and major league baseball underwent a stadium overhaul was 1995, and that agreement opens back up in 2020,” Conerton said. “It's been on our back burner the past three years, and we know it will be moving to the front again. The good thing is that when we did the feasibility study, the consultant stated that both the downtown and Interstate sites could be successful. But the community was split about half and half, and so was the board, so we couldn't build a consensus.

“So, we've tried to spruce up Pohlman Field the best we could,” Conerton added about putting in a new concourse, redoing the outfield and overhauling the clubhouses. “But we can't offer the electronics, graphics and sound system that others can, or the food and variety of seating options. Just think about Lambeau Field. They sell out every week, but they're still always enhancing the fan experience. So, the conversation will pick up here again. The thing is that both are unique, attractive sites.”

Time will tell as the team prepares to begin competition on the diamond while celebrating its 35th anniversary season with new apparel and game promotions.

The franchise provides $7 million to $9 million to the local economy, so Conerton and others want to keep it that way despite the forces working against them.

“We draw a quarter of our fans from Beloit, a quarter from Janesville and 6 percent to 10 percent from the rest of Rock County, which means the other 40 percent are from outside the county,” Conerton said of the team's regional appeal. “This is entertainment, and the industry keeps getting bigger and bigger, but make no mistake, this is a business. But it's been great for the community and we're fortunate to have professional baseball here.”

And no one would agree with that more than Fischer, who can't wait for the first pitch of the 2016 campaign.

“Just look for a left-handed bald guy with glasses filling out a scorebook,” he said. “Pohlman Field is a neat place, and a lot of people still don't realize they have a real treasure there.”

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