NORMAL — As Santiago Chirino took the Corn Crib field for the final time Sunday during pregame introductions, instead of following, his Normal teammates stood outside the dugout and applauded.
The CornBelters had been following Chirino's lead for years. Sunday was a day to pay tribute.
"Chi Chi" edged Windy City's Omar Obregon, .367 to .366.
"Back to back winning the batting title is something exciting and we won," said Chirino after Chris Iriart's broken-bat single drove home Cam Adams in the 13th inning for an 8-7 victory over Evansville. "I was bored in the dugout."
Frontier League age restrictions mandate Chirino has played his final game in the circuit. The 27-year-old Venezuelan bids farewell as the league's all-time hits leader with 725 and a career batting average of .327.
Chirino won the 2017 batting crown by 13 points with a .357 mark. He holds Normal franchise records of 560 games played and 331 runs scored and is a four-time all-star.
"I feel proud. A lot of people in this town love me as a baseball player," Chirino said. "I was born to play baseball. The fans make me a better player."
Belters also won the other two Triple Crown categories. Andrew Godbold recorded a league-high 79 RBIs, while Iriart's 25 home runs also showed the way.
Iriart's game-winning hit put a positive finish on a Normal season that ended at 48-47. The Belters led the West Division in early August but won just six of their next 21 games before Sunday.
"It (the pitch) blew me up and it fell in. You got to love baseball. I got lucky," said Iriart. "This is a great way to end the season playing extras. We got it done. That's all that matters."
Evansville (51-45) earned a wild card playoff berth and continues its season next week.
What about next year? As the CornBelters closed their ninth Frontier League season Sunday, team president Steve Malliet sees his franchise in much the same position it was a year ago.
In other words, the Belters may have played their final Frontier League game.
"Just like last year, we always take a look at our options at the end of the year to see what we think is best for the organization moving forward," Malliet said.
Malliet said Normal is considering a move from independent professional baseball to a summer collegiate league.
The Belters had discussions with the Northwoods League and the Prospect League in 2017 before deciding to return to the Frontier League. The same options are being pondered again, according to Malliet.
"We have a person who is kind of working through that right now," Malliet said of his ownership group. "I don't know if they are both possibilities, but they could be. I would think they would be."
Of remaining in the Frontier League, Malliet said, "I think there's a chance. We have a couple weeks to decide. I'm sure after the season is over we'll take another look and see what everybody thinks."
Normal manager Billy Horn would like to return to the Belters but only if the team remains in the professional ranks.
"I want to thank this city and this organization for giving me a chance to manage my first professional season," Horn said. "I had a blast, made a lot of friends and a lot of memories. If I'm asked to come back, I would love to come back."