Windy City ThunderBolts
Cook County Cheetahs
First season: 1999
Years in league: 1999-present
Ballpark: Hawkinson Ford Field
This franchise in the south suburbs of Chicago has been through several incarnations. The Will County Claws played in the North Central League in 1995, but that league folded after only three weeks. In 1996 they joined the Heartland League as the Will County Cheetahs in Romeoville before moving to Midlothian and becoming the Cook County Cheetahs in 1998. After the season the Cheetahs joined the Frontier League and in 1999 moved into brand-new Hawkinson Ford Field in Crestwood.
The 1999 season was a watershed year for the Frontier League, as the Cheetahs, along with River City, were the first league teams in major suburban markets. The team drew over 86,000 fans for the season, one of the highest attendance figures in league history at the time. Since then, attendance has declined steadily. This is understandable when you realize that nearby Joliet and Gary both have Northern League teams in bigger and newer ballparks.
Several former big-league players with local ties have called the Cheetahs dugout home. Former Cubs utility man Chico Walker managed the team in 1999 and was succeeded by ex-Sox outfielder Ron LeFlore. Milt Pappas was formerly the pitching coach, and Carlos May has served a coach. Former American League Rookie Of the Year Joe Charbonneau started 2004 as hitting coach and managed the team the last week of the season.
The Cheetahs were sold following the 2003 season and signed a long-term lease at Hawkinson Ford Field. The new ownership made some physical changes at the ballpark, building a permanent office/ticket counter to replace the trailer that stood since 1999. Following a name-that-team contest, the Cook County Cheetahs are no more. The Windy City ThunderBolts will call Hawkinson Ford Field home in the future.
The team played probably the best baseball ever seen at Hawkinson Ford Field early in the 2004 season. The T-Bolts set a league record by winning eleven games in a row in mid-June. During the streak, on June 16, outfielder P-Nut Williams went 5-for-5, scoring six runs and driving in nine. Williams was the story during the ThunderBolts' hot streak, as he put together a 29-game hitting streak, during which he hit .405. Overall, Williams hit .332-11-43 with 17 steals before being sold to the Chicago White Sox organization in early August.
Assisting him on offense were outfielder Brian Baker (.303-18-62, 19 steals), who set a club home run record. Jerome McCoy split time between second, short and the outfield but managed to swipe a club-record 37 bases. Gilbert Barry, Eric Darjean and Nick Johnson all stole in double figures. The ThunderBolts improved during the season by adding third baseman Nick Saunders from Mid-Missouri and second baseman Sam Flamont from Kalamazoo. Flamont hit .326 for Windy City but had his season cut short by injuries.
As good as the offense was in 2004, the pitching was a disappointment. No pitcher won more than four games, and three of the team's top four starters had ERAs over 5.00. The brightest spot on the mound was closer Matt Hines, who was automatic out of the bullpen. Hines racked up a club-record 13 saves despite being sold to the Minnesota Twins organization in mid-July.
The ThunderBolts spent much of June in first place. They were only a couple of games out at the end of July, but then the wheels fell off. The loss of Williams and Hines, along with several injuries, devastated the team. They finished out the season losing a league-record 20 consecutive games. Manager Steve Maddock was replaced by hitting coach Joe Charbonneau, but it didn't make a difference. A season that started so well ended in frustration for Windy City's players and fans.
A former player did make the news in 2004. Chris Oxspring, a Cheetah in 2000, took time off from his season with the San Diego Padres' Triple-A Portland affiliate to represent Australia in the Olympics in Athens.
2005 was another disappointing season in Windy City, although under new management the team set a new attendance record. Things weren't all bleak, as Justin Schuda set a club record with 26 homers. OF Doug Schutt stole 26 bases after being traded from Rockford, and became the league's all-time stolen base leader. Clemente Bonilla hit a robust .371 and added 20 steals. Jerome McCoy stole 22 before going to Rockford, and IF Matt Ferrara added 18.
Josh Glynn (8-6) and Mike Renery (7-9) led the rotation. Chris Hayes (4-1, 2.41, nine saves) was the closer, with Lenny Bays adding a 2.45 ERA and four saves after joining the ThunderBolts from Florence.
The ThunderBolts began the 2006 season with new uniforms on the field and new concessions in the stands. They also added some new players. In the dispersal draft of players from Mid-Missouri and Ohio Valley, they took P Nick Renault, the 2005 strikeout king, and IF Travis Garcia. They then made a bigger splash shortly before opening day by trading Garcia to Chillicothe for 2005 Pitcher Of the Year John Martinez. The T-Bolts then added bullpen ace Brian Beuning, 2005's ERA champ.
The starters the T-Bolts had been counting on disappointed, as Renault missed a month due to injury and finished at 2-6, while Martinez went 0-4 before being released. Newcomers picked up the slack as Toro Trevino went 7-3, 3.86 while Preston Simms added five wins.
The bullpen was a source of strength. Beuning lived up to his reputation, establishing a new record with 24 saves. Billy Phillips added a 6-0, 3.86 season, Mike Causey went 3-1, 3.32, Brandon Kellbach won four games and Noah Russo had a 1.96 ERA before being traded to Gateway.
Doug Schutt was again the catalyst offensively, hitting .271 and leading the league with 56 steals, the second highest total in FL history. 2B Clemente Bonilla battled injuries to hit .307 with 22 steals in limited duty before being dealt to the Golden League in August, but Anthony Seratelli came through, hitting .286 and pilfering 28 bags while splitting time between shortstop and second base. Scott Vetter also saw considerable duty in the middle of the infield after joining the team from Florence. John Santor nailed down the hot corner after coming over from River City.
The T-Bolts were in the playoff chase until late in the season, and even added OF Kevin House from Gateway for the stretch. House's speed added to the T-Bolts' running game, but power was in short supply, as no player hit more than six home runs.
Shortly after the end of the season Andy Haines was introduced as the ThunderBolts manager for 2007. Haines' previous FL experience came as a coach for the DuBois County Dragons.
Hawkinson Ford Field in Crestwood, IL, home of the Windy City ThunderBolts.
|Year||Won||Lost||GB||Finish||Attendance||Manager||Playoffs First Round||Playoffs Second Round|
|2000||38||46||9||3W||76,445||Ron LeFlore (18-20)/ Carlos Lee (1-1)/ Steve Maddock (19-25)|
|2002||40||44||12||3W||66,214||Chad Epperson (3-2)/ Dana Forsberg (37-42)|
|2004||37||57||20.5||5W||67,397||Steve Maddock (37-52)/Joe Charbonneau (0-5)|
Major Award Winners: none
Cheetahs/ThunderBolts Post-Season All-Stars:
1999 P Tom Becker
2002 3B Pichi Balet
2005 DH Justin Schuda
2006 P Brian Beuning
Players on FL Tenth Anniversary All-Star Team: none
Franchise Player: OF Doug Schutt joined the Riverhawks in a trade in midseason, 2005. He went on to establish a new career mark for stolen bases.
Cheetahs/Thunderbolts in the majors: none