The city of Zion, Illinois, is centered around power. That makes it no different than most cities in America. Few cities have taken the notion both literally and figuratively in quite the same fashion as the city of 24,000 located an hour's drive north of the Chicago city limits.
Zion has struggled to recover from losing its religion at the beginning of the last century and its nuclear power at the end of the century. The city's start as a cultish planned community and the Zion Nuclear Power Station on the lakefront have both seemingly hamstrung the city's ability to garner jobs since the plant's closure in 1998.
Commonwealth Edison slipped Zion some cash for a few more years after the plant closed to offset the tax losses, but then the city essentially bottomed out as the 21st Century rolled around. Zion was only able to lure an Applebee's to become the first chain restaurant in town since forever by essentially dissolving the dry provisions in Zion law that dated back to Elijah the Reformer, city founder and chief zealot.
That is the city, searching for a new identity and jobs of any type, investors for the Lake County Fielders found when they arrived on the doorstep with a picture of smilin' Kevin Costner and an offer of professional baseball. A third edifice would rise to join the church at the center of town and the concrete mausoleum for spent nuclear fuel on the lakefront: a baseball field. No, a professional baseball stadium. For a mere $15 million, you too could have a state-of-the-art mixed-use blah blah etc etc sign here, please.
Except, of course, the city doesn't have $15 million. It can't gather promised state funds; it can't or won't issue bonds in a lousy market for them. This has left an independent baseball franchise languishing within a temporary home that seats far fewer than expected and draws far fewer than hoped.
And you can ignore the 2,500 per game the team bleats about; they've only played a handful of games at home this season out of 40ish contests because construction on the new stadium never really happened, forcing the temporary structure back into place with more stadium seating to replace some of the bleachers and forcing back the home opener to July 3rd. One good opening/Fourth of July weekend takes care of the simple math.
On Tuesday night, barely triple-digit numbers came out to see the brand-new Lake County Fielders by game time, perhaps climbing to 200 by nightfall. By "brand-new", you should infer "all-new roster to replace those ingrates who didn't care for not being paid".
("It’s a privilege to play professional baseball. If these guys don’t want to play here, we will find guys who want to play here," Fielders general manager Mike Kardamis told the Chicago Sun-Times. "They can cash their checks tomorrow once the Bank of Waukegan opens." But not a minute sooner, please, one can almost hear.)
After a power play Saturday by manager Tim Johnson left Johnson, multiple other coaches, and 23 players either elsewhere in the North American Baseball League or in the unemployment line, the Fielders began the game with a roster so new that the public address announcer mumbled half the names and failed to say the first names of the other half. With names like "Brown" and "Coleman", it's impossible to be sure if he wasn't just making them up.
The team quickly blamed Zion for the money woes (which are totally fixed now, fo realz) by not producing their shiny magical $15 million stadium, conveniently forgetting they extracted the promise for that amount from a town abandoned both by God and science in the same century. Where did they think the money would come from once the economy soured? Didn't they read their own press clippings?
It's also not clear if the attendance was relatively low not because of the All-Star Game competition but because the players were pulled from the stands. The starting pitcher for Tuesday night's Fielders sported a fastball that could charitably be classified as forward motion. The catcher came out to the mound to clear up signals faster than the ball came to home plate.
Even the vendors appear to have stopped showing up. Billy Goat Tavern's cheezburger booth ran out of propane for the grill and the pizza vendor never even set up for the night.
Those fans who did attend enjoyed the balmy lakefront breeze, especially those who still didn't have power after Monday morning's storm. The team even put on a proper comeback show with a home run to tie the game in the seventh and two more in the frame to take a 4-2 lead for the win.
Still, conversation around the ballpark inevitably turned to the team's turmoil. Ushers swapped sob stories with each other. Fans passed around the latest gossip from the newspapers. A security guard mentioned a possible Kevin Costner concert that might save the day later this summer, but no one's sure that will happen. One rumor circulated by another employee suggested Costner never sunk a dime into the team and is just the front man.
Another hopeful savior is, well, the Savior. (Hey, it worked once for the city.) Ignite Fest, a Christian rock Pitchfork, occupies the field for three days at the end of the month to prove Switchfoot is still together. There's some kind of genius in putting your Christian rock festival in a city named Zion. Perhaps the event can prove to other concert organizers that a new stadium could host their modest events.
But really, there shouldn't need to be a savior. The part-timers and regular employees alike have taken a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney approach to the situation, determined to put on a show no matter what. Even the stadium-like substance that houses the team for now has a bootstrap quality that is downright endearing in the right light.
The fans, though few and far between on a Tuesday night during an extended power outage in the city, seemed to genuinely enjoy the night out. The kids in attendance just adored Lucky, the canine mascot, and would probably root for the players if they knew who the hell they were. (Conspicuously missing from this year's home jerseys: names.) It's an enjoyable night out for the family at a cost that fits neatly into local families' constricted budgets.
There's still room in Zion for organized baseball if someone has an extra $15 million lying around, give-take. Mr. Costner, you're the true power player in this conversation. It's not the team leader who cost Schaumburg a million dollars with his last team and it's not the middle school typing teacher turned mayor. Don't you think the world has yearned long enough for a money-making blockbuster sequel to The Postman?