Slammers: City of defending champions
By Tony Graf firstname.lastname@example.org May 22, 2012 10:36PM
J.C. Aguilar, left, pretends to catch a ball while his father, Mario Aguilar, center, looks on, as they waited for the gates to open for the first game of the season of the Joliet Slammers at Silver Cross Field in Joliet, IL on Tuesday May 22, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 2, 2012 9:31AM
JOLIET — They wear the jailbird stripes, and now they wear the ring.
On Tuesday, Opening Night, the Joliet Slammers baseball team received championship rings for the 2011 Frontier League season.
Then they began their new season’s journey at home, against the Traverse City Beach Bums, before an excited crowd at Silver Cross Field.
“We honored the team that has the first-ever professional baseball championship in the history of Joliet,” said Bill Waliewski, team president.
The team, whose theme in part reflects the city’s history as a prison town, has made some history itself.
Players were honored in a ring ceremony, and the team raised the championship banner, which will be a permanent fixture at the downtown stadium. The banner flies above center field, just to the left of the batter’s eye. It’s the second flag down. The third flag down is a pirate flag.
“Our pitcher Jake Renshaw is a self-proclaimed pirate, so late last year we started flying a pirate flag on the days that he pitches. It’s kind of fun,” Waliewski said.
That’s the point of leagues like the Frontier League — making baseball fun.
This league is also about hometown baseball, and that theme was evident Tuesday night as the team honored the late Joliet Mayor Arthur Schultz.
“This past winter, the city of Joliet lost one of its most influential members,” said Mike Slodki, public address announcer. “Mayor Art Schultz served this great city that he loved so deeply for over 50 years, first as a police officer, and then as the city’s longest-running mayor.”
“Art Schultz brought professional baseball to the City of Champions. And the Joliet Slammers are proud to have brought another championship to the city before his passing,” Slodki said.
The stadium observed a moment of silence before the Frankfort Brass Band performed the national anthem and the game began.
Jonathan Gernenz, a disabled U.S. Army veteran, watched the game with his father, Al Gernenz of Lockport.
Jonathan uses a wheelchair, and watched the game from a part of the main concourse reserved for fans with disabilities. These sections have excellent views and are close to the action.
“They have space here, plus they have the elevator to get up here,” said Al, also an Army veteran. “They take very good care of Jonathan. We’ve got one usher in particular who works here, and he and my son have become very close friends.”
“My son and I both love baseball. This is real baseball,” Al said.
Howard Pollock, an Army veteran from Joliet, attended the game with Al and Jonathan. They’re part of a larger group of veterans, members of American Legion Post 1080 in Joliet, who meet at Panera Bread at the Westfield Joliet mall and attend ballgames together.
“I really enjoy it. It’s just a beautiful ballpark,” Pollock said. “It’s great family entertainment. And they need more things like this. You go to some of the Major League clubs now, and the prices are out of sight. But here, this is terrific. You’re not having to get a second mortgage.”
Don “Doc” Grisham, a U.S. Marine veteran from Crest Hill, jokingly said, “The Army brought me out tonight,” as he looked over at his veteran friends.
“You get a good bang for your buck. It’s a real nice place to see a game,” Grisham said.
In the stadium’s play area, beyond the outfield, Florentino Calderon of Joliet watched his young children while the game was in the early innings.
Xavian Calderon, 4, pointed to the slides and swing sets where he and his siblings played.
“They’re actually waiting for the fireworks,” Florentino said of the youngsters, who included Santino, Xavian and Isabel along with stepdaughters Rozanna and Jasena.
The Joliet Slammers mascot, J.L. Bird, played with Xavian during the early innings.
“It made his whole night,” Florentino said.
Will County Executive Larry Walsh, viewing the game from the main concourse, reflected on the city’s winning tradition.
“Joliet — the City of Champions,” Walsh said. “There has been a huge number of individual champions, huge number of team champions, coming out of our high school programs, our Pony League programs. Here, we’ve got professional baseball in the finest stadium probably in the state of Illinois. I’m looking forward to another great season.”