Analysis: Founding group's original goals for college-level, summer wood-bat baseball seem solidly met through first 18 seasons
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Nineteen years ago, a group of Chillicothe businessmen, professionals, civic officials, and representatives of other interests were exploring injecting the local summertime with some additional “spice” which would blend sports and entertainment in a manner not seen here before.
By late fall, Grand River Entertainment had been formed as a not-for-profit corporation and, in November 2001, GRE announced its initial “endeavor ” – a wood-bat baseball team eventually christened the Chillicothe Mudcats. According to the“mission statement” for the team, its aim would be to “provide affordable family entertainment through the traditional game of baseball to Chillicothe, Livingston County, Missouri, and the surrounding area.”
Comprised of players from college programs across the county and supplemented at times with some talented local players and competing in the MINK League against teams from other Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska locales, some two decades later, this COVID-19 pandemic-triggered unusually-quiet local summer provides an unplanned opportunity for reflection on how well the project’s “mission” has been executed.
On balance, it would seem, objectively assigning the effort high marks, particularly for its core objectives, seems most-warranted.
Even if there have been what some might view as occasional missteps, they seem to have been few and far between and mostly peripheral and, beyond the playing field, ancillary, promotional benefit for the community, its people and its commerce, surely has been accrued.
Through the team’s very existence and the use of local families as hosts for the players, the geographically-disparate make-up of the player roster and the locations to which the team has traveled to compete have increased cultural diversity and served as a promotional and tourism tool for the rural city.
Non-resident Mudcats players and coaches and players’ families and opposing players, coaches, players’ families, and fans of those opponents have visited and/or heard and read of Chillicothe, have mingled with its residents, purchased good and services with a wide variety of local businesses, and, to varying degrees, over the years shared their experiences and perceptions of the town with others in locations across the country and even beyond its borders.
Through their first 18 seasons of play, the Mudcats have had players and coaches from 40 states from shore to shore and border to border, as well as a handful of foreign countries, including Australia, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. And that breadth of exposure doesn’t reflect the far-greater number of locations from which opposing teams and players who have been to Chillicothe to play hail from.
Additionally, the town and team gained awareness in other locales around the U.S. when Mudcats clubs earned the right to participate in the National Baseball Congress World Series at Wichita, Kan., in 2006, 2009, and 2010.
Players who have worn the Mudcats uniform have gone on to become coaches themselves and directed players back here. Former Chillicothe coaches, as their careers have taken them from school to school, have “spread the gospel” of the Mudcats, too. College coaches who dispatched players from their programs here received sufficiently-positive feedback that many continued to funnel more talent here for multiple years. Likewise, players have shared their positive experiences here with younger college teammates, helping influence some of them to come to Chillicothe for their own summer or two of play in the maroon and black.
While those collateral benefits for the team and community have been gained, GRE’s on-field core aims for Mudcats baseball have been successfully attained even more demonstrably. Right from the very beginning.
On June 1, 2002 – 19 years ago Monday, in a foreshadowing of what would be long-term competitive success, they won the inaugural game in their existence, 5-3 over the Nevada (Mo.) Griffons, at refurbished “June” Shaffer Memorial Park stadium in east Chillicothe. That first team, under the coaching leadership of its aptly-named original head coach, Shad Fish, would post a winning overall record (21-20).
That set a template which, aside from a 2018 “blip on the screen,” has been followed every summer. Through 18 seasons of play, the Mudcats have finished with a winning 16 times and a break-even mark one other year, concluding play only one time below .500.
As for entertainment value for the home fans, beyond the on-field success (the Mudcats’ all-time winning percentage in home games at both “June” Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium and Trenton’s Burleigh Grimes Field is .644, substantially above the more-than-respectable overall .581 winning percentage) that makes sports fun, observing high-level talent in action, periodic, extensive improvements to the Shaffer Park facility through the years, and development and refinement of off-field participatory activities have enhanced the fan experience.
While not necessarily a common occurrence, fans attending Mudcats games have had many opportunities to see emerging playing talent which reached the most-elite professional level. Two players who wore the Mudcats colors – catcher Caleb Joseph and pitcher Mike Mariot – eventually reached the major leagues and multiple members of fellow MINK League teams who also have gone on to the majors – including several still active and even starring last year – have performed in front of Shaffer Park Stadium crowds over the past two decades.
The quality of the competition, which probably approximates low minor-league caliber, but not up to major-college or higher-minors proficiency levels, has combined with the efforts to provide enhanced fan enjoyment to generate consistently-solid home-game attendance levels, considering the team’s market size.
For most years of the Mudcats’ existence, Chillicothe – with its official population of just above or below 9,000 people – has been among the smallest towns to host a MINK League team, yet always has held its own, in terms of per-capita turnout averages. In most cases, the Mudcats out-perform fellow league members – many from towns of far-greater population – in that statistic and sometimes even in “raw” (actual) attendance totals.
Despite the size of its market, the team’s 19 years of existence – with seemingly-solid prospects for continuing well into the foreseeable future – contrasts with the “shelf life” of many of the teams/organizations against which the Mudcats have played. The MINK League has seen fully a dozen teams – some from metropolitan areas and the rest from towns larger than Chillicothe – enter and/or depart its ranks since 2002, leaving the Mudcats second in tenure to only charter member Clarinda.
Disappointingly, the pandemic-prompted pressing of the “pause” button in 2020 came as the team seemed poised for perhaps their most-exciting season in recent years as they appeared to be entering a new “era” which might lead to an even-deeper connection between the team and town.
Due to serve as head coach for a third year in 2020 – and now committed to being at the on-field helm for 2021 – was Caleb Bounds, a regional product (from Savannah) with the team continuously – as a player or coach – since 2015 and the club’s all-time leader in pitching victories (13).
A summer ago, on the heels of the club’s first-ever losing season in his debut as head coach, he reinvested in the team’s historically-successful offensive style of high-contact hitting, very aggressive baserunning, and solid pitching backed by dependable defense to produce a highly-pleasing 26-16 season highlighted by multiple team-record-breaking or -challenging individual and group performances. The 2019 squad qualified for the MINK League’s playoffs for the first time since 2010, placing a very strong second in the North Division race.
In formulating the roster for 2020, Bounds had utilized the positive relationships he had established with last year’s squad to induce many of them – potentially as many as nine of them – to come back to town this summer to try to build on last year’s success. On top of that, three Chillicotheans currently part of or signed to become part of college programs were to be on the roster.
With that, unfortunately, now relegated to the frustrating “what might have been” category by public health/safety concerns, the C-T occasionally will utilize the void that absence creates this summer to reflect on some of the many exciting and entertaining highlights Mudcats baseball has brought to local fans since 2002.
Specific players, games, and seasons, record-breaking performances, and more will be recounted, gaining new life and context through the lens of hindsight and subsequent events and offering a “performance review” of sorts the grand experiment Grand River Entertainment initiated long – and yet not so long – ago.