Seven Levels of Angels: Small-town Burlington treasures team
By Kurt Kragthorpe
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jul 15 2013 01:01AM
Burlington, Iowa • This is not Biggsville.
That’s the town just across the Mississippi River in Illinois, with some 350 residents. With its 25,000 population, Burlington is just big enough to rank as the smallest of the 120 cities that operate full-season professional baseball teams.
"It’s got the essentials," said Burlington Bees infielder Chance Ross, playing at the Class-A level of the Los Angeles Angels organization. "I mean, we’re here to play baseball. As long as there’s a Walmart and a baseball field, I’m OK with that."
The market size is such that the Bees stand second-to-last in attendance in the 16-team Midwest League, yet are not far short of their modest goals. "If we could get a thousand honest people in the stands every night," said team president Dave Walker, "we’d be in great shape."
That’s not a commentary on the character of the good folks of southeastern Iowa, just a recognition that attracting minor league baseball fans requires discounting.
Having fielded a team almost continuously since 1889, Burlington residents are determined to keep the community-owned franchise, which would be sold and moved only if support drops off markedly. "Hopefully, that will never happen — especially in my time," said Bees general manager Chuck Brockett.
Others feel just as strongly. When the Fraternal Order of Eagles invited members to bring lawn chairs and watch fireworks from the ballpark across the street, a citizen responded angrily in a letter to The Hawk Eye newspaper, saying the Bees’ production merited paying customers.
"They care about the baseball team," said former Bees pitcher Alex Keudell, recently promoted to Inland Empire of the California League. "The field’s called Community Field for a reason."
Down the third-base line, where a fence juts in close to the field, longtime fans’ designated spots (for standing) are marked with nameplates: Dennis, Tom, Bill, Terry, Sue and Deb.
In center field, the face of 10-year-old Garrett Brockway adorns a banner spanning the width of the scoreboard. Planning to become a Bees batboy this season, Garrett died in an accident in his yard in February. Last month, his parents helped stage an organ donation awareness event at Community Field that drew nearly 2,500 fans.
Credited with saving five lives via his organ donation, Garrett inspired 57 fans — an astounding number, according to the Iowa Donor Network — to join the registry that night. "Smalltown USA has its perks sometimes," said his mother, Tiffini.
The drawbacks of Burlington for the aspiring Angels are a lack of activities away from the ballpark and not much of a home-field aura. "You do have to find stuff to do," said Bees manager Jamie Burke, who occasionally takes players fishing on the Mississippi. "Sometimes, you want these guys to get their mind off the game."
Stocked with low-drafted players, the Bees have struggled, just as the Angels’ farm team did last season in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Kernels dropped their affiliation after 20 years when the Minnesota Twins became available. Burlington joined the Angels’ system, which includes the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees.
Former owner Larry H. Miller wanted to tie into the baseball era of his youth when he bought the Salt Lake Stingers in 2005, so he asked Burlington for permission to share the Bees’ name. In return, Brockett asked only for a game program advertisement, inviting fans to Burlington when they visit the historic LDS Church site of Nauvoo. Ill.
There’s anecdotal evidence that the ad helps, and Salt Lake general manager Marc Amicone said, "We’ll do it forever."
That’s how long Burlington hopes to keep its Bees.