July 23, 2011
The RailCats have been in business since 2002, and since Greg Tagert was hired as manager in 2005, they boast the best record of Chicagoland's five minor league teams. During the last six years they went to the Northern League championship series five times and won the league championship in 2005 and 2007.
After the dissolution of the Northern League, the RailCats have found a new home in the American Association, the independent league successor of what once was a Triple A league counting the likes of Ted Williams and Willie Mays among its alumni.
"In independent baseball there's no oversight from a major league organization that makes the decisions on who gets called up, who gets sent down, who needs to play, who needs to throw this many innings," said Andy Viano, Gary president and general manager, who started with the RailCats as an intern. "We control player signings, player releases and player trades, and all the player development is done by our coaching staff.
"That frees me to be responsible for everything else—the community partnerships, the corporate partnerships and most important the fan experience. We pride ourselves on having something here for everybody."
The RailCats' most exciting player is right fielder Cristian Guerrero. He has been with the team since 2008 and is its all-time home run leader. In a doubleheader at Rockford last season, he hit homers in five straight at-bats.
As in Joliet, Gary's downtown ballpark has a train station with regular service only a block away.
U.S. Steel Yard is an impressive stadium with an urban ambience. It seats 6,139 and has a 55-foot scoreboard in left center. The park prices are fan friendly. A family of four can expect to pay about $65 for food, beverages and a program. Ticket prices range from $7 to $10. Designated drivers get in free, and there are deals galore. For example, family-day coupons offer four box seats, four hot dogs and four soft drinks for $36.
Players often stay with host families, and it's not uncommon to see families mingling with players before games.
"My husband, Scott, and I have been doing this since 2006," said Vikki Williams, a seventh-grade science teacher from Portage, Ind., who was chatting with her tenants, middle relievers Brian Grening and Jeremy Hauer, outside the Railcats' dugout. "Before 2006, if anybody would have told me I'd go to 50 baseball games a season both here and somewhere else and know what I'm watching, I'd have said: 'You're out of your mind.' But that's what I've been doing."
Yes, consensus among the fans is that minor league ball can be addictive.