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First, suspend the perception that any baseball short of the major-league variety is dinner theater in Dubuque compared with Broadway.
If you're willing to make that concession, you might find the constant hustle of a college team appealing. You might spot a gem acquiring needed polish as he toils among the young Midwest League prospects out in Kane County. You might be struck by the skill required to play college softball at a high level, and by the speed of the game—seven innings rarely takes more than 90 minutes.
Finally, you might let your mind wander back to those carefree days when a whiffle ball and bat and a backyard that evoked a ballpark offered the best possible way to spend a summer afternoon.
There's no substitute for a well-played major league ballgame, true, but you don't have to go without baseball just because you can't afford the MLB brand in these challenging times.
Though there are certainly more, in the spirit of the game's most significant number, we offer nine alternatives that won't require dipping into the kids' college fund.
Kane County Cougars Where: Elfstrom Stadium, Kane County Events Center, just south of Roosevelt Road on Kirk Road, Geneva. Tickets are $8 lawn, $10 reserved, $12 box (regular); $9 lawn, $11 reserved, $14 box (prime), $10 lawn, $12 reserved, $14 box (premium). Reserved parking is $5, general parking is free.
What: The parent Oakland A's are committed to growing their own talent, and the prospects who will call spruced-up Elfstrom Stadium home fit the "Moneyball" prototype Michael Lewis defined in his 2002 best-seller that meticulously broke down the value-driven player-development approach of a franchise under financial constraints. Infielders Dusty Coleman and Jason Christian and catcher Juan Nunez are among this year's players to watch. The entire starting rotation came from the 2008 amateur draft, including fourth-round left-hander Anthony Capra, seventh-round righty Brett Hunter and 33rd-rounder Shawn Haviland, a right-hander who went to Harvard. Former big league infielder Steve Scarsone is the Cougars' manager. (More than 100 former Cougars have worn major-league uniforms, including the Cubs' Ryan Dempster, Boston's Josh Beckett and five members of the 2009 A's.)
DePaul softball Where: Cacciatore Stadium, 900 block of West Belden, one block east of the Sheffield-Belden intersection on DePaul's Lincoln Park campus. Tickets are $5 for adults, $3 for students and children over 7, $2 for groups of 10 or more.
What: Blue Demons (31-9, 15-2 Big East) are off to a typically strong start as they seek to make a fifth College World Series appearance in coach Eugene Lenti's 28-year tenure. Lenti has won 1,014 games at DePaul, against 493 losses. Senior third baseman Amber Patton leads the Big East Conference in hitting (.518, 71 hits, 40 runs, 11 steals), while Becca Heteniak is the team's star pitcher (18-6, 1.72) and top slugger (.370, 11 homers, 46 RBIs). The Big East lead will be at stake when the Demons entertain Louisville (40-6, 15-3) in a Thursday doubleheader at Cacciatore Field.
They play 10th-ranked Northwestern in a neighborhood bragging rights game on April 28.
(Two-time Olympian Cat Osterman, one of the most decorated pitchers in softball history during her career at Texas, is DePaul's pitching coach.)
St. Xavier baseball Where: Richard R. Ferrell Memorial Field, north end of the SXU campus, 103rd and Central Park, Chicago. Admission and parking are free.
What: The Cougars (29-10, 18-3) are rolling through the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference, recently running off an 18-game winning streak, and shooting for a return trip to the NAIA playoffs.
Coach Mike Dooley, in his 17th year, has averaged nearly 40 wins a season. His roster consists entirely of Chicago-area players. , such as junior shortstop John O'Brien of Lake Zurich, who's hitting .459 with a team-high 47 RBIs. Six other Cougars are above .300. They're averaging 7.5 runs a game with a .353 team batting average.
(When he made the San Diego Padres' Opening Day roster, Kevin Gregerson became the fourth former Cougar to reach the big leagues. Two-term Florida Marlins manager John Boles coached at the school from 1973-79.)
Schaumburg Flyers Where: Alexian Field, 1999 S. Springinsguth Rd., Schaumburg. Tickets are $11 club reserved, $10 reserved, $5 lawn/bleachers. Add $1 on fireworks nights. Parking is free.
What: After a 30-66, last-place finish in the Northern League, the Flyers cleaned house, bringing in a new manager, Mike Busch, and a new coaching staff. Several new players are expected as well, including Felix Jose, a 44-year-old outfielder with 11 years of major league experience with five teams. Holdovers include outfielder Jermaine Allensworth, 36, who played for the Pirates, Royals and Mets. The Flyers will begin their 11th season at Joliet on May 15 and open at home on May 22. One of independent baseball's most successful operations, they're already 50,000 tickets ahead of last year's sales pace, thanks in part to new ballpark amenities such as a "Schaumburg Club" sports bar. Patrons can watch the Flyers game live or MLB games on flat-screen TVs.
(Brad Ziegler, an Oakland A's reliever who set a major league record by debuting with 39 1/3 scoreless innings last season, is a former Flyer.)
Northwestern softball Where: Sharon J. Drysdale Field, behind Ryan Field and next to Welsh-Ryan Arena on NU's Evanston campus. Admission is free.
What: After rolling to an 18-2 conference record a year ago, the Wildcats (27-9, 12-2 Big Ten) opened the 2009 season with nine straight league wins before stumbling at Minnesota. Senior shortstop Tammy Williams is a strong Player of the Year candidate, leading the Big Ten in hitting (.456), on-base (.534) and slugging percentage (.851) while clubbing 12 home runs. Freshman Adrienne Monka (.404) has 15 homers. Junior Lauren Delaney is the Wildcats' top pitcher (25-8, 2.25 ERA). Upcoming is a five-game stretch against Illinois in Champaign (Saturday-Sunday), followed by a trip to DePaul (April 28), and a home series with Big Ten leader Ohio State (May 2-3). (Coach Kate Drohan's associate head coach is her twin sister Caryl. They have taken the Wildcats to the College World Series twice in the last three years. and recently collected their 300th win in their eighth season at Northwestern.)
UIC baseball Where: Les Miller Field, 901 W. Roosevelt Road, behind the UIC Physical Education Building, Chicago. Tickets are $6; UIC students and children under 3, free. Parking in lot southeast of the field.
What: The Flames have a 16-17 record, but it's deceiving: Their non-conference schedule was loaded with quality Division I opponents. That helped ready them for Horizon League play, and they're leading the conference with a 10-3 mark. Third baseman Jason Ganek (Hersey) has been UIC's most consistent hitter (.325, 20 RBIs), along with shortstop Andy Leonard of Stagg (.321, 15 doubles). Pitcher Adam Worthington (Warren) has a 2-4 record despite a 2.66 ERA. Chris Kovacevich (Lincoln Way East) is 4-4, 2.76, and closer Derrick Miramontes is 4-0 with six saves and a 1.67 era. The Flames' remaining schedule includes a May 8 doubleheader with second-place Milwaukee and four games with third-place Wright State.
( Detroit Tigers star Curtis Granderson is the most prominent Flame playing pro ball, but UIC has five alums playing minor league ball this season and two others in independent leagues.)
Windy City Thunderbolts Where: Standard Bank Stadium, 141st and Kenton off the Midlothian Turnpike, Crestwood. Upper box tickets are $8 in advance and $9 day of game; lower box tickets are $9 in advance and $10 day of game. Parking is $2.
What: The 'Bolts have been the class of the 12-team Frontier League for two years, compiling a 60-36 regular-season record in 2008 and rolling through two rounds of playoffs with a 6-1 mark. General manager Steve Tahsler expects about half the roster back, including second baseman Gilbert Mejia (.282, 34 steals), catcher Justin Tellam (.284) and pitchers Ross Stout (11-3, 2.57) and Stephen Flake (10-3, 4.4). The most intriguing newcomer is right-handed pitcher Billy Petrick, 25, who pitched in eight games with the Cubs in 2007 but was released last winter following two arm surgeries. Team opens the season on May 21.
(The Frontier League bills itself as a developmental league, for players on the way up, not the way down. Accordingly, there is an age limit of 27.)
Northwestern baseball Where: Wells Field at Rocky Miller Park, Ashland and Isabella Streets behind Ryan Field on the Evanston campus. Tickets are $7 for adults, $4 for students and seniors, sold at the door on game days.
What: It has been a rough go in the Big Ten for the Wildcats (10-24, 2-8), who dropped seven of their first eight conference games and have a 5.80 team ERA. They're hoping last week's 5-1 victory over Notre Dame at U.S. Cellular Field , in which DH Tony Vercelli (.266, 6, 22) smacked two home runs, can turn them around. Sophomore left-hander Eric Jokisch (3-4, 3.66) has been the Wildcats' most effective starter. Left fielder Jake Goebbert was having a solid year at the plate (.280, 10 doubles, 23 RBIs) but suffered a lacerated kidney running into the fence at Minnesota and is probably out for the season. The upcoming schedule features visits from Illinois (May 1-3) and the University of Chicago (May 6), as well as a trip to Gary's U.S. Steel Yard for a game with Valparaiso (May 5).
(Yankees manager Joe Girardi, a former Cubs catcher, is a Northwestern alum, as is Dodgers infielder Mark Loretta.)
National Whiffleball Championship Where: June 27-28, Channelside Park, 3100 Oakton St., Skokie. Admission is free.
What: Whiffle ball, the plasticized, fantasy-inspiring version of baseball, is going big time, as this event is a qualifier for the World Whiffle ball Championships scheduled for July at Mishawaka, Ind. Both are slow-pitch competitions, but pitchers throw overhand, so Gaylord Perry-like mound deviltry is possible. And the perforated white balls and yellow plastic bats will bring back memories for anyone who ever lofted one onto a neighbor's garage and dreamed he or she was Mickey Mantle going deep at Yankee Stadium. Registration (four- or five-person teams, $120 per team) is first-come, first-served through June 1. Teams are assured of playing at least four games. Contact Jim Bottorff ( JRBottorff@SkokieParkDistrict.org) for additional information.