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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

The Frontier League and Southern Illinois Miners both passed significant milestones recently. The Frontier League observed its 25th anniversary and the Miners played their 1,000th game.

Although the Miners are struggling this year, Southern Illinois was five games under .500 going into Saturday night’s game. The team has been a model of consistency during the first 10 years of its existence.

The Miners have never finished a season under .500.

Two critical elements of that success have been the ownership of Bill and Jayne Simmons and the work of Mike Pinto in handling baseball operations. The Simmons have provided the financial backing needed to operate a successful franchise and given Pinto free hand to make baseball decisions.

It’s been a successful business arrangement.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to think of the Miners and the Frontier League a decade ago.

I had done some homework, attending a few Gateway Grizzlies games. Frankly, I was impressed with the intimate nature of Gateway’s GSC Park, and, the quality of baseball was better than I had expected. Despite that background, doubts remained.

The Frontier League had been around for 15 years at that time. It seemed to be an established entity, but if you look at league history, there was considerable fluidity among franchises. Teams seemed to come and go quickly.

Let’s be honest. The Frontier League is independent. Its franchises don’t have the backing of Major League Baseball. It is a league that is both the first step on a player’s dream of a major league career, and also a player’s last recourse as that dream is fading.

Given the fact that Marion was investing heavily in a new stadium, those factors were worrisome. It was also unnecessary. The league has become more stable in recent years, and the Southern Illinois Miners have become one of the cornerstone franchises.

When the stadium opened 10 years ago, fans poured through the gates in record fashion. Again, that early success had to be taken with a grain of salt – it’s impossible to get a seat when a fast food franchise opens in a small town. You have to wait until the honeymoon is over to determine whether a marriage is a success.

Certainly, attendance has leveled off over the next 1,000 games, but there still appears to be a healthy interest in the team. The Miners average 3,266 tickets sold per game.

Over the years Miners fans have had their share of heroes.

Ralph Santana was a fan favorite in the Miners’ inaugural season. Tim Dorn and Joey Metropolous were nearly cult figures in their time with the Miners.

And, it must be noted again that the quality of play in the Frontier League obviously closely rivals that of affiliated minor league play. There appears to be a clear path from the Miners to the majors. Three players – Clay Zavada, Tanner Roark and Brandon Cunniff have found their way from Marion to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves, respectively.

In 10 years the Miners have gone from a curiosity to a fixture in Southern Illinois. And, it’s been a nearly seamless transition.

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LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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