Southern Illinois city lands a professional team at last

Thursday, August 3, 2006

The Frontier League will put a team in Marion for the 2007 season.

ST. LOUIS -- For months, bulldozers cleared land to make way for John Simmons' dream -- a sparkling new ballpark in the southern Illinois city of Marion, never mind that the wealthy attorney hadn't lined up a team to play in it.

Simmons doesn't have to fret about that detail anymore.

On Wednesday, Simmons' development group announced it is joining the independent Frontier League in time for next season, adding an expansion team next spring.

Getting to that point wasn't easy for Simmons, whose quest for Class A's South Bend Silver Hawks -- a team he wanted to move from Indiana -- snagged when the Midwest League signed off on his plan to buy the club but refused to let him move it. Thinking any move would be years off, Simmons let an investor group led by former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan snatch up the Silver Hawks.

This week, Simmons' group accepted an invitation to join the Frontier League, whose existing teams already had unanimously endorsed the expansion.

"There have been some speed bumps," said Michael Thiessen, a Chicago-based spokesman for Simmons' group. "If the journey was easy, it would be no fun."

Simmons was in London on business Wednesday and was unavailable for comment, Thiessen said.

As chief of the Troy, Ill.-based Frontier League, Bill Lee long has believed a Marion team would be a perfect geographical fit for his 10-team mix of three clubs in Illinois, one in suburban St. Louis and others in five other states.

"Whenever we get a club and a new facility, I'm like a father who's proud to have a new baby," Lee said Wednesday. "I love to see our league grow."

Thiessen said Simmons' group already had secured a loan covering most of the 4,000-seat venue's expected $13 million price tag -- an amount that will be offset a bit by revenue from a sales tax increase approved by Marion.

The cost of creating a Marion team was not immediately made public Wednesday.

Simmons' wife, Jayne, is to be the club's legal owner, Thiessen said.

Simmons already owns the South Atlantic League's Savannah (Ga.) Sand Gnats of Class A, but he made clear he had no plans to bring them to southern Illinois.

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