Morris Hoosier Bats Farm Bridges The Arc Strack and Van Til


Friday, May 11, 2012 • POSTED BY:  Steve Gorches - Post Tribune Correspondent

HAMMOND — It was being held at a field used for high school and Babe Ruth baseball games.

It felt like a high school or Babe Ruth baseball game on Thursday night at Riverside Park, what with one of the teams only wearing t-shirts with their logo on the front and no numbers or names on the back.

But trust me, it was professional baseball with the RailCats facing the Windy City Thunderbolts for the second straight day.

And, not to sound like a an old-school baseball fan who's been watching games since he was five years old, but it was kind of cool.

For the record, Windy City was the team without numbers, so it was tough to follow along as a fan, or a reporter for that matter.

Gary first baseman Mike Rohde made a nice play in the sixth inning to throw a runner out at home plate on a sharply hit grounder. But I couldn't tell you who that runner was, and I really didn't care.

It was just an exhibition as the two teams from different leagues get ready for the upcoming independent minor league season that starts on May 17 for the RailCats in the American Association.

The Thunderbolts play in the Frontier League.

Why were the Cats playing at the home field of the Hammond Chiefs and Hammond Seminoles Babe Ruth teams?

It's something the franchise has been thinking about for a few years. Logistics haven't been on its side. There are only a handful of fields in Northwest Indiana that could host a pro game due to dimensions.

Valparaiso University is one of them, but scheduling issues have prevented that from happening.

Not only did it work out with Riverside, but it was a nice homecoming for RailCats outfielder Mike Coles, who helped make the unique game happen. Coles graduated from Hammond High and played for the Chiefs in 2000 and 2001.

In fact, anyone at the game knew that from the sign on the fence in left-center field. Every former Chiefs player who is drafted by a Major League Baseball franchise is honored with a sign on the fence at Riverside Park with the years he played and the team which drafted him on the sign.

In Coles' case, that was the Baltimore Orioles in the 34th round before he decided to stick with the college route and play at Purdue.

Coles brought up the idea of playing an exhibition game at Riverside a few months ago, and Chiefs president and manager Dave Sutkowski was more than willing to accomodate his former outfielder, as long as it worked out for the RailCats also.

Turns out, it was quite a homecoming for Coles as he had two hits, scored the first run for Gary in the 10-1 victory, had a stolen base and actually caught the last out of the game against one of his former minor league teams.

"It was a little awkward at first being here in Hammond, playing Windy City (he played two years for them), playing for Gary now," Coles said. "It was like the Mike Coles reunion tour."

And of course, his new teammates gave him a little grief about the sign in left field.

"Hitting coach Mike Curran saw it when we got here and said, 'It's the house that Mike Coles built,'" Coles joked. "But I knew that would happen. I didn't know what to expect, but all-in-all it was a good turnout. Hopefully the RailCats organization can keep this going as a a regular thing."

Gary manager Greg Tagert agreed wholeheartedly.

"We got here early and people were already milling around — it was nice," he said.

Coles wasn't the only RailCats player on his former field. Rookie outfielder Darryl "Boogie" Evans, a Merrillville High graduate who made the spring training roster through the open tryout, played for the Seminoles at Riverside.

Evans is trying hard to make the team, but it will be difficult since it would have to be as a fifth outfielder. He had two stolen bases on Thursday, though, so he's giving it the old college try.

The game was definitely a good call by Coles and RailCats general manager Kevin Spudic. It wasn't a big crowd if it was held at U.S. Steel Yard, but at Riverside it was perfect for the atmosphere.

It was professional baseball with a Little League type of feel. Instead of a clubhouse, players and coaches had to leave the dugouts to go to the bathroom in the concession building — it was funny seeing Tagert run there in the middle of the fifth inning.

And instead of kids getting ice cream afterward, the postgame meal of pizza provided by a local establishment was shared by both the RailCats and Thunderbolts at picnic tables just to the left of the stands behind home plate.

It made for a long day for the players — the RailCats did their pregame preparation at the Steel Yard starting at 1 p.m. — but it was definitely worth it if you asked the coaches and players.