“It’s a new look, new feel, and a new era” for RiverHawks baseball, says Bryan Wickline, general manager. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)
The crack of the bat. The plush green grass. The breeze of a warm summer evening. The scent of hot dogs and hamburgers wafting through the air. Another baseball season has arrived, with many exciting changes.
The first thing you notice when Bryan Wickline offers a firm, sweeping handshake is the oversized ring that adorns his right hand. It’s not just any ring. It’s a memento he received two years ago as vice president/general manager of the Chillicothe Paints, a collegiate wood bat league team, which won the Prospect League championship. “It took us a long time to win one of these,” he says.
A native of Chillicothe, Ohio, Wickline grew up around baseball. As a youngster, he played catch with his father and younger brother in the backyard, and faithfully attended Cincinnati Reds games with his family, where he watched favorite players, like Dave Concepcion, lead the Big Red Machine. Wickline was a decent player in his own right. He played college baseball at Ohio University in Chillicothe, a town of 23,000. “Baseball is in my blood,” he says.
And it remains so today. Last fall, Wickline moved to Rockford as team president of the RiverHawks, a professional minor league team that plays in the independent Frontier League, some 8.5 hours away from his hometown. Wickline still serves as president of the Prospect League, as well as vice president/general manager of the Chillicothe team, returning to Ohio about once or twice a month. Despite the distance between the two organizations, he and the rest of the ownership group are hoping to bring the same passion, energy and success to Rockford baseball that’s worked in Chillicothe all these years. “It’s a new look, new feel, and a new era,” he says. “The atmosphere at RiverHawks’ games will be fresh and fun.”
When the RiverHawks begin the 2012 season, they’ll do so with a new slogan – “It’s More Than Baseball” – as well as a new logo, uniforms, website, and even a new attitude. About the only thing that stays the same is the team’s RiverHawks name, which was nearly ditched, too, before team officials decided it had just been around too long to scrap.
“This is more than baseball,” Wickline says. “It’s about the experience, from the promotions to the concessions, website and logo, RiverHawks baseball is new. Fans don’t remember the final score of most games, but they remember whether they had a good time.”
The RiverHawks are owned by Rock River Valley Baseball L.L.C., the ownership group that operated the Chillicothe (Ohio) Paints, a former Frontier League team that ceased operation in 2008 and shared the same name as the Paints of the Prospect League. Rock River Valley Baseball moved that Frontier League membership to Rockford at the start of the 2011 season, replacing the former RiverHawks team that played in the Northern League for one season. The RiverHawks previously played in the Frontier League from 2002-2009. “We’re a tight-knit ownership group that does whatever it takes to get the job done,” Wickline says. “We saw this as an opportunity and a challenge.”
Following the 2011 season, Wickline and the rest of the front office wasted little time in reaching out to the local business community. For example, they recruited Best Western Clock Tower Resort to be the team’s new host hotel. They reached an agreement with Maverick Media to broadcast all games on 100.5 NTA FM. “That’s huge for us,” Wickline says. “It’s hard to get games on FM radio. That helps us to build brand awareness.” The organization is working to find a naming rights sponsor for the stadium, after its relationship with former sponsor Road Ranger ended last year after five seasons.
Wickline joined several business organizations, including the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Ignite and Next Rockford. “I believe if we support the community, the community will support the RiverHawks,” he says.
The RiverHawks are making significant improvements to the stadium, as well. New this year is the addition of awnings in the concourse, which will offer fans shelter during rain delays and make their experience more comfortable. Currently, the stadium hosts about 300 baseball games, including 48 RiverHawks home games, as well as college and high school games. Following the upcoming season, the team will install artificial turf, which could attract additional activities such as softball, soccer, football and even concerts. “That opens up the potential for a whole new group of fans,” Wickline says. “We have a great location and visibility along I-90. I want the stadium to be a community-used facility as much as possible.”
Fans also will notice a change in ticket prices this season. The most expensive single-game ticket will be $10. Adult 10-game plans start at $63. The Kid’s Club costs $20 and includes tickets to 10 games, a membership T-shirt and other benefits. Military, senior and child tickets will be discounted. “We want to make it affordable for people to come out,” Wickline says. “We want our games to feel like they have value.”
This year, the team has ramped up its promotional schedule, including Military Night, 50 Cent Hot Dog Night and more postgame fireworks. Every time a RiverHawks player hits a home run, one lucky fan will win $50. If he hits a grand slam, the fan will collect $500. Improving food quality also ranks high on Wickline’s list of priorities. “I want to make the games fan-friendly,” he says. “It will be successful when fans come out and they’re not bored. If I can get them through the gates, they’re going to want to come back. These are not fans. They’re our guests. We have to treat them like they just walked into our house.”
The team’s new logo is brighter, thanks to the addition of orange to complement navy and Columbia blues. Even Rocko, the team’s mascot, will receive a complete makeover. Like the Rockford IceHogs hockey club, the RiverHawks are focused on reaching young fans and families. The organization now offers inexpensive baseball instruction and has formed traveling youth Junior RiverHawks teams.
“We’ve made so many positive changes,” says manager Rich Austin. “We’ve been active in the community, supporting local events and speaking to area students. We love the community support, but we want to support the community, as well. It’s a two-way street. We want to be one big family.”
On the diamond, the RiverHawks look to field a competitive team in a league where the age limit for players is 27. Many Frontier League players have been affiliated with a major league team at some point during their careers. “They were released and came here to work on their curveball, or maybe they have a hitch in their swing,” Wickline says. “They’re guys who are hungry and want to get back to where they once were.”
In three years as a RiverHawks player, Austin set two career and six single-season records. A fan favorite, he returns to the dugout for a second season as the team’s manager, sharing Wickline’s vision for bringing passion back to local baseball. “I love it here,” Austin says. “My main goal is to bring a championship back to Rockford. It was a great time when we won it all in 2004. We’re going to have a good product on the field. We’ll be a team our fans can be proud of and can get behind.”
The crack of the bat. The plush green grass. The breeze of a warm summer evening. The scent of hot dogs and hamburgers wafting through the air. Another baseball season has arrived, but with a different feel. Rockford’s boys of summer are back. ❚