Home of the Rockford Peaches, this city is once again home to women’s baseball. Meet the dedicated players and coaches who are helping to preserve one of this city’s baseball relics.
The first-base runner checks the sign from the coach and takes a long lead. Legs stretched wide, fingers wiggling, the Rockford player watches intently as the pitcher settles in and commits to the pitch.
The runner takes off. A swing and a miss. The catcher heaves the ball around the leftie batter, but the runner slides safely into second. Rattled, the pitcher walks the lefty, and suddenly, trailing 2-1 in the third, Rockford has two on with one out. The pitcher shakes it off and racks up a K with the next batter.
Nothing to lose now. The second-base runner gets the sign and takes another long lead. The pitcher settles in, checks the runner and goes to second with the ball, but the throw is wide. The Rockford runner rounds third and scores – tie game. The first-base runner tries to make it to third and gets tagged out. The Rockford players take the field, their coaches yelling encouragement and instruction.
“Way to run those bases, Amber!”
“Sara S., take first this inning. Laura, you’re on the mound.”
That’s right: Women’s baseball has returned to Rockford.
The Rockford Starfires opened its inaugural season May 18, taking on the Chicago Gems at Marinelli Field, 115 15th Ave., Rockford. During the game, players rotated among positions, as coaches Greg Schwanke and Steve McIntosh worked to figure out each one’s strengths. The Starfires fell to the Gems in eight innings.
The team played two games last year at Marinelli, but players have come and gone since then. The May 18 game was the first time these particular players were together on an actual baseball diamond. With the long stretch of rainy weather this spring, they couldn’t practice outside.
The team was officially introduced at a press conference at Kryptonite Bar in Rockford on April 13.
“We used the batting cages at Volcano Falls, and one player is a barrel racer who let us use her big horse barn,” says Laura Cernick, pitcher/left field. “It was very soft dirt, so we couldn’t really bat or try to field, but we paced out dimensions and worked on throwing the longer distances.”
The Starfires won’t be without a home field much longer. Beyer Stadium, at the corner of 15th Avenue and Seminary Street, Rockford, home of the famous Rockford Peaches, is undergoing extensive renovations and will be ready to host games in July. Until then, the women will play at Marinelli.
Women’s organized baseball leagues exist only on the two coasts, so the Starfires’ main opponent will be the Gems. That also means that players aren’t getting paid to play; they’re doing it because they love the game. In fact, they supply their own shoes, gloves, snacks and drinks. Fundraising efforts cover the uniforms, but finding appropriately proportioned apparel is difficult.
“After months of searching, we finally found a company that makes women’s actual baseball pants,” Schwanke explains.
Players’ age range from 19 to mid-40s; some have played high school or college fastpitch softball, others Little League baseball, still others only slo-pitch summer softball. All say they love baseball and just want the chance to play.
“This represents an awesome opportunity to be a part of history – making history and preserving it,” says Sarah Cordonnier, pitcher/centerfield.
“I’ve been playing since I was five years old, and I’ve loved hardball my entire life,” says third baseman Nicole Richter, Winnebago. “This is a dream come true for me.”
Built in 1925, Beyer Stadium was used by Rockford schools for athletic events and graduations, and from 1943-1954, it was the home field for the Rockford Peaches of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The team was the subject of the 1992 movie, A League of their Own, starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna, but Beyer Stadium couldn’t be used as a film location. Following the demise of the AAGPBL, the field was left unattended and fell into horrible disrepair; in fact, the original stadium was razed the year the film was released. The Rockford Park District (RPD) now owns and maintains the field.
In 1999, Friends of Beyer Stadium (FOBS), a volunteer group committed to saving the historic site, successfully petitioned to have its last remaining structure, the ticket booth/gatehouse, designated as a local landmark. The dream was to remake the ball park and provide recreational space for Rockford residents. Since then, diligent FOBS members have secured enough donations – of both money and supplies – along with volunteer labor and the support of the RPD, to realize their dream. In 2010, a new diamond, backstops and scoreboard allowed baseball to be played there once again.
Recent renovations include new dugouts, improvements to the track and a new retaining wall. FOBS members are working with city officials on sidewalk installation and water hook-ups. Rededication of the new Beyer Stadium is slated for July 27, with the first game to be played there, since the Peaches left, scheduled for Aug. 3. There’s a big push to get everything done.
Starfires coach Greg Schwanke joined the cause in 2007.
“This whole adventure started for me at the Field of Dreams in Iowa,” he says. “I’m involved in Vintage Base Ball in Rockford, and the Forest City club and another team were playing in a local park in Dyersville. I had invited a couple of former AAGPBL players, Dolly Vanderlip and Lou Erickson, to meet me at the Field of Dreams. Lou was a pitcher for the Peaches, and she asked, ‘Is Rockford going to do anything with the old ball diamond?’ I told her I’d check into it, and that’s when I found FOBS.”
The new team’s name pays homage to its matriarchs – starfire is a variety of peach. Former Rockford Peach Helen Wyatt – aka Sis Waddell – is one of the team’s biggest advocates, attending practices, mentoring players and adding some star power to events like the April 13 press conference.
Wyatt was a shy Pennsylvania 18-year-old when she was invited to tryouts in Allentown, Pa., chosen and sent to spring training in South Bend, Ind., and then traded to Rockford, where she’s lived ever since. Now 82, Wyatt watches from the dugout during Starfires games while other family members cheer from the stands.
“Greg got in touch with me about two years ago, to see what I thought about a women’s baseball team in Rockford again,” says Wyatt. “I told him, ‘I think it’s about time we got it back.’ It’s faster and better than softball, at least in my opinion. It’s fantastic to go out and see these kids playing and remember how it was. It really brings back my days on the field with the Peaches. We had a great fan base, and I know these girls will, too.”
Also attending the press conference were Rockford residents Doug Key and Dona Key-Ericksen, son and daughter of Peach Dottie Ferguson Key, who died in 2003. “Mom lived for baseball,” says Key-Ericksen. “She would absolutely love this!”
From all indications, many others are of the same mindset.
“People worldwide are excited about reopening the stadium where the Peaches played,” says Schwanke. “Rockford truly has its own field of dreams with Beyer Stadium. We’re working on a major sponsorship for the dedication, and we’ll bring back as many Peaches as possible to pass the torch. We’re hosting an eight-team international tournament over Labor Day weekend. We’re talking with ESPN about having them cover the tourney, and a major star from A League of Their Own – we can’t give the name – will attend, if scheduling permits.”
Meanwhile, the Starfires are practicing together and getting in as much field time as possible, even lining up some games against teams of high school age boys through the Boys Club. They’re gaining a fan base, and they’ve been invited to march in Rockford’s Fourth of July Parade, with Wyatt as Grand Marshal.
Fans can follow the Starfires and FOBS on Facebook, and get more information on Beyer Stadium and ways to help with renovations at beyerpark.org.
*Editor’s Note: Due to inclement weather this spring, the Starfires plan to re-open Beyer Stadium in 2014.