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Sports Column | Les Winkeler: Who's to blame for the demise of the Miners?

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Today’s society demands a scapegoat.

Therefore, someone must be blamed for the demise of the Southern Illinois Miners.

In this case, everyone is to blame, and yet, no one bears responsibility.

The Miners came into this world and disappeared in whirlwind fashion. Fifteen years ago, the thought of professional baseball in Southern Illinois seemed unlikely. Suddenly, it was announced the Frontier League would be coming to town, and a couple weeks later heavy equipment operators were moving dirt on the north side of Marion.

Before the region had a chance to catch its collective breath, a guy named Mike Pinto was holding training camp at John A. Logan College while what was to become Rent One Park was still under construction.

The region was alive with excitement. This was uncharted territory. There hadn’t been professional baseball in Southern Illinois for several decades. Would the region accept and support the franchise?

The buzz continued to build before the Miners’ official birthday … a road game at Sauget. I remember the moment as clearly as yesterday; Ralph Santana lined a lead-off single up the middle to get the Miners franchise off to a running start.

The Miners lost that first game, but that did little to stem the momentum. Fans poured through the gates that first season. Southern Illinois and the Miners seemed like a match made in heaven.

Of course, cynics suggested the excitement would wane. Let’s be honest, a new McDonald’s opening in Southern Illinois creates huge crowds for a month.

Although Miners-mania simmered down a bit, Southern Illinois continued to top the Frontier League in attendance for several years. Yet, slowly, almost unnoticeably support eroded. The Miners front office continued to do a good job selling season tickets, but the number of butts in seats declined noticeably.

There probably reached a point where the Miners started taking their fans for granted … and vice versa. There were a couple years where maintenance at Rent One Park slipped. To the team’s credit, that situation was rectified quickly.

But, the franchise still appeared to be healthy. Baseball fans in the region had no reason to believe the Miners would go anywhere. Pinto fielded a winning team year-after-year. The Miners finished under .500 just once. Yet, that apparently wasn’t enough.

This isn’t about blaming the fans.

The way baseball is played today, games last three hours or more. That is a long time to sit outside on a hot, sticky August night. It is difficult to make connections with players in the Frontier League, or minor league ball at any level.

In the Frontier League’s 90-game season, players have to make an impression quickly or they’re gone. Rosters are essentially overhauled every season. The inherent transience makes forming bonds difficult.

Some suggest that a team affiliated with a major league franchise would have created more excitement and a more loyal fan base. I’m not buying. With athletes in their late 20s, the quality of play in the Frontier League likely exceeds the quality of Class A games where players are in their teens and early 20s.

And, rosters are just as unsettled.

The Miners official press release said team owners John and Jayne Simmons were shuttering the gates to allow more time with family. I suspect there is more to the story than that.

Given the attendance numbers, it’s likely the Miners’ bottom line wasn’t very healthy. If the franchise had been raking in cash, suitors would have been standing in line to keep the Miners’ alive. It’s apparent that wasn’t the case.

As a result, an exciting chapter in Southern Illinois history has come to a close.

The Miners brought a lot of excitement to the region. The franchise was an excellent corporate citizen. And, having a professional baseball franchise lent a bit of prestige to Southern Illinois.

The Southern Illinois Miners will be missed. It’s a loss for all of us.

LES WINKELER is the former sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les@winkelerswingsandwildlife.com, on Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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