NORMAL — Always striving to put a better team on the field, the Normal CornBelters have placed an added emphasis on improving the product off the field with the Frontier League season opener approaching Friday.
“We want to give people the best experience we possibly can,” team president Steve Malliet said. “The biggest thing we wanted to do is bring world class entertainment inside our ballpark.”
With that in mind, Normal hired Shari Williams as entertainment coordinator and Connor Howard as director of entertainment. Both have previous experience with minor or major league teams.
“Shari will be our entertainment guru. She will revamp and build what I think is going to be the best entertainment in the league,” said Malliet. “Connor is basically here to be Shari’s eyes and ears.
"We want to make sure people who come to the ballpark — whether we win or lose — are going to leave with a smile on their face.”
According to Malliet, fans should expect new and improved between-inning contests and additional entertainment options on the concourse that include a Kids Zone that has been moved to the first base side. The Kids Zone will have inflatable play areas, a speed pitch game and a putting challenge.
“There will be a lot more dancing in the ballpark, more video features, more fan cams, more atmosphere,” Malliet said. “I’ve got storerooms full of T-shirts. There will be a lot more wearables with our promotions.”
With safe passage free from foul balls in mind, the Belters have extended their concourse netting down the first and third base lines to remove the possibility of a ball sailing over the suites and hitting an unsuspecting patron.
While cars have been featured in the area beyond the right-field berm in the past, that sector will become a full-fledged outdoor showroom with automobiles placed by the O’Brien auto dealers.
“O’Brien will have a variety of models, 12 to 15 cars a night,” said Malliet. “They will have somebody out there answering questions.”
Concessions: Normal has adopted a concession model started by the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons that features lower prices with the hope of additional sales.
“We won’t have the profit margin teams generally make on concessions, but we want to draw twice as many people,” Malliet said. “People can come in here and get a better value than the drive-through down the street.”
Stands will offer $1 candy and peanuts with hot dogs, 16 ounce non-alcoholic drinks, pizza slices and popcorn for $2.
A concession area near the Kids Zone will serve ice cream, slushies, candy and pizza. The main stand behind home plate will serve fewer items than in the past with an emphasis on speed and freshness.
“We want to make sure the food is good and the lines move as well,” said Malliet. “We want to crank it out quickly and give great customer service.”
For those seeking a more substantial meal, the third base line concession stand will again feature beef brisket and pulled pork sandwiches and pulled pork nachos.
Those wanting an alcoholic beverage will find the Destihl kiosk moved to the area behind home plate with a new beer garden motif. Plus, a new sit-down bar is under construction behind home plate facing the action on the field that will serve cocktails.
New outfield wall: Left field at the Corn Crib has a new 8-foot wall that is twice as high as the fencing that had been in place since the stadium’s opening.
That means less outfielders tumbling over the fence and less ground-rule doubles bouncing over the barrier.
“We saw that as a huge safety risk,” said Malliet, who hopes to extend the higher wall to the right-field side in future seasons. “Also, it will put the triple back in play on balls hit in the gap.”
Later starting times: The team has pushed the first pitch of games back from 6:35 to 7:05 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday and from 4:35 to 6:05 p.m. on Sundays.
“We did notice our crowd was very late arriving. There was a dramatic difference between a half-hour before the game and the second inning,” Malliet said. “That extra time is for our fans to relax and not have a hurried experience trying to get here.”
Opening weekend: Friday’s regular-season opener will feature postgame fireworks.
Saturday is Star Wars Night with characters from the popular movies on hand. There will be a postgame jersey auction. For Mother’s Day on Sunday, mothers will be admitted free.
Canseco, Legends Game: Former major league slugger Jose Canseco will play for the CornBelters during a weekend series June 29-30 and July 1.
“It’s about having fun and giving your fans something unique to see,” said Malliet. “He is an extremely strong man. He can hit the ball a country mile. We will open the gates early for batting practice.”
The Legends Game on Aug. 4 will feature former St. Louis Cardinals Ray Lankford, Jim Edmonds and Fernando Tatis and ex-Chicago Cubs Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Kyle Farnsworth.