Minor league baseball could be coming to Southern Illinois

By Gus Bode

Herrin doctor leads drive to bring in team

While many people idly complain about the high cost of attending a major league baseball game, Dr. William Hays has decided to do something about it.

Hays has gotten backing from local labor unions and is looking into bringing minor league baseball to Southern Illinois.

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A feasibility study is expected to start soon. It will determine the public’s interest in attending games, the team’s economic impact on the area and the possible financing methods to construct a stadium. Hays said the stadium, which should seat 5,000 to 6,000 people, would probably be built in the Marion area because of the good highway system.

Hays’ idea was spurred by inflation at the Major League level.

“I’ve had season tickets at the major leagues for 21 years,” Hays said. “When I started buying major league tickets, they were $7 a seat. Now I have great seats, but they’re $40 a ticket, and for me to go to a ballgame in St. Louis now, which I dearly love the Cardinals, it costs me about $200 by the time I buy my tickets, drive up, eat a hot dog and park.”

Hays and local labor unions are pitching in for the cost of the study, and Wes Cook, business manager for Local 318 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, said the unions would donate labor if a ballpark were constructed.

“We’re supporting it being built in this area to hire our people and employ our people in building it and have something local that will help our infrastructure system and help bring people to the area,” Cook said, adding that this year has been particularly hard in terms of available work.

If the study determines a minor league park is feasible, a team must be found to move to the area, and Hays says baseball probably wouldn’t start until at least 2005. Hays would prefer to have a team affiliated with a Major League team rather than an independent league team.

Hays, union representatives and local politicians took a trip to a game at the new Gateway Grizzlies park last month in Sauget, and Hays said he was pleased with what he saw.

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“Just go up and watch the people,” Hays said. “They have a great time there. It’s fan-friendly. It’s affordable. You can sit close to the game. You can watch the ballgame from any place in the stadium; but more importantly, you can go there and afford it.”

A building boom of new minor league ballparks and several new and reincarnated independent leagues have brought about resurgence in minor league baseball in the last decade.

More than 37 million fans passed through the turnstiles in 2000, the most since 39 million people attended minor league games in 1949.

Marion, West Frankfort, Mount Vernon, Centralia and Paducah, Ky., all fielded minor league teams in the late 1940s. Cairo, Harrisburg and McLeansboro also fielded low-level minor league teams during the first half of the 20th century.

Reporter Ethan Erickson can be reached at [email protected]

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