Bringing the thrill of baseball back to Marion
April 19, 2023
May 31 will mark the official return of baseball in the Marion area as the Thrillville Thrillbillies will defend Mountain Dew Park against the Jacksonville Rockabillies. The Thrillbillies are part of the Prospect League, a collegiate summer league. After the region’s former team, the Southern Illinois Miners, ceased operations in October 2021, it didn’t take long for someone to take on the challenge of restoring baseball to the Southern Illinois town.
Mountain Dew Park, which was long regarded as Rent One Park, was purchased by the ownership group of Black Diamond Harley-Davidson in January 2022 with plans to make the space a “cornerstone of sports tourism.” Several months later, in June, the park hosted the Colt World Series, a youth baseball tournament that featured teams from across the globe. During the opening ceremonies of that event, the group announced its efforts to bring baseball back shortly after it was taken away from the area.
Although two co-owners of the group, Rodney Cabaness and Shad Zimbro, held a track record of giving back to the community, they never expected to be owners of a baseball team. But they saw opportunity and promise in the space and surrounding town.
“Neither of them really knows that much about baseball but it was a situation where there would have been this huge, formerly glorious stadium that would have just been rotting,” said member of the Black Diamond marketing team Herby Voss. “So they stepped forward and they bought it …and people are giving us a little rope, you know. They’re saying, ‘Okay, well, we’ll see what you guys are doing because your history is pretty strong.’”
The Miners were included in the Frontier League, an independent professional baseball league, for 14 years. They initially exceeded expectations, leading the Frontier League in attendance in each of its first four years beginning in 2007. They won the league championship in 2012 and even held a 54-42 record in what would be its final season, but their success didn’t have the longevity to remain.
“They cared a lot initially about the Miners and then over time, quite frankly, the interest waned. And I think it was a number of reasons, but we very much intend not to make the same mistakes, you know, kind of continuously put a product out there that is going to excite people,” Voss said.
The name selection was determined entirely by the community, as people submitted their suggestions for the team’s name online until December 2022. Five finalists were selected, and 7,000 votes were cast throughout the final month of the year, when Thrillbillies beat out the likes of names such as the Swamp Foxes and Angry Beavers. But Thrillbillies holds a strong resemblance to the term ‘hillbillies,’ where the marketing team ran into a small roadblock.
“That has been used as a slur against rural folks for a long time. And so we recognize that and so in the design of the logos…we very intentionally did not have a guy in bib overalls, barefoot, with a jug on his shoulder…We went for characters, a rabbit, and a white-tailed deer. They are very timid creatures as you find them in nature…we made them very confident… So just kind of hoping that we can kind of turn that narrative on with thrillbilly and have it be something that folks can kind of puff up about, that they can be proud of, and that just sort of shows that even the most meek among us can be powerful and strong,” Voss said.
The official team name Thrillbillies was unveiled at Mountain Dew Park on February 23, 2023 at the “Big Reveal Party” where not every fan in attendance was pleased with the name, but it reinforced the passion that the Black Diamond group knew the area had.
“I enjoyed the Miners 2 years ago, I’m glad there’s a team coming back to our area,” the first fan in line at the Big Reveal Party, Everette Keleer, told KFVS 12.
Ryan Shick and his family also attended the name unveiling event, and he talked about their experience with WPSD Local 6.
“My kids are very into sports and things like that and anything we can do to come support local teams…Thought it was neat that we were going to get another team back since the Miners had left,” Shick said.
Voss said, “We were not at all surprised that the public response when we announced the five names was heated…We were actually leaning into that. As marketers, we thought the worst-case scenario would have been for people to be indifferent about it, you know, that they just didn’t care and they kind of moved on with their lives.”
The name provides flexibility for the marketing team to create a vibrant and energetic atmosphere for Thrillbillies games.
“The first weekend on the first homestand, we will shoot a guy out of a cannon over a helicopter…There’s some more kind of standard baseball fare and things but we want it to be thrilling for all ages…Stuff like firework shows…But we’ll also have a guy in an ATV jumping over cars,” Voss said. “You know, what’s nice about the Prospect League season is it’s very abbreviated…So we’ve got 28 home games, and 28 opportunities as marketers to kill it and really put something special together there…We’re leaning into the thrill.”
Although gimmicks and fun will be had in the stands surrounding the game, general manager and field manager Ralph Santana intends to continue his work of helping aspiring players fulfill their dreams on the field. He is committed to helping them improve and has an experienced coaching staff.
“It’s always been something I’ve been driven by is to get them where they need to be,” he said. “One thing I can promise them is that they’re going to develop and be better players by the time they walk out of here…it’s something that the pros knew that we did very well, like we had such a structured program around here that they knew they were getting a polished player when they left here… I think our coaching staff is far better than anywhere else…and bringing back some familiar faces…that have played pro ball, so we’ll be well set off.”
Santana both played and coached for the Miners. In his first and only year playing with the team, he was voted Rookie of the Year and Most Exciting Player of the Year after hitting .342 and stealing 25 bases. When he became a coach, he helped lead the team to seven playoff berths including its 2012 championship, where he was named Coach of the Year. Santana is all about Southern Illinois and is excited to lead the charge to bring baseball back to the area.
“After they [the Miners] left I never thought I’d stepped foot on the field again. Never knew what was gonna happen, so to be back at the park that I helped build is awesome…I think I represent this town, I think I’ve represented this town since it started,” Santana said.
Also holding the general manager title at Z20 Sports Academy, a baseball and softball facility in Southern Illinois, Santana has given back scholarships to hundreds of college students. The facility offers lessons and training to younger athletes looking to achieve more, and Santana intends to bring the style he teaches onto the diamond at Mountain Dew Park.
“I think that’s what I brought was passion, hard-nosed, blue-collar baseball to this town. And so, if anybody knows his town, and this town knows anybody, it’s me so it’s kind of like a perfect fit…So it’s something special to be back here and I feel like, you know, I’m a part of them and they’re a part of me,” Santana said.
The Thrillbillies’ skipper and GM faces early challenges as he has to deal with running a baseball team in its inaugural season. He isn’t sure when all his players will report to the team as they are still playing for their college squads, and he will be unfamiliar with the other players of the Prospect League just as much as the guys in his own clubhouse.
“That’s the tough part because everybody else will have a leg up on players because you know, they’ve either seen these players or players have played for them or they’ve gone to leagues and seen these players around. We haven’t. We’re going unseen and with a lot of local kids. We know just a little bit about them, and I haven’t got to actually see them play. So that’s going to be the toughest part, just trying to put a team together year one, to gel and to just, you know get on the same page with them and understand them as well as them understanding me,” Santana said.
“Some of our kids, we may not get until, you know, the second week of the season. Yeah, so, you know, like Hunter Ralls plays for SEMO, and SEMO is very good. And I think they’re gonna make a pretty big run and I mean, I don’t plan on having him till June,” Santana said.
Santana has known the fifth-year SEMO pitcher since he was 15 years old in high school, and Ralls plans to play professional baseball after his stint with the Thrillbillies. The manager’s plan of setting Ralls up with a tryout and an opportunity to fulfill his dream is more rewarding for Santana than when he went through the process himself.
“I think I was blessed to be available to play for 10 years and understand how much of a dream come true that was for me… individually, it’s great but when you can help somebody else achieve their dreams and their goals, I think that’s even more satisfying than what I did for myself as a player, so that’s what I love about coaching,” Santana said. “It’s a fun process. It’s a tough process. That’s what people have to understand, it’s not an easy one, so I think I enjoy that the most.”
Sports reporter Howard Woodard can be reached at [email protected].
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