First season: 2002
Years in league: 2002-present
Ballpark: Marinelli Field 2002-05; RiverHawks Stadium 2006-present
Rockford has a long and storied history of professional baseball. The Rockford Forest Citys of 1871 were a charter member of the National Association, the very first professional baseball league. The city hosted teams in several different leagues until shortly after World War II. The most famous of these was the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, featured in the movie "A League Of Their Own". The Peaches' ballpark, Beyer Field, stood on Fifteenth Street just a couple of blocks east of Marinelli Field.
Pro ball returned to Rockford when the Midwest League's Rockford Expos moved into brand-new Marinelli Field in 1988. The Midwest League stayed in Rockford until the Reds moved to Dayton, OH in 2000, but the city wasn't without baseball for long. The Frontier League came to town in 2002 when a group of local businessmen purchased the Springfield Capitals franchise and moved it to Rockford.
The 2002 RiverHawks finished second in the West Division, missing a wild-card playoff spot by only one game. At the gate the RiverHawks drew over 86,000 fans, more than double the previous season's attendance in Springfield.
The 2003 RiverHawks again finished second in the West, led by pitcher Jason Shelley. Shelley was named Baseball America magazine's Independent League Player Of the Year despite being signed by the Milwaukee Brewers organization in late July. All he did for the RiverHawks was go 7-1 with a 0.85 ERA. The 2003 RiverHawks staff also featured Scott Sobkowiak, the only major league veteran ever to play regularly in the Frontier League. He made one appearance for the Atlanta Braves in 2001.
2004 proved to be a huge success in Rockford. Led by MVP Richard Austin, the RiverHawks claimed their first Frontier League Championship. Austin (.359-15-77, 22 steals) won the batting title and finished second in RBI. He was joined in the outfield by speedsters Doug Schutt (39 stolen bases) and Ricardo Santana (27). First baseman Aaron McEachran (.332-11-62) provided a big bat behind Austin in the lineup. The RiverHawks' offense reached its high point on August 5, as they pounded Richmond pitching for ten runs in the second inning en route to a 22-10 win.
On the hill the ace was Josh Tomsu (10-3, 2.64). Tomsu became the first RiverHawk to win in double figures and ended the season with a franchise record 18 career victories. Joining him in the rotation were Sobkowiak (8-7, 4.20) and Frank James (7-3, 2.65). Justin Dowdy (4-1, 2.39) went to affiliated ball for the second consecutive season. The staff didn't miss a beat though, as Justin Olson went 8-0 as a swing man. Josh Latimer (3-3, 2.47, 15 saves) had closer duties.
The RiverHawks were in contention from the very beginning of the season and fended off a strong challenge by defending champion Gateway to win the West Division title. Rockford then beat the Grizzlies in a tight five-game series to advance to the finals, where they swept Evansville in three games. Infielder Olmo Rosario was named playoff MVP for his .429 batting average. Sobkowiak had three wins in the playoffs.
The RiverHawks were much improved at the gate in 2004. Over 100,000 fans visited Marinelli Field, the first time that mark had been reached.
Rockford was once again in contention all season in 2005, finishing second in a hard-fought race. Rosario returned to hit a club-record .373. McEachran had another solid season, hitting .306-14-68. The team pulled a rare blockbuster trade with Windy City just before the all-star break, sending centerfielder Doug Schutt and two others in exchange for Jerome McCoy and Nick Johnson. Johnson hit .333 after the trade and 2B Ashley Farr hit .315 after joining the Riverhawks from Mid-Missouri.
The team did not have a dominant starter after Joe Barbosa (3-0, 1.92) retired due to an arm injury but Derek Roper (9-4, 4.41) and Justin Olson (6-5, 3.99) were solid. Jason Glosser was 7-3, 2.11 out of the bullpen and added 14 saves.
The RiverHawks made the playoffs for the second consecutive season, but fell to Kalamazoo 3-1. The team once again broke their attendance record in the final season at Marinelli Field before moving to a new ballpark in nearby Loves Park.
The team made the much-anticipated move into Riverhawks Stadium when a crowd of 4,078 saw Evansville beat the RiverHawks on May 31. Fueled by such promotions as an appearance by IRL driver Danica Patrick and "Speed Dating Night" and pregame entertainment by 80-year-old grandmother Vie Carlson on the organ, the RiverHwaks set a franchise record with over 115,000 fans in attendance.
Speed and pitching were the heart of the 2006 Riverhawks. Rockford led the league with 158 steals, led by OF Rico Santana with 29. Veteran OF Nick Johnson hit .307, adding 17 steals and a club-leading 47 RBI. Outfield mates Matt Sauls (17) and Bo Flowers (16) contributed to the running game. Infielders Joe Anthonsen (22), Cody Brooks (13) and Brad Dutton (12) also stole in double figures. Catcher Gooby Gerlits provided the power with nine homers.
Tanner Watson led the rotation, going 8-5, 2.87. Derek Roper went 6-7, 2.79 and was the team's pitching coach as well as a dependable starter. Garrett Bauer (6-5, 2.82) and Dane Towery (five wins) rounded out the rotation.
The bullpen was solid as well. Closer Mike Marksbury had 12 saves but missed significant time due to injury. Beau Massey added five saves while Adam Kroft (6-3, 2.00) and Dave Dowling (4-4, 2.30) had setup duties.
A trade garnered the Riverhawks some attention in late July when they sent shortstop Olmo Rosario and the team's "Human Bowling" on-field promotion to San Angelo of the American Association for pitcher John Smith. San Angelo's GM, Mike Babcock, had served in that capacity in Rockford for four seasons.
The club was led from the dugout by new manager J.D. Arndt, assisted by former manager Bob Koopman. The RiverHawks led the West Division most of the way and coasted to a three game cushion over Evansville despite losing nine of their last ten games. It was their second division title in three years and third consecutive playoff appearance.
Rockford won the first two playoff games at home before losing the next two at Evansville. they dropped the deciding fifth game 6-3 in 13 innings. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise exciting season.
(above) Marinelli Field in Rockford, IL, home of the Rockford Riverhawks.
(bottom) Construction photos of the Riverhawks' new home in nearby Loves Park, taken in August 2005.
(below) Riverhawks Park opened for business in 2006.
|Year||Won||Lost||GB||Finish||Attendance||Manager||Playoffs First Round||Playoffs Second Round|
|2004||58||37||--||1W||103,140||Bob Koopman||Beat Gateway 3-1||Beat Evansville 3-0|
|2005||51||45||2||2W||103,248||Mike Young||Lost to Kalamazoo 3-1|
|2006||49||47||--||1W||115,776||J.D. Arndt||Lost to Evansville 3-2|
Major Award Winners: 2004 Richard Austin, Most Valuable Player
Riverhawks Post-Season All-Stars:
2002 2B Ben Fjelland
2003 2B Ben Fjelland
2004 OF Richard Austin
Players on FL Tenth Anniversary All-Star Team: none
P Jason Shelley (2002-2003) pitched for the Cook County Cheetahs in 2001 but blossomed when he came to Rockford. He set the Frontier League season strikeout record in 2002, when he went 9-5 with 156 K's. On June 15 of that year Shelley pitched a rain-shortened five inning no-hitter against Evansville. He was dominant in 2003, going 7-1 with a league record 0.85 ERA. Signed by the Milwaukee Brewers in late July, Shelley was assigned to the club's AA affiliate in Huntsville, and struck out ten in his first start! Despite spending only two months for the RiverHawks in 2002, Jason was named Baseball America's Independent League Player of the Year.
RiverHawks in the majors: None, but P Scott Sobkowiak played for the Atlanta Braves before coming to Rockford.