By John Bohnenkamp
Reece Wissinger saw his Burlington Bees jersey for the first time this week.
Wissinger, a pitcher, grew up watching the Bees play at Community Field. He played games there when he was on Burlington High School’s team, and later as a player at Southeastern Community College.
“It’s crazy,” Wissinger said Wednesday when he recalled what he thought when he saw that jersey with the number 41 on it. “My heart stopped. I’ve been dreaming about this for a while. It’s finally here.”
They were in the familiar home uniforms, these 2021 Bees, for the photo session. A group of players, from different areas of the country, getting their headshots taken on Wednesday before their final workout in preparation for Thursday’s season opener on the road against the Clinton LumberKings.
It feels and sounds so much like the Midwest League, except it’s not.
The Midwest League doesn’t exist anymore — it’s now High-A Central under Major League Baseball’s control of the minor leagues.
And the Bees and LumberKings aren’t members, caught in last year’s agonizingly protracted contraction suction of the minors by MLB. Instead of being affiliates of MLB teams, they are members of the Prospect League, a 16-team summer league made up of college players.
No, it’s not the minor leagues, but it’s still players wanting to catch someone’s eye and climb the levels of the sport.
“It’s about as close of an experience as you can get to playing minor league baseball,” said manager Gary McClure, who has managed in the Prospect League as well as being a long-time head coach at the NCAA Division I level. “You’ve got to show up, you’ve got to play between the lines every night. You have to learn how to separate things, grind it out as a player.
“It will be very similar to what the people here have been seeing.”
It’s about raw talent, McClure said. It’s about players learning to play at a different level. Which, he said, is what the minors are about, especially at the Low-A level which the Bees of the past have played.
“It’s an interesting deal,” McClure said. “You bring in these kids from all around the country, and try to get them to mesh together as soon as possible.”
“I’m here,” Wissinger said, “to get better.”
“I thought it would be cool to come here, play on a minor league field, have all the accessories that come with it,” said pitcher Jacob Greenan, who plays at Western Illinois University and grew up in Peoria, Ill., another Midwest League city. “And it’s an opportunity for me to get better.
“Honestly, it’s a blessing for me to be here. The atmosphere makes it easier to focus on baseball, do your best. I’m excited for this opportunity.”
Minor League Baseball’s contraction was concluded in early December, with the Bees, LumberKings and Kane County, another Midwest League franchise, among the casualties.
That didn’t give McClure much time to put together a roster.
“We were late,” he said. “A lot of these teams are put together in the fall.”
Still, with his connections, he put together a team that includes nine Division I players. Four players, including Wissinger and pitcher Austin Simpson, who grew up in nearby Fairfield, played at SCC.
McClure has his connections to the organization. He grew up in southeast Iowa and attended Bees games — “You wanted to see the guys who were coming up through the minors,” McClure said. His wife is a Burlington native. His son, Alex, played for the Bees in 2010 as part of the Kansas City Royals organization.
So he gets what this summer means to the organization, and the community.
“I think baseball in Burlington is part of the culture, and has been a part of the culture for 75, 100 years,” McClure said. “I think it’s important, and I hope it becomes more important.
“I expect us to be successful, no doubt about it. And I want this to be a great environment for people to come out here. Make it the best we can make it.”
The Bees play three road games — at Clinton Thursday and Friday and at Normal on Saturday — before Sunday’s home opener against Clinton.
New league, same uniforms, same pursuit for the players.
“It’s just baseball,” Wissinger said. “I don’t feel any pressure. It’s what I’m here to do.”