One component of a successful minor league experience is ensuring that the organization is tied into the local community, and that the stadium experience is a microcosm of that community.
In Central Illinois, an area known for its agriculture, and especially its corn production, a new team has emerged in the Frontier League. They are called the Normal CornBelters and they play their home games in The Corn Crib. Their mascot is an ear of corn, and his name is Corny. Well, they definitely have their theme down.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
It was pretty much a no-brainer that I had to try the corn on the cob, and my expectations were high. Unfortunately, I found it to be ordinary, or slightly less than the average corn that I would find at the grocery store. At $3 it's probably worth trying as part of the experience, but lower your expectations going in.
I would recommend the pulled pork sandwich served on a pretzel roll for $4.50, it won't knock your socks off either, but it is tasty, and affordable.
Pepsi products are available with a souvenir cup size going for $4, pretty standard price at most minor league ballparks in the region. Beer selection includes Budweiser and Bud Light on draft. If you want an import you may go for the 12 ounce Corona, which will cost you $6.50.
There is something energetic about being in a park during its inaugural season. The fans are excited, and the staff is generally friendlier it seems. When I approached the stadium an hour or so before the game, the scoreboard was showing the White Sox & Twins game, and piping in the play-by-play. This really set the tone that the stadium and fans were serious about their baseball.
Some of that baseball zest is diminished when you look on to the field and see that they have chosen field turf for their surface. Especially in the middle of an agricultural community, you would expect them to be able to grow a field of grass. I know that it is more economical, and everything I have heard is that the players like playing on it, but for a fan, it just removes some of the natural beauty of the game. At least the warning track is made of dirt, which certainly makes more sense than the brown turf I have seen at other parks with a similar surface.
When you reach your seat you will find ample legroom, but no cup holder to place your drink. This should be re-considered, as a fan with a beverage in his hand has much less capacity to generate noise, and help the home team.
When choosing your seat, try to get a spot within the dugouts to ensure yourself a seat with a back. The outside sections (101-102 & 116-117) are metal bleachers, much less comfortable than a chair with a back.
Within a couple of miles of the Corn Crib you will find the main downtown area of Normal, Illinois. It's a college town, home to Illinois State University, and as such you can find plenty of bars and restaurants along the main drag of College Avenue.
I stopped in at The Pub II, a bar with a youthful crowd, and everything you would need to have a good time before or after a game. The bar has three giant tv's, with 10 or so additional televisions scattered throughout the place. There are 10 beers on tap with another 30 available by the bottle. The food available is pretty standard with reasonable prices- burgers, sandwiches, and plenty of fried foods. Pub II was named as one of Playboy magazine's Top 100 College Bars, and has darts, pool table, and video games available for entertainment. There's also a parking lot to make things easier, and they were blasting the A/C on this particular hot day, which was a nice relief.
For a slightly less amped up atmosphere you may try Maggie Miley's Irish Pub. No surprises here, think of an image of an Irish pub, and the food they offer, and you will likely get an accurate picture of this place. That doesn't mean it's bad, just predictable.
I was really impressed with the fans at this game. It was clear that in the team's first year, there were already some die-hards developing. This is a very promising sign for the new franchise.
Beyond this vocal minority, the remaining fans also were following the action, and I could hear several conversations centered around the game, or baseball in general. The stadium wasn't packed with fans, but even on this extremely hot day, they came out in decent numbers intent on watching their team.
The Corn Crib boasts that they have the "World's Greatest Restroom." While I can't personally give you a rating, as it happens to be the women's restroom, I can tell you that all accounts are that it may be the best restroom in baseball. Lines didn't seem to be an issue for this or the men's room (which by the way was ordinary, but clean). For a first hand account of the World's Greatest claim, you can visit this blog entry from CornBeltBaseball.com .
Parking will cost you $2, a reasonable sum compared to many other parks, and there aren't any really city street options, so it really is your only choice. It was easy to get in and out of the park without any trouble.
I thought that the entire experience was worth the price of admission. Food, parking and seats seem just about right price point.
One extra point for the enthusiasm and friendliness of all of the staff that I encountered, with a special mention going out to Garry Griffith, the play-by-play announcer for the CornBelters on 95.9 FM, WEZC, and WJBC online. Garry welcomed me into the broadcast booth for a unique look at the field, and I must say that the organization is fortunate to have a seasoned professional like Garry in their booth.
An additional extra point for the emphasis on the community, and a theme that stays true to the region that you're visiting. The Corn Crib is exactly what it should be, a tribute of sorts to the hard working farmers of the area.
The experience of attending a game at the Corn Crib was above average compared to my travels to minor league parks, but not exceptional. I would certainly recommend attending a game in Normal. You won't be disappointed.
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