Standing on the podium at the Council Chambers office at Alton City Hall on Jan. 29, Dennis Bastien was excited to announce that Alton will have a baseball team in the Prospect League next summer.
“We’re here to celebrate the addition of Alton, Illinois, as our 13th franchise to begin the 2021 season,” the Prospect League commissioner said. “I think everybody knows that there’s been a blessing on this.”
Alton will join the summer collegiate wood bat league that has been successful since it started in 2009. For the last 11 years, more than 250 former Prospect League players have been drafted or signed as free agents and there have been almost 200 players who have seen action in Major League Baseball. The league has been getting more exposure as it televises games on social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Apple TV. Also, the Prospect League will hold a Hall of Fame ceremony for the first time this year, with Oakland A’s pitcher Sean Manaea being the first inductee.
“The league has a history,” Bastien said. “It goes way back.”
The Prospect League merged with the Central Illinois Collegiate League in 2009. The CICL was formed in 1963 as a charter member of NCAA-certified summer baseball and became one of the original and most-recognized summer baseball leagues in the country.
“Mike Schmidt played in this league,” Bastien said. “We had some hall of famers in this league.”
Alton had a team in the CICL called the Bluff City Bombers, who played from 1998-2004. A trio of former Bombers pitchers made it to the Major Leagues — Dennis Tankersley (San Diego Padres, 2002-04), John Rheinecker (Texas Rangers, 2006-07) and Cory Wade (L.A. Dodgers 2008-09, New York Yankees 2011-12). Edwardsville High grad Chad Opel earned CICL MVP honors while playing with Bluff City, too.
From on field inning promotions, diamond digs, live bands, midget wrestling, dizzy bat races and recognizing local prep athletics and much more, there was plenty of entertainment and community involvement.
For a generation of young fans earning a “Bomber Buck” for retrieving a foul ball was a memorable event. Hopefully this new collegiate franchise can create those memories for a new generation of fans.
Three years after the Bombers folded, the CICL began talks with current and former Frontier League teams about beginning a new league called the Prospect League.
In the winter of 2008, six teams of the CICL voted to join the expansion teams to form the new 11-team Prospect League. Out of those 11 teams, four of those teams are still in operation — the Danville Dans, Quincy Gems, Springfield Sliders and Chillicothe (Ohio) Paints.
The Prospect League has teams from Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Missouri. So far, the O’Fallon Hoots from O’Fallon, Mo., are the only St. Louis area team in the league.
Bastien said for the last few years, the league has drawn players from all over the country, including the West Coast.
“The beauty of that is we last year got players from Washington State University and Oregon State,” Bastien said. “Now their players can watch them play on television every night.”
The commissioner said with Alton joining the league, the new franchise will draw plenty of local players.
“It’s an economic impact,” he said. “The Terre Haute Rex did a study not too long ago and found out it brings in between two and two and a half million dollars a year to the local economy. Are we Phillips 66? No. But we’re a pretty good shot in the arm. It’s sound money. It’s kind of a neat thing.”
Bastien, who has been involved in baseball for about 60 years, became the league’s third commissioner in 2017. He said the league’s missions are to provide family-friendly entertainment and give college players a great experience in a competitive atmosphere.
“This is our passion,” Bastien said. “Our goal is to make this the best summer collegiate league in America.”