Normal CornBelters president Steve Malliet will be the first to admit initial projections for the organization when it began 10 years ago are not where the team is today.
“Every new market you go into is different, so we came in with projections that we thought were higher than it has been,” said Malliet. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from the community—sponsors, season ticket holders and companies that bring groups out—so there have been so many good things here. But did we think we would draw better? Yeah, I think the thought was we would draw better.”
Average attendance has dwindled virtually every season in the team’s eight years to a low-water mark of 1,685 fans this past season, nearly 1,000 lower per game since its first season in 2010 when it averaged 2,646.
Could it be that the on-field product could be part of the problem? The CornBelters, who finished with a .500 record this year, have posted only two winning seasons since its beginning.
“No doubt we have struggled on the field,” said Malliet. “We had a winning team for the majority of this year, but being .500 or a little better than is just not what people around here are used to. They are used to winners and we want to provide that.”
Manager Brooks Carey will return for his sixth season with a 248-230 career record.
“I believe Brooks Carey is the right person for the job here and I really believe we will have a breakthrough year this year,” said Malliet. “Brooks is a very popular person. I think he is part of the fabric of our organization. He loves Bloomington-Normal. He loves the area.
“He loves the people here and has built up a lot of rapport with them. I know he was disappointed in how things played out last year. He is very good in the community and with all of our staff, so we felt strongly that we needed to bring Brooks back for those reasons.”
While winning is important, it isn’t everything, according to Malliet.
“It’s a very important component of what we do, although it is not the most important thing," he said. “I think the number one thing is creating an atmosphere that people enjoy coming out to, good food, affordability, and a safe place for the entire family to come.
“You don’t have to be a baseball fan necessarily to come out and enjoy a CornBelters event. Those are the things that are most important to us, but winning is definitely an important component that goes into everything else too.
“We feel people should enjoy coming out and it shouldn’t break the bank. You’re going to be entertained too. You’re going to have lots of chicanery going on. We have all kinds of things going on during the course of the year in addition to our regular entertainment and baseball.”
The team’s principal owner and promotions whiz, Mike Veeck, also is going to be more involved this season.
“We are going to be working with Mike heavily this year with our promotions and that is what Mike is a master at,” Malliet said. “I think you will see a different twist on our in-game promotions on the field and our theme nights.”
There also was talk of the CornBelters leaving the Frontier League, and Malliet confirmed it was discussed.
“Our league, the Frontier League, is having some challenges this year,” said Malliett. “It was a time where we got approached by a couple of different leagues and we thought we would take a listen to what they had to say. There are some good options out there, but we just felt the Frontier League was our best option for this year.”
Another thing that won’t change is families in the community serving as host families for the players.
“That’s been the life blood of our organization,” Malliet continued. “Without those families we couldn’t do this. We couldn’t hold a team together here. They don’t make enough money to get an apartment so host families are vitally important to us.
“The families that we have are tremendous. They open their homes and take care of these guys. They become family members to these families. Some of the players even come back for Christmas to see their families.
“It is a lot to open up your home and suddenly have a 22- to 25-year-old son. These guys come in and they are expected to contribute like any family member like mowing the grass or taking out the garbage.”
You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Malliet:
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