Formerly known as the RiverHawks, Rockford’s minor-league baseball team is enjoying a new identity and and an exciting new season.
Matt Morgan, president of Pearson Heating and Plumbing Co., had gotten away from attending professional baseball games in Rockford the past few years. “I used to go to many games,” he says. “But lately, there was no buzz or talk around town about the team.”
Bryan Wickline is trying to change that. Since the end of last season, Wickline, president of the Rockford professional team, has been working overtime to revamp the team’s image. Formerly known as the RiverHawks, Rockford’s team has a new name, Aviators, and there’s a new feel around Aviators Stadium.
No one is more excited than Morgan, whose company stepped up to become the presenting sponsor of Aviators baseball this year. Pearson will receive plenty of visibility around the park, as well as eight corporate season tickets.
“After talking to Bryan, you can’t help but become excited,” he says. “Rebranding the team was clever. Bryan is a passionate and aggressive guy, whose team is going into a critical year. What better year to partner with Aviators baseball than this year?
“Bryan and the owners moved their team to Rockford and brought something positive to town,” he says. “Rockford owes it to the organization to come out for at least one game this season. The Aviators have put together a great entertainment package for fans.”
Prior to the start of the season, team officials held a name-the-team contest, which resulted in more than 3,000 entries. Many fans took the time to handwrite letters, explaining why their suggested name should be chosen.
“It was really impressive and showed that people truly care,” says Wickline, who’s starting his third season in Rockford. “We felt Aviators was a natural connection to the region’s rich aviation history, starting with pioneers Col. Bert Hassell and Bessica Raiche. We hit a home run with this.”
The name change has been well received; in fact, the Aviators have fielded calls from people all across the country looking to purchase hats and jerseys bearing the new logo.
“There is such a huge upside of where we’re at and where we’re going,” Wickline says. “The name change was the best thing we’ve done. It was time to put our own stamp on what we’re trying to do here. Nine out of 10 people don’t remember the final score by the time they get to their car, but they remember if they had a good time. That’s what we’re trying to build here.”
This year, the Aviators have ramped up their promotional schedule, including fireworks every Friday night and giveaways every Saturday night. Other special nights include military, senior citizen, faith, 50-cent hot dogs, dollar beer and more family activities on Sundays, when kids can play catch on the field with mom and dad.
On July 4, the Aviators have an afternoon home game, in plenty of time for fans to head downtown for Rockford’s fireworks show. On July 28, the team will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Rockford Peaches and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
“I want to make the games fan-friendly,” says Wickline. “If I can get people through the gates, they’re going to want to come back. They’re our guests and we have to treat them like they just walked into our house.”
There are upgrades to the Aviators’ home park as well. Among the most significant is a new shelter area in the left field corner of the stadium that includes picnic tables and can hold up to 500 fans for corporate and special events. The chain link outfield wall has been replaced with a new plywood fence, and the name Aviators is visible on the arch in the entryway of the stadium. “This is more than just a new coat of paint,” Morgan says. “The team took the wheels off and redid the whole thing.”
During the season, the Aviators have 21 high school baseball games, plus a tournament scheduled in August. “This is a pretty cool place to play when you’re a high school player,” Wickline says. “We’re supposed to be the big brother of baseball in this community. We’ll do whatever we can to further the interest in local baseball.”
There are other happenings at Aviators Stadium besides pro baseball. On June 22, there was be an all-day blues festival featuring six acts. In August, the stadium will host a wrestling event.
Future plans include installing artificial turf at Aviators Stadium, which could attract other sports, including lacrosse, softball and flag football. “Turf will make it a true multi-sports field,” Wickline says. “This is going to be a sports destination for a long time.”
The organization is spreading the word about Aviators baseball by visiting local schools, community groups and businesses. Rocko, the team’s mascot, is back with a new pilot look, complete with goggles, scarf and boots. The Aviators’ colors remain the same: navy and orange with accents of Columbia blue.
On the field, the Aviators play a 96-game schedule in the 14-team Frontier League.
The Aviators hope to rebound from a difficult season last year, in a league where the age limit for players is 27. To that end, on June 10, the team welcomed James Frisbie as new manager. The Kent, Wash. native played ball four seasons before starting his coaching career 12 years ago. In 2007 he managed the South Carolina League’s Bradenton Juice to a 47-42 record, an impressive feat considering the Juice had no home stadium that season. He then spent three seasons with the American Association’s Fort Worth Cats as the pitching coach. While in Fort Worth, he became familiar with current Rockford coaches Pat O’Sullivan and Dan Grybash, who were players for the Cats.
“When the opportunity to work with this ownership group was presented, I couldn’t turn it down,” says Frisbie.
Nearly half of last year’s team is back this season. “Whether you finish first or last, these guys get looked at by major league affiliates,” says Wickline. “It’s all about connections in this league. That’s how you get players to move on to the next level.”
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.” Four players from last season’s team have signed contracts with teams affiliated with Major League Baseball.
Randa Noble and her family have hosted the team’s players for the past 10 seasons. Each year, one or two out-of-town players stays with the Noble family during the baseball season.
“We’re thrilled to open our home and provide a place to relax for these young men who are pursuing their dreams,” Noble says. “They’ve become part of our family.”
So much so, in fact, that the Nobles stay in touch with many of the 30 players they’ve hosted. They’ve even attended some of their weddings. In return for their hospitality, the Noble family receives season tickets to home games. Noble estimates that she gets to at least 90 percent of the games.
“For families, it’s one of the best values that money can buy,” she says. “I would encourage anyone to get out and catch a game. It’s a great time.”