Bill Liesse: Minor-league ball with major appeal

Bill Liesse

They called this "The Road to Wrigley," but we were already at Wrigley.

The slogan was an obvious nod to the players.

More specifically, Chiefs players, seeing as they are part of the Cubs franchise and thus on the road to Wrigley.

I suppose some Kane County Cougars could be in Cubbie blue sometime soon, too, if Billy Beane and Jim Hendry get together on a trade as they did early this month when Hendry lifted Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin from Beane's Oakland A's (the Cougars' parent).

Three middling talents did the trick on that one, including a pair of fairly recent Chiefs, Sean Gallagher and Eric Patterson.

It is such ascension in the Cubs system that had Hendry and right-hand man Oneri Fleita talking about what an experience Tuesday's game at Wrigley was for the kids.

"Hopefully, this will give them a great taste of what this is all about," Fleita, the minor-league and scouting director, said of the low Class A players feeling the big time.

Ryne Sandberg and Cougars manager Aaron Nieckula both talked of what it means to the kids, and all that is great.

But this concept will be defined by those on the other side of the bricks.

And there were 32,103 of them.

Throw a Class A party at perhaps the most revered big-league venue of them all, pretty much fill the lower deck and bleachers, spill into the upper deck and you know what you've got?

Talk of an encore.

"I think this is something you're going to see year in and year out," said Pete Vonachen, the Chiefs patriarch and a man who knows a bit about baseball promotions that work.

The idea was on everyone's lips, but the Cubs' big brass was noncommital for now.

"We'll see how it goes," general manager Hendry said as he stopped by on a day the parent club was playing a huge game 90 minutes north in Milwaukee.

"We never gave it that kind of thought before. Our fans are so good. They want to see the next wave of our players."

That, or they want to see Wrigley for a fin. Box seats were $15 to this event, or about a nickel on the dollar of a Cubs game. Upper-deck seats could be had for $5.

"The Cubs wanted to keep it in line price-wise," said Chiefs president Rocky Vonachen, Pete's son.

"I think it's a combination of things," Hendry said. "Ryno is a special guy in our history, too."

Yes, the marquee name of the night belonged to Sandberg, whose road to Wrigley started in Spokane, Wash., and didn't stop until Cooperstown.

Ryno thought the minor-league prices helped the gate.

"There might be some people here who never had a chance to go to Wrigley Field," he said.

Rocky Vonachen talked of goals of 15,000 "snowballing ... OK, maybe 20 ... Hey, I think 25,000 ..."

But Sandberg has seen too much of the Cubs' appeal to let anything shock him.

"Anything the Cubs do, anything at Wrigley Field, anything with the Cubs logo," he said, not precisely finishing the thought. "I've been around long enough to not be surprised by any of it. Cubs fans are amazing.

"The fact we're talking 35,000 doesn't surprise me at all."

The Hall of Famer took no credit for the draw, but in Sandberg's two years in the MWL, he's been packing them into confines far less friendly than these.

Rocky Vonachen thinks Ryno helped this gate, but wouldn't be needed time after time.

"He helps it get started," Rocky said. "If people come out tonight and have a good time, maybe they will (come again).

"We'd definitely love to come back again."

Both Vonachens saw the Iowa Cubs as a natural fit, perhaps alternating Wrigley dates with the Chiefs. The Triple-A club is the only other nearby affiliate.

"Say if they brought Des Moines in against Memphis," Pete said, suggesting a Triple A version of Cubs-Cards.

The hardest part might not be convincing the Cubs to make it an annual affair. But rather to keep it innocent, as it was Tuesday with all the campy Chiefs promos. And cheap.

There was tiny evidence of the hand of the dreaded ticket brokers in this one. Seems they gobbled huge blocks of bleacher seats - the hardest to get for Cubs games - and turned relatively mild profits. I saw some for $29, some for $40.

Tell these slime that 35,000 want to do anything and they'll gobble every ticket they can and try to turn $10 into $100 just for butting in.

"I think we'll always keep it (inexpensive)," Rocky Vonachen said. "That's what minor-league ball is all about. To make (the tickets more) would ruin it."

Tell the brokers.

They had little problem helping ruin the Major League supply-and-demand curve at this ballyard.

Why else do you think there were 32,000 souls wanting to come out to see all these 20-year-olds they don't know?

Bill Liesse can be reached at (309) 686-3213 or