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300 Miles from glory: Bus rides, fast food and teaching the 'Cardinal way'

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By John Bailey By John Bailey

GENEVA, Il (Baseball StL) -- It is 4:50 p.m. on a warm Tuesday afternoon in May. In St. Louis, the Cardinals are preparing for their game with the New York Mets. Equipment managers lay out their uniforms and attend to their every need. In a few hours, 37,400 fans will fill Busch Stadium. Television cameras will record every pitch, reporters will document every play, and fans will parse every decision.

Not quite 300 miles to the north at Elfstrom Stadium in Geneva, Ill., the Cardinals Class A farm club, the Peoria Chiefs, are getting ready to take batting practice. In a few hours, about 2,500 people - mostly families and dozens of small children - will file in. A single radio announcer will broadcast the game to a sparse audience.

On the field are young men, mostly in the early 20s, their professional baseball careers just beginning. They are eager to learn, to advance, to realize a boy’s dream of playing in the major leagues.

Most of them will not make it; only about 1 in a 100 drafted players do. In fact, Chiefs coach Erik Pappas says his Google search revealed that since the beginning of organized professional baseball, only 14,000 men have played even a day in the major leagues.

The glory, the money, the fame lies 300 miles to the south. Here, in rural Kane County, it is a shadow just out of reach, the promise of whispered delight. They travel hours in buses, eat fast food, live together or with sponsoring families. And they play baseball, hours and hours a day in the hope, however remote, that one day, they will make it to the majors, the bigs, the show.

They earn next to nothing. To put it in perspective, the Cardinals’ Matt Holliday makes more in an hour than Class A players make in a month.

Dann Bilardello, Peoria Chiefs manager, acknowledges that for most of the young men on the field, the dream will die somewhere along the way. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t pursue it, because for every can’t-miss prospect, there’s someone who worked his way through the system against incredibly long odds and ran onto an immaculately manicured field as a major leaguer.

“Sometimes, you can tell right away that someone is going to make it,” Bilardello said from the Chiefs dugout as he watched the Kane County Cougars take batting practice. “When I was with the Dodgers, the first time I saw James Loney I knew he was a major leaguer. They just separate themselves from everyone else. You know immediately.”

The Chiefs’ coaches would know what talent looks like.

Bilardello was a first round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers and played professionally with the Cincinnati Reds, the Montreal Expos, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres. Following his playing career, he worked for the Dodgers, the Red Sox and now the Cardinals, since 2006.

His coaches, Pappas and pitching coach Jason Simontacchi, both played for the St. Louis Cardinals. Pappas was a first round pick of the California Angels in 1984 and Simontacchi was 11-5 on the division-winning Cardinals club in 2002.

If any of the three feel diminished by coaching in Class A ball, it is not evident. All three are engaging, energetic and involved, constantly coaching, constantly encouraging, constantly correcting.

“This sounds wrong,” Bilardello says, “but we WANT them to make mistakes. We want them to make them here so we can correct them. That’s why they’re here. They’re here to learn the game. Every mistake is a teaching moment.”

Why does he do this?  Why, after years in professional baseball does he travel on buses to distant sites, coaching young men who will likely never become major league baseball players?

Bilardello pauses. “I, we, do it because we enjoy the game of baseball and we enjoy helping kids become better players and better people. Not all of them are going to make it. But we can help them in their lives.” He is sincere. There is no advantage for him to be otherwise.

Some of his players have better attitudes than others, but for the most part, he says, they are all good kids.

“The Cardinals have done a good job of scouting and identifying not only ability, but character,” he says.

The Cougars have finished hitting and the Chiefs file onto the field. “Hey Dann!” yells Tom Beyers, the Cougars hitting coach. Bilardello waves.

“Believe it or not, I played Little League with him,” he says. “It’s a big game but a small world. Sooner or later, if you stay around long enough, you run into people you met along the way.”

The interview has ended. Bilardello has to pitch batting practice.

Next: Teaching “The Cardinal Way.”


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