Prairie Gravel (Ill.) earned a following in the National Baseball Congress World Series with friendly players who came back year after year and regarded Wichita as a vacation spot.
Many of the players were ex-pros, old enough to enjoy an adult beverage, which made them different from the college-age rosters predominant in the NBC. Gravel hit home runs, won games and became an NBC institution during a run that started in 1997 and included two third-place finishes and the 2005 championship.
“The people in Wichita were great to our teams,” owner Al Oremus said. “We had guys with beer guts playing. We had guys that go out and have a beer in the parking lot with the crowd that hangs out behind home plate.”
Gravel, absent since 2006, is back, although not in the form fans remember. No beer allowed.
Oremus and manager Sam Sorce will play in the NBC with a roster filled with high school athletes, most from Illinois and Indiana, and perhaps one or two ex-pros. Oremus is thinking more about curfews at the Hyatt Regency Wichita and social media than hanging out with fans at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Sorce has already told them about the 20- and 90-second clocks that govern play at the NBC.
“We’ve got a lot of kids who think they’re matinee idols,” Oremus said. “They’re probably on Twitter right now with some girls from Wichita trying to figure out how they can get support.”
Gravel, which will play on either Aug. 1 or Aug. 2, won the 2005 title by winning three games on the final day of a rain-plagued tournament. It defeated Santa Barbara (Calif.) twice to win nine straight elimination games after losing its opener to Nevada (Mo.) 10 days earlier. Manager Ron Biga gave a pregame speech that went: “It’s raining, and you’ve got to be here. Score runs.”
“The same guy (Alex Silversmith) caught all three games,” Oremus said. “We had guys that kept going back because they enjoyed the Wichita experience. We had accountants who took vacation to play with us.”
Gravel went 2-2 in 2006. By that time, Oremus could see the end. When he started, college players went to the Cape Cod League, the Jayhawk League, Alaska and an Illinois league. When others, such as the Northwoods, popped up, it drained his supply of athletes. Growing Independent leagues made it hard to find ex-pros.
“It’s so hard to run a collegiate team in Chicago because there just aren’t a lot of people who play,” he said. “We came back in 2006. We shouldn’t have.”
Oremus focused his attention and money on an elite youth traveling team, in part so he could watch his son, Jack, a third baseman. The players are now in high school, most rising seniors preparing for college, and ready for NBC competition. This month, they played in a tournament in Georgia and opened play in a tournament in Joplin, Mo., on Wednesday.
“We wanted to give these kids the NBC experience,” said Sorce, who played for Gravel in the NBC. “If we win it, it will be a frickin’ shocker. I think we can win three or four games, which would be pretty good for these kids.”
Gravel will lean on its pitching staff to make up for its youth in the NBC. No. 1 starter Grant Sloan is committed to Virginia. Cole Bellair is considering Miami (Fla.), Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Connor Manous, a junior-to-be, is committed to Miami (Fla.). Catcher Jesse Wilkening hits cleanup and is committed to Nebraska.
“I know what it takes to win in Wichita,” Oremus said. “If you pitch and play small ball and execute, you can win.”
Oremus isn’t sure if Gravel will return in future seasons, so he wants to make the most out of this trip. He hopes to sell Gravel T-shirts and reconnect with fans who remember the old days.
“We’ve been away for a long time,” he said. “We’ve got to do something to get people back on our side of the field. I just hope we play well.”