NORMAL — The Normal CornBelters are going to college.
A shift from the independent professional Frontier League to the summer collegiate wood bat Prospect League became official Monday at the Corn Crib as a new trio of owners took control of the Normal franchise.
“Being here for 10 years, it was very important for us and our group we have a group in here that could carry the next 10, 15, 20 years and really build on what has been done here,” said former co-owner and team president Steve Malliet.
“We believe this group is an ideal fit for that. We know we have the right group moving forward for Bloomington-Normal.”
Normal spent the past nine seasons in the Frontier League, but declining revenue and attendance led the ownership group of approximately 20 local business people to look elsewhere.
Enter new owners with already established Prospect League ties. Hannibal (Mo.) owner Rick DeStefane, Quincy owner Jimmie Louthan and Hannibal general manager Matt Stembridge have purchased the team and the Corn Crib.
“This is a really unique thing. It just kind of fell out of the sky on us,” Stembridge said. “We did a lot of due diligence and became more and more comfortable the more we dug into it. This stadium is a perfect fit.”
Stembridge declined to reveal the purchase price. Malliet, who will stay on to run the day-to-day operations of the team but no longer has an ownership stake, indicated his ownership group had been eyeing the Prospect League for over a year.
“It’s looking at the future and saying can we be competitive in our current situation,” said Malliet. “It was going to be difficult for us to do that so there had to be changes. We all acknowledged that.
"We felt we needed people to understand that model to carry it forward. In our minds, this was the best group of any we talked with by far.”
The Prospect League is made up of college eligible players under scholarship. The Frontier League paid players with a season salary cap of $75,000 and allowed those up to 27 years of age to participate.
“The facility here is second to none,” commissioner Dennis Bastien said. “I believe most fans will see no difference in player talent or on-field play.”
Normal pushes Prospect League membership to 11 teams for the 2019 season. Bastien said a 12th team will be revealed soon.
“I am working with seven or eight other markets, and it has been my goal to be at 16 teams by 2020,” said Bastien. “When and if that happens, we will go to two eight-team divisions. That way you have a true all-star game, you have true playoffs and you won’t play out of division, which cuts travel costs a lot.”
Prospect League teams play a 60-game schedule as opposed to the 96-game Frontier League slate. The 2018 Prospect League regular season began May 30 with the final playoff game on Aug. 11.
Normal appears to fit nicely in a West Division with Danville, Quincy, Springfield, Terre Haute, Ind., and Hannibal. Other league teams are located in Lafayette, Ind.; Springfield, Ohio; Chillicothe, Ohio; Beckley, W.Va.; and an expansion entry in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
“We have had a tremendous amount of growth in terms of reputation and elevation of the league over the last two years,” Bastien said. “You are dealing with some very good people here. Matt came in and turned Hannibal around. It was, too put it politely, a mess.”
DeStefane is a businessman with an emphasis on health care. “I have about 4,000 employees in eight industries, one of them is baseball,” he said. “We’re here long term. We will do whatever it takes from a personnel point of view to make it work.
"The plan is to have baseball, special events and entertainment here for 40 years.”
Louthan took ownership of the Quincy Gems in 2015. He and his wife, Julie, own JJ’s Catering and Café J in Quincy. The other owners look to Louthan to bring his food and beverage expertise to the CornBelters. He was unable to attend Monday because of a death in the family.
The new Normal ownership will continue to lease the land from Heartland Community College.
“Working with Matt and Jimmie and Rick has been fantastic,” said Heartland president Keith Cornille. “We’ve had really frank and open conversations about how we would work together and how we can actually grow the Corn Crib as a destination point for the community. That’s important for all of us.”
Stembridge said a field manager has been hired, but declined to reveal the choice, calling him “a former major league player with resources across the country.”
Along with Malliet, business manager Deana Roberts will also remain with the team through the ownership transition.