From a dusty baseball diamond in Rock Island, Ill. sprouted a group of baseball-loving no-namers -- men who would never have any business stepping foot on a professional baseball diamond to play ball in front of a supportive fan base on a warm September evening.
But that’s just what they did -- and under the lights, no less.
On Sept. 22, 2008, a simple sandlot baseball league dubbed Veto League Baseball -- a collection of the average -- took to the grandest stage it could imagine. On the Modern Woodmen Park soil, a contest that centered more on brotherhood-born-through-baseball than victory or defeat played out along the banks of the Mississippi River.
It was the culmination of a dream hatched four years prior in those very surroundings, albeit off the grass in the bleachers close by.
A sandlot-style night game.
In an odd time where America’s Pastime is clouded in shadow of suspicion, the VLB and its creator, Matt Veto, wanted to prove that the sandlot was still alive. To reward those dedicated to that cause with a night game was the main thought, and to have it take place on a Minor League field would truly slam the point home.
However, the absurd price tag that management wished to obtain for hosting the game at what was then a newly renovated John O’Donnell was too steep for the shallow pockets of a recreational baseball league that lives on donations.
Still, perhaps the first portion of that dream -- to play in the magical environment that is night baseball -- could still be accomplished.
Fellow baseball enthusiast and sports nut, Keith Kennett, an alderman in Geneseo, Ill., just a 20-minute drive from the Quad-Cities, offered his assistance in acquiring the town’s Richmond Hill Sports Complex for a date under the lights.
It happened for the first time in 2004. And it happened twice more.
But what about that grand stage that beckoned from the players’ backyards -- the stage that had seen Minor League careers advance to multi-million dollar Major League contracts?
With new ownership and front office staff in charge, a second attempt was made. The group that said it wished to “give the team back to the community” -- and made the first strides toward that by reverting to the “River Bandits” team name from the “Swing of the Quad Cities” -- was receptive to the request.
During the summer of 2008, Bandits general manager Kirk Goodman gave the green light and the VLB took the Modern Woodmen Park field.
The details of that day, even mere hours after the game, run together. But the smiles on the faces of the players and their fans have burned into memory. For the first time in many of these players’ modest baseball careers, their name was sent reverberating from the public address speakers.
They ran a little harder, laughed a little louder and had a little bit more fun that day. Four two hours, the average player was no longer relegated to the sandlot. This was something big. It was the fruits of shooting high -- of taking a simple league born on a dusty diamond and proving they could make it whatever they wanted.
For one day they had a name, and forever they have the memories.
The VLB expresses many thanks to those fans who came to watch the historic contest, and is especially thankful for generous donations of non-perishable food items to the River Bend Foodbank. All told, 323 pounds of food was collected and donated to the pantry.
The River Bend Foodbank distributes food to the Quad-Cities Area and 22 surrounding counties in Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois.
Many more thank yous.
From the players, to the players’ wives, family and friends, Veto League Baseball thanks you for making Sept. 22 a night to remember. Despite a rain-out one week prior, over 100 people regrouped and came to watch a sandlot baseball game at a Minor League Baseball field. Thank you to all of those that donated, purchased, prepared and distributed concession items. Thanks to those that helped distribute raffle tickets and collected and distributed prizes.
Thanks also to Steve Campbell for running the P.A. system, to Brian Nelson for singing a fantastic National Anthem, to John Marx for throwing out the first pitch and for a fine column in the Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. Thanks to River Bandits GM Kirk Goodman, to Bandits groundskeeper Ben Kratz, and to Bandits production manager Shane Huff for making this game possible. And thanks to our bat boys, Vincent and Joseph O’Meara for a job well done and for an unmatched seventh-inning entertainment.
And finally, thank you to our fans for the donations that allow this league to continue to operate for the average player who refuses to give up the game of baseball.
Talons 16, Meteors 8
Originally intended to play out as a possible Game 7 of the Veto League World Series, the 2008 Night Game turned out to be more of a VLB All-Star Showcase as Matt Veto’s Meteors took the Series in six games over Scott Ellefritz and the Swingers.
That didn’t stop Ellefritz from fielding a solid team and earning a 16-8 win.
In a late-season team-name change to appear more politically correct for the night-game audience, Ellefritz forwent the “Swingers” moniker -- a take off of the defunct “Swing of the Quad Cities” -- for a more palatable team name: “the Talons.”
In an ironic twist that was news to Ellefritz, the Talons was one of four proposed team names for the Minor League club that did not make the cut. That seemed fitting, as Ellefritz’s twice previous team name was the “River Bandits.”
Shining brightly in the contest -- outside of Jason Nunn rear-end that was exposed when his pants ripped on a slide to second -- was Night Game MVP Kelly Sullivan who scored two runs and drove in another on a 5-for-5 night.
The seventh inning, though, produced the loudest roar from the fans when young bat boy brothers Vincent O’Meara, 11, and Joseph O’Meara, 9, stepped to the plate for some mid-game entertainment.
Vincent led off with a hard smash to third that was fielded cleanly by Josh Paul, and with tremendous effort to hose the 11-year-old at first, threw to a covering Jason Nunn who mishandled the toss.
Then, Joseph unleashed an infield smash that was booted and thrown into right field allowing Vincent to score. As Joseph rounded third, Veto was unable to run him down, and the youngest O’Meara slid safely much to the pleasure of the 100-plus fans in on hand.
The Talons had seven players with three or more hits. Shawn Wynes added three RBI for the visitors. Anthony Reese also hit the longest drive, a towering shot that landed several feet beyond the left-field wall, but in foul territory.
The Meteors were held scoreless through four innings. Kiel Engstrom had the only three-hit effort for the hosts, though, Joe Campagna cleared the bases with a three-run double.
After the night game, season awards were presented:
Most Valuable Player -- Bob Zerull: .594 (2nd), 8 HR (1st), 41 RBI (T-2nd). Zerull also led the league with 18 doubles and 5 intentional walks.
Rookie of the Year -- Anthony Reese: .518, 3 HR (1st among rookies), 30 RBI (1st Among rookies). Reese also led all rookies with 10 doubles.
Gold Glove -- Kiel Engstrom: With a 15-game regular season effort, Engstrom takes home the fielding award, displaying a particular prowess in the outfield, but also chipping in at shortstop and pitcher during the All-Star Showcase.
Playoff MVP -- Bob Zerull: .696 (1st), 8 HR (1st), 30 RBI (1st).
Co-World Series MVPs -- Bob Zerull: .571 (1st), 2 HR, 9 RBI. Ryan Barton: .382, 3 HR (1st), 15 RBI (1st). Barton also led World Series contenders with 5 doubles and was tied for the lead with 4 wins.
Most Improved Player -- Howard Zimmerle: Cumulatively in 2006-07 (note, field trouble season of 2007), Zimmerle batted .226 in 8 games and had 8 RBI. In 2008, Zimmerle batted .452, scored 29 runs and drove in 21. He also added 4 doubles.