LUMBERKINGS 10, BEES 8: ‘Free Runs’ Prove Costly In Loss

By John Bohnenkamp

Gary McClure thought his team gave one away on Thursday night.

The Burlington Bees’ 10-8 loss to the Clinton LumberKings in a Prospect League game at Community Field bothered their manager, because of what his team didn’t do.

Bees pitchers allowed seven walks and the defense committed two errors that led to three unearned runs.

A five-run sixth inning by the LumberKings (8-5) gave them control, and then two runs in the top of the ninth killed any momentum the Bees had after a two-run seventh inning closed their deficit to 8-7.

The walks and errors were just too consuming.

“When that happens, you put yourself in a situation to fail, and that’s what happened,” McClure said. “Both innings that they had multiple runs, we didn’t make a play we should have made. We’re out of both those innings with maybe one run. The bottom line is to win at baseball at a high level, you’ve got to pitch and you’ve got to play defense. When you do that, you have a chance to win every night.”

The game was tied at 5 in the sixth when Bees reliever Grady Gorgen thought he had struck out Luke Ira with the bases loaded to end the inning. Gorgen and some of the Bees started to walk off the field, but plate umpire Josh Barnes had called the pitch a ball. Ira, hitting .440 for the season, then pounded a double into right field that cleared the bases.

The Bees got to within 8-7 in the seventh on Marcos Sanchez’s ground-rule double that bounced over the center-field wall. Had the ball stayed in the ballpark. Zane Zielinski likely would have scored to tie the game. Instead, Zielinski had to go back to third base. Clinton reliever Casey Perrenoud got Brady Jurgella on a popout and Reid Halfacre on a grounder to Ira at shortstop to end the inning.

Clinton’s Max Holy walked to open the ninth inning and moved to second on a grounder to shortstop by Justin Conant. Pinch-hitter Jay Beshears hit a grounder back to Bees pitcher Jackson Gray, who threw to third base to try to get Holy, who was attempting to advance on the play. But Gray’s throw got past third baseman Mason Land, and Holy was able to score. An RBI double by Skyler Luna with two outs put Clinton up 10-8.

“I don’t know how many earned runs they had tonight,” McClure said. “They certainly didn’t have as many as were on the board. You’ve got to play defense — it’s something you can control and do every day, doing routine things.”

Jackson Jones hit a long home run to lead off the bottom of the ninth, but that would be the last of Bees’ 10 hits.

Clinton starter Matt Scherrman (3-0) was the winning pitcher. Gorgen (0-1) took the loss.

“Obviously if you don’t pitch and you give up free baserunners, you’re going to get beat,” McClure said. “You just can’t give free runs away. There’s no time clock. You’ve got to get them out. You’re just beating yourself when you do that.”

STREAKS: Zielinski extended his hitting streak to nine games. Sanchez and designated hitter Marcos Sanchez extended their hitting streaks to eight games. Bees first baseman Austin Simpson, who hit a 420-foot two-run home run in the fourth inning, has hit in four consecutive games.

UP NEXT: The Bees play at Normal on Friday and at O’Fallon on Saturday before returning home for a 2 p.m. game Sunday against Clinton.

Photo: Clinton’s Skyler Luna is called out at third base after trying to stretch a ninth-inning hit into a triple in Thursday’s game against the Burlington Bees. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

BEES 7, RIVER DRAGONS 6: It’s ‘Wild’ In The 12th In Walk-Off Win

By John Bohnenkamp

Gary McClure knew three things had to happen as Ben Nippolt’s fly ball was dying in short right field.

The game was tied in the 12th inning, the bases were loaded, and there was one out.

So McClure, the Burlington Bees manager who was coaching third base, thought baserunner Chase Honeycutt, standing to his left, had to try to score.

“There was a doubt,” McClure said. “But I figured everything was on the line, everything was wild right now. I make them catch it, I make them throw it, and catch it again. That’s my thought.”

Alton River Dragons right fielder Blake Burris made the catch. He made what looked to be a perfect throw.

Catcher Bryce Zupan, though, didn’t catch the throw, and Honeycutt stepped over Zupan’s failed glove and touched home plate to give the Bees a 7-6 win on Tuesday night at Community Field.

“If he gets thrown out, I’m the goat,” McClure said. “Instead, we win the ballgame, which is all that matters.”

The Bees (7-4) snapped out of a two-game funk and are a 1/2-game behind the Normal Cornbelters in the Prospect League’s West-Great River Division. 

Honeycutt knew what McClure wanted.

“He said, ‘Tag up and go.’ I was ready. I said, ‘I’m going,’” Honeycutt said. “When I saw it come in, I thought I’ve either got to run him over, or make a play. And then he just dropped it and missed it.”

“I thought he was going to be out by a mile,” McClure said. “He shouldn’t have went, there’s no doubt. But I wanted them to make the play. Sometimes when everything is wild as they were at that point, things work out.”

A baserunning decision by Honeycutt early in the inning got things going. He was hit by a pitch from Geoff Withers (0-1) with one out, and when Marcos Sanchez singled to center field, Honeycutt raced to third, beating the throw from Harry Padden.

“When I was at first, I was thinking that if anything gets through the infield, I’m going,” Honeycutt said. “The grass is thick out there, and we’re in the 12th inning and they were tired. So I made them throw it, and luckily I got there in time.”

Sanchez moved to second on defensive indifference with Nathan Ebersole at the plate. Ebersole was then intentionally walked, bringing Nippolt up for the game-winning sacrifice fly. 

The Bees trailed 5-0 after the first two innings, and 6-1 heading into the bottom of the eighth inning. They scored four runs with two outs in the eighth, capped by Jackson Jones’ two-run home run, then tied the game in the ninth when Nippolt scored on a fielder’s choice.

“That’s how this team is,” Honeycutt said. “No matter what inning, we’ll put up runs.”

Bees starting pitcher Garrett Moltzan lasted just 1 2/3 innings, but relievers Jackson Gray, Tom King and Garrett Langrell (2-0) held the River Dragons to just one run the rest of the game.

King pitched five scoreless innings, allowing just one hit, while Langrell allowed one hit and struck out two in the last three innings.

“To come in and get the job we got relief-wise, that’s outstanding,” McClure said. “Take your hats off to those guys. Gray, Langrell and King, they all did a great job.”

Photo: Chase Honeycutt (12) scores the winning run after Alton catcher Bryce Zupan dropped the throw in the 12th inning. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

THE MONDAY HIVE: League Rules Keep Pitch Counts In Mind

By John Bohnenkamp

Pitch counts have always been important for past Burlington Bees teams, but those were determined by the Major League Baseball parent club when the Bees were a Class A Midwest League affiliate.

Counts are still important now that the Bees are in the Prospect League for college players.

The league’s rules dictate how much a pitcher can be used, depending on the number of pitches he throws. And it can be costly if a team exceeds that usage.

The Bees have 17 pitchers on their roster, including outfielder Marcos Sanchez, who has pitched in two games this season. All but two of the pitchers have thrown in a game this season. Six pitchers have at least one start.

“I tried to get six or seven starters, (and) seven or eight guys who would work out of the bullpen,” said Bees manager Gary McClure. “A lot of these guys haven’t pitched a ton, but they’ve got really good arms. Just try to develop them into something.”

Bees starting pitchers have averaged 4 2/3 innings per start. Four starts have gone between 5-7 innings.

But innings don’t matter. It’s all about the pitch counts.

The league rules state:

• Any pitcher who throws two consecutive games must rest the next day 

• Any pitcher who throws 30 pitches or less can pitch the next day 

• Any pitcher who throws 31-45 pitches must rest for one day 

• Any pitcher who throws 46-60 pitches must rest for two days 

• Any pitcher who throws 61-80 pitches must rest for three days. 

• Any pitcher who throws 81-90 pitches must rest for four days 

• Pitchers cannot face a new batter after they have thrown 95 pitches. Should the pitch count be reached while a pitcher is facing a batter, he can complete the at-bat, but must be removed after it is completed.

And it can be financially costly if a manager doesn’t follow those rules. The first offense will result in a $250 team fine and an immediate one-game suspension for the violating team’s manager. The second offense would be a $500 fine and a 3-game suspension of the team’s manager. The third offense would be a $1,000 fine and a 6-game suspension of the team’s manager.

Pitch counts are kept by the official scorer. Bees pitching coach Scott Barnum also keeps track of the pitch counts in the dugout.

Sometimes the pitch counts determine in-game strategy as well.

“We have a chart with everybody’s name on it, when they pitched last,” McClure said. “We keep a pitch count with each guy, make a decision if we want to get them out and have them the next day or not. Because if they pitch over 30, they can’t pitch the next day.”

Four pitchers — Jacob Greenan, Garrett Langrell, Grady Gorgen and Greg Ryun — have pitched in four games this season. Langrell has had the most work with 7 2/3 innings. Gorgen has thrown five innings, Ryan has thrown 4 2/3 innings, and Greenan has thrown 3 2/3.

Most of the pitchers have had a full college season already, so they are stretched out for longer work if needed.

“They’ve got innings under their belt,” McClure said. “Or they’re young guys who haven’t pitched a ton, but they’ve got a really good arm, and needed innings. That’s kind of the combo we used to go get guys.”

Photo: Burlington Bees pitcher Jacob Greenan throws in relief during Friday’s game against the O’Fallon Hoots. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

BEES 14, HOOTS 6: Relentless Offense Helps Extend Winning Streak

By John Bohnenkamp

It is a relentless offense for the Burlington Bees to open the season.

Friday’s 14-6 win over the O’Fallon Hoots at Community Field was the sixth consecutive for the Bees (6-2), who maintained their one-game lead in the Prospect League’s West-Great River Division.

Burlington had 17 hits, but only two were for extra bases.

“Everyone took quality at-bats, did really well,” said center fielder Lincoln Riley, who had four hits and drove in three runs at the top of the lineup, boosting his season average to .400. “Just kind of carried it throughout the game.”

Every Bee had at least one hit, and Burlington ended the night with seven players in its lineup hitting .300 or better, with three hitters at .400 or better. The Bees are hitting .318 as a team.

“We’re a strong offense,” Riley said. “We’re dangerous, we’re really good. It’s early, too — we’ve got a lot of games left and I’m excited to see what we can do.”

The Bees trailed 5-3 before scoring 11 runs in their final four innings on offense.

“We kept getting baserunners, putting pressure on their defense,” Bees manager Gary McClure said. “We continually had baserunners and put pressure on. Our guys have done a great job of just putting pressure on throughout the game, and adding runs when we do get in the lead.”

“No one’s nervous when we’re down,” Riley said. “It shows what kind of players we are, how hard we can fight back. It doesn’t matter if we’re down one run or 10 runs, we’re going to play to the ninth inning.”

Riley had an RBI single in the second inning, a single in the sixth, a two-run double in the seventh, and a single in the eighth.

“That was big,” McClure said of Riley, who is going to Eastern Illinois University next season after playing at Southeastern Community College. “He got on base, drove in runs, he just had really good at-bats tonight. He made an adjustment from the other night (he was 0-for-3 in Wednesday’s win at Alton), he didn’t have a great night. But he made adjustments and hit the ball well tonight.”

Austin Simpson had three hits and scored three runs for the Bees. Reid Halfacre, at the bottom of the Bees’ lineup, scored four times.

Tom King (1-0) was the winning pitcher in relief, throwing two scoreless innings. Brady Walker (0-2) was the losing pitcher.

NOTES: Bees third baseman Mason Land, who is heading to Auburn next season, drove in three runs, all on sacrifice flies to right field in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. Land went 1-for-3. “He didn’t have many at-bats to count tonight but he had some RBIs,” McClure quipped. … Bees reliever Jacob Greenan, who had given up six runs in two appearances, pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning, striking out one. “It was good to see him throw strikes the way he did,” McClure said of Greenan, who plays at Western Illinois University. “He’s got an electric arm.”

UP NEXT: Burlington has a two-game weekend road trip, playing at Springfield (4-3) on Saturday and Normal (4-3) on Sunday.

Photo: Burlington Bees center fielder Lincoln Riley drives in a run in the second inning. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

BEES 7, RIVER DRAGONS 3: One Inning Meant Plenty For Gray

By John Bohnenkamp

It was an inning Jackson Gray knew his grandfather would have appreciated.

Gray, a left-handed pitcher who had just joined his hometown Burlington Bees, pitched a scoreless eighth inning in the 7-3 win over the Alton River Dragons on Thursday night at Community Field.

Gray, who graduated from Notre Dame High School and played at nearby Carl Sandburg College and Western Illinois University, heard the cheers from family members as he walked off the field after facing four batters in the inning.

It was an emotional moment for a player who grew up coming to games at the ballpark with his father, Tom, and his grandfather, Ed Larson, who served as the Burlington Baseball Association’s president and then later served as Midwest League president for one year and vice-president for 30. Larson died during the 2019 season, in what turned out to be Bees’ last season in the Class A minor league.

“It was a lot of fun, a lot of memories because of my grandpa,” Gray said. “I had a lot of family here — I could hear them screaming, cheering. I know it meant a lot to them. It meant so much to me. I can’t explain the emotions going through my mind on that first pitch.”

Gray was a senior at Western Illinois this season, going 1-1 with an 8.25 earned run average in 11 games.

“It’s going to be my last year in baseball, so it’s good to end it in a Burlington Bees uniform,” he said.

Gray smiled as he recalled what it was like when he saw that uniform for the first time.

“Oh, beautiful,” he said. “Snazzy.”

Gray struck out Clayton Dean to open the inning, then hit Adam Stilts with a pitch. Gray then picked off Stilts at first before giving up a double to Bryce Zupan that left fielder Marcos Sanchez lost in the night sky. He then got Gabe Briones on a grounder that second baseman Zane Zielinski snagged with a dive, throwing out Briones by a step at first.

“He threw the ball extremely well,” Bees manager Gary McClure said of Gray. “I liked what I saw. He’s going to help our club a lot from the left side.”

Gray signed with the team on Wednesday.

“(McClure) wanted me to come play,” Gray said. “I was like, ‘That’s perfect. A perfect fit.’”

“It’s a great thing,” McClure said. “The more kids we can get from Iowa, and locally, it just attracts more attention to our ball club. That’s something, as long as I’m coaching here, we’re going to continue to do.”

The Bees (5-2) won their fifth consecutive game to take sole possession of first place in the Prospect League’s West-Great River Division.

Burlington got seven innings from starter McLain Harris (2-0), who gave up six hits and struck out eight. Reece Wissinger, another Burlington native, struck out the side in the ninth for his second save.

“(Harris) did well tonight,” McClure said. “They dropped a few in, blooped a few in, got some runs early. But he really got better, I thought, as the game went along. He got sharper and sharper, and did a great job. (Wissinger is) a great guy to have at the end of the ball game.”

The Bees rallied from a 3-0 deficit with a four-run fourth inning. Jackson Jones and Zielinski had run-scoring doubles, and Reid Halfacre and Sanchez drove in runs with singles.

Mason Land had a solo home run as the Bees got two in the fifth. Burlington closed the scoring in the eighth on Halfacre’s RBI single.

Gray threw 13 pitches in the eighth, every one carrying the emotion of the moment.

“I was able to go out there and compete,” he said. “Being able to compete makes it a lot more fun.”

Photo: Burlington Bees left-hander Jackson Gray pitches in the eighth inning of Thursday’s game against the Alton River Dragons at Community Field. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

THE MONDAY HIVE: Summer Sound Returns To Community Field

By John Bohnenkamp

They came to see the new show.

It was Opening Night at Community Field on Sunday for the new edition of the Burlington Bees.

The line to get tickets stretched to the end of the parking lot at one point. The final attendance total — 2,097.

It had been 21 months — 639 days — since a Bees team had played here.

It was a different world on Aug. 30, 2019, when the Bees lost to the Clinton LumberKings 6-3. No one knew it at the time — although certainly the rumblings were beginning — but it would be the last time a Burlington team would be a Major League Baseball affiliate.

In the time since then, the COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2020 Midwest League season before it could begin. It had become clear that winter that MLB’s plan to contract Minor League Baseball to 120 teams would include the Bees — it also took fellow Midwest League teams Clinton and Kane County — and once the season was canceled it robbed the fan base, and the community, of a chance to say goodbye to something that had been part of the city for more than a century.

So, they came on Sunday night to say hello to the new Bees, now members of the Prospect League, a summer league of college players who would be spending the next couple of months getting a taste of what life in the minors would be should they get that far.

It certainly was a performance. The Bees came back from an eight-run deficit to win 15-9, and there was an appreciation for the atmosphere created by the near-capacity crowd.

“It was pretty electric,” designated hitter Austin Simpson said. “That’s all I can say. It was pretty awesome.”

Simpson had been in those grandstands many times before. He grew up in nearby Fairfield, and he remembered coming to games.

Now he was a player.

“It was a pretty fun experience to be here and be in a Bees uniform,” Simpson said.

Bees manager Gary McClure, a southeast Iowa native, also came to plenty of games when he was younger. His son, Alex, played for the team in 2010 when it was affiliated with the Kansas City Royals.

So McClure said he was “a little embarrassed” when a couple of defensive mistakes opened the way for Clinton to build a 9-1 lead after 3 1/2 innings. He knew the importance of the game, not just for his team, but also for a fan base who came to see a new level of baseball.

“We’ve got 3,000 people, or whatever we had, we’ve got a great crowd,” he said. “You want to show those people something so they’ll come back. We kicked the ball around a little bit. They didn’t get a lot of earned runs.

“But hey, we came out and started swinging the bats.”

The Bees got six runs in the bottom of the inning. They would bat around twice in the game, and after building a comfortable lead going into the ninth inning, closed the game behind reliever Reece Wissinger, a Burlington High School graduate who, like Simpson, grew up coming to games at the ballpark.

They heard the roar on the final out in an old ballpark that had regained its baseball articulation after so many months of silence.

There was uncertainty back in December, when MLB made the contraction official. The Bees organization found a league, found players.

The fan base found the team again. A summer of baseball, one that was missed in 2020, was ahead.

“I think it was tremendous. They were fired up,” McClure said. “That many people to come out to the ballgame to support you, it’s great.

“I just wanted give them something to come back for.”

Photo: Burlington Bees shortstop Mason Land doubles during Sunday’s game at Community Field. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

BEES 15, LUMBERKINGS 9: Bullpen Delivers Zeros In Home Opener

By John Bohnenkamp

The comeback had to start with the bullpen.

What the Burlington Bees got from their relievers in the final five innings of Sunday’s Prospect League home opener against the Clinton LumberKings was nothing but zeros.

What they then got from their offense was plenty of runs.

The Bees rallied from an early eight-run deficit to take a 15-9 win in front of a crowd of 2,097 at Community Field.

Burlington trailed 9-1 heading into the bottom of the fourth innings, but relievers Tom King, Garrett Langrell and Reece Wissinger combined to shut out the LumberKings for the rest of the game.

“I was really proud of our bullpen,” Bees manager Gary McClure said. “To put up five zeros … you’ve got to put up zeros if you want to come back, get the momentum. And we were able to do that.”

“(Coming back from) 9-1, that’s just grinding,” said designated hitter Austin Simpson, who drove in three runs, including the first one in a five-run eighth inning, one of two innings in which the Bees batted around.”

The Bees’ defense was shaky in those first four innings. Starter Marcos Sanchez gave up eight runs — seven of those were earned — and King gave up a run.

But King retired the side in the fifth, Langrell (1-0) pitched out of a sixth-inning jam and struck out four over 2 2/3 innings, then Wissinger closed the game by striking out three in 1 1/3 innings.

“You just don’t win games when you come back if your bullpen doesn’t do the job,” McClure said.

The Bees responded with six runs in the bottom of the fourth. Simpson drove in two runs with a single, and Mason Land, who had four hits and drove in four runs in the game, doubled home two runs.

“Once we get to 9-6, it’s a ballgame again,” McClure said. “And then we made it 9-7.”

The Bees tied the game in the fifth on Lincoln Riley’s two-run double, then took the lead in the sixth when Chase Honeycutt’s single scored Land.

“Pitchers came in, did their job,” Simpson said. “And we made some plays down the stretch, got some hits, big hits, took some walks.”

Clinton manager Jack Dahm was digging through his bullpen trying to find someone to get outs. Cam Anfang gave up three runs in 2 1/3 innings. Hunter Marso gave up three runs in 1 2/3 innings. Tyler Stern gave up two runs without recording an out.

STREAKING: Burlington’s Kevin Santiago extending his hitting streak to four games with a first-inning RBI single. Santiago is hitting .333 to open the season. … Bees third baseman Ben Nippolt had his three-game hitting streak snapped.

UP NEXT: The Bees (2-2) and LumberKings (3-1) play a 2 p.m. game in Clinton on Monday.

Photo: Burlington Bees reliever Reece Wissinger throws the final pitch in Sunday’s 15-9 win over Clinton. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

They’re Bees, just in a different league

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.”

A day when it felt that history was lost

By John Bohnenkamp

Everyone was talking about the new prospect.

It was a June night in 1977 when I saw him play.

It was his first game with the Burlington Bees. First-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, third pick overall. An All-American at Minnesota. One of those can’t-miss players.

He would lead the Bees to the Midwest League championship that year. He was playing for the Brewers the next season.

Paul Molitor is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Summer, 1986. Another can’t-miss prospect. Big left-handed hitter.

In the one game I saw him, he struck out three times. He hit a long home run to left field in his final at-bat.

Larry Walker is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

This is what you could see if you took in a minor league baseball game at Community Field. You would pay a few dollars to see someone chase a dream. And if they caught it, you felt like you were a part of it.

It was a bargain communities embraced.

Major League Baseball took all of that away on Wednesday. MLB teams issued 119 “invitations” to minor league franchises to join them as affiliates — the 120th is coming soon.

The Bees, and fellow Midwest League teams Clinton and Kane County, weren’t on that list.

It wasn’t a surprise. MLB’s saber-rattling at the elimination of 40 affiliates that started in 2019 became a full roar once the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

MLB wanted to cut costs, and run the minors its own way. The goal, we were told, was to raise salaries for minor league players — you know, the salaries MLB already controlled and did nothing about forever — while improving working conditions, an improvement that will be mostly paid for by the minor league affiliates.

It’s like when the big box stores announce they’re going to raise wages for workers, and then quietly cut jobs and hours. It looks good, but it’s really not.

Less employees — fewer teams mean fewer roster spots. And better work environments paid for by somebody else.

It’s a bargain MLB embraces. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision.

The small communities that embraced baseball at its lower levels? Sorry, you don’t matter anymore.

Burlington has had professional baseball for more than 100 years. It was part of the community’s summer soundtrack, but there were times it felt like the community took it for granted, that it will always be there.

Cold beer. Hot dogs. Fireworks during the July 4 weekend.

It’s been a part of my life, personally and professionally, forever.

In 1994, my first year covering the team, the Appleton Foxes, an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, came to town for a May series.

The Foxes had this 18-year-old infielder who was the Mariners’ first-round pick the year before. I tracked him down during pre-game workouts for an interview. Sure, he said, but we would have to do it in the outfield while he went through his stretching routine. And for a half-hour, we talked about his life, and where he was in his career. Great kid, great interview.

Then Alex Rodriguez went out and had five home runs and drove in 13 runs in a three-game series. 

Those were the prospects you saw come through. You saw future Cardinals, future Cubs, future Twins.

And then you saw them on the biggest stages.

Max Muncy played for the Bees, and won a World Series this year with the Dodgers. Molitor won World Series titles with Toronto.

The 2014 Royals made the World Series with a team that consisted of former Bees such as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy. They lost that year to the San Francisco Giants, but won the Series next year against the New York Mets.

There were those in the community who felt that title belonged to them, too.

Most players who came through made lasting relationships within the community, especially when the Bees had host families who offered homes to players. Some players returned to live in the community after their careers ended. Molitor, for all of his success, has helped the organization by coming back for fundraising events.

Burlington was their home for a summer. It was part of their dream.

It was a bargain so many embraced.

The 2020 season would have been a chance to say goodbye. Burlington, and so many others, were on the original list that had been leaked, and it felt like one more run was imminent. But the pandemic took that way, a financial and emotional blow.

The Burlington Baseball Association announced Wednesday afternoon that there will be baseball next summer in some form, in some way. Still, it was a day when it felt something was lost.

This is survivable. Many former Midwest League cities still have summer baseball in college wood-bat leagues or independent professional leagues. It’s still a soundtrack.

Survivability, though, doesn’t take away the disappointment of what is gone.

It will still be a bargain.

The embrace will just feel different.

Photo: Hector Yan jumps on the back of Nonie Williams after Williams delivered the game-winning hit in a 2019 game at Community Field. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

MLB runs out the clock, and now the Bees wait for the word on what’s next

By John Bohnenkamp

The breaking point, Kim Parker said, came when she was driving home on the day the Minor League Baseball season was canceled.

Parker, the general manager of the Burlington Bees, realized there was a strong possibility that the last Major League Baseball-affiliated game had been played at Community Field.

“I started crying in my car,” she said, remembering the thought that when the final out was made in the 6-3 loss to the Clinton LumberKings on August 30, 2019, no one knew that might be the last Midwest League game played in Burlington.

Major League Baseball ran out the clock on Minor League Baseball on Wednesday. The Professional Baseball Agreement between the two sides was expiring, and what comes next is going to be a reconstruction of the minors, and communities like Burlington could be left out.

MLB’s plan is to reduce the number of affiliates from 160 to 120. Every reported list of the 40 eliminated franchises has had the Bees on it.

Already, there have been changes around the minors. The Appalachian League, once a 10-team Rookie League, has been converted to a college summer wood-bat league. Other organizations in the short-season summer leagues may face a similar fate.

But there are teams in full-season leagues who could be contracted as well. The Class A Midwest League is not immune to changes, with teams like the Bees and the Clinton LumberKings on the list for possible contraction.

And even teams who do survive and are on the final list for saving may not be able to afford the changes that Major League Baseball wants in terms of facility and franchise standards.

The Burlington Baseball Association, which runs the Bees, was made aware of the possibility of contraction last winter. The plan was, if 2020 was going to be the last season of affiliated baseball, it was going to be a grand, if sad, goodbye.

“Minor league baseball or not, we’ve always been focused on how can we keep baseball in Burlington,” Parker said. “Community Field is such a beautiful place, and so it’s like, what can we do to fill it?

“So when we found out what was going on, it was like, ‘OK, if this is our last year, let’s make it big, let’s do more stuff.’”

But once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there was no chance of there being minor league baseball anywhere, and in the summer the season was finally canceled.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Parker said of that drive home on June 30, when the season was officially shut down. “I have a good relationship with everyone with the (Los Angeles Angels, the Bees’ MLB affiliate), the players, the coaches …

“I feel like we got cheated out of a possibility of a last affiliated season.”

Parker said that since Community Field isn’t landlocked, there was room for expansion of facilities that were going to be required by MLB — such things as a kitchen for a chef to cook meals for players, and expanded clubhouse space for more coaches.

“There is plenty of room to go up and go out,” Parker said. “Everything has a cost. If cost wasn’t an issue, absolutely we have the space to do that.”

There were other standards as well for travel — the Bees were going to have two buses for road trips this season because of added staff and equipment.

The pandemic also was going to lead to other expenses, including the expansion of dugouts for more space for social distancing.

All of that would have meant more expenses for the organization.

If the Bees are left off the MLB list, there are plenty of options for baseball here, everything from an independent professional league to college wood-bat summer leagues like the Northwoods League or the Prospect League, which feature Midwest teams.

“I do know that regardless of what happens, the board of directors are committed to keeping baseball here in Burlington,” Parker said. “There will be baseball in some form here. Once everything smooths out with Major League Baseball, and what’s going to happen, we’ll be able to announce where we’re at moving forward. We’re definitely going to have baseball in Burlington in 2021.

“Our biggest thing is, financially, what would be feasible, what’s the best fit for the community, that kind of thing. There are a few that could be ruled out pretty quickly, a few that we think would work well for Burlington.”

Parker and her staff would have already been preparing for a 2021 season, putting together sponsorships and advertising as well as getting ready to sell tickets for a Midwest League schedule that would have been in hand in the middle of the summer.

For now, that’s on hold.

“Our whole season has been ‘hurry up and wait,’” Parker said. “Wait for this, wait for that. When it comes to light what the final decision is, it will be quick for us to come to a final decision. Schedules have to be made, all of that other stuff.

“I’ve been talking to sponsors, letting them know there will be baseball in some form. ‘This is Option A, and then B, C and D’. … That waiting is like a dark cloud over you. You don’t know what’s going to happen. At some point in time, you want a decision, so you can either pivot, or move on.”

Moving on isn’t going to be easy. It’s been a quiet summer at the ballpark.

“Every summer for the last 20 years has been centered on baseball,” Parker said. “It’s very desolate at the ballpark. When you walk around, there’s not the noises that you’re used to hearing. It’s just been a real trying year, for everybody.

“It’s not only baseball, it’s everything else. It’s been a mental battle all year long. My life has been centered around my career in baseball. If you don’t have it, you lose a piece of yourself.”

Photo: Kevin Maitan rounds the bases after his eighth-inning home run in the Burlington Bees’ 9-5 loss to Clinton on August 29, 2019. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)