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Fans, Chiefs Thrilled About Return To Dozer Park After Extended Absence

More than 1½ years seems like a long time. Calling it “20 months” makes it seem even longer, or “620 days” longer still.

However it’s phrased, that was the length of the Peoria Chiefs’ separation from their hometown fans — an absence that ended with Tuesday night’s home opener at Dozer Park.

For Chiefs fan Jessica Wolfe, the return of professional baseball to central Illinois evoked an emotional response.

“I was just thinking I might cry. I’m so excited to be here just rooting on the Chiefs and being a part of the Peoria community again. It feels so good,” said Wolfe as she prepared to watch the game with her 12-year-old son Ethan from their seats just a few rows behind home plate.

“It’s so nice. I’ve already been talking with people, and my son is ready to catch some balls. We’re just really excited to be here. I was just thinking how nice it is for him to be able to kind of walk around a little freely, knowing that he's safe and can enjoy the experience.”

Ensuring a safe experience amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that canceled last year’s minor league season was a top priority for team officials. Seating was limited to 20% capacity in the seating bowl, and alternating rows were roped off for social distancing. The concourse had distance markers as well, and fans were required to wear face masks.

“I think people are used to it, I think,” said Chiefs general manager Jason Mott. “Obviously, people are getting tired of the masks and we understand that. It's one of those things that it’s what we have to do to have baseball, and if I've got to wear a mask to have people in the stands, then so be it.”

The announced attendance of 950 included John Sipf of Peoria, who came to the game with his wife Rebecca, 8-year-old daughter Maggie, and 6-year-old son Eli. He admitted being excited, but also a little apprehensive.

“It is wonderful, amazing, and still a little anxiety-provoking. Crowds still make me a little nervous,” said Sipf as the kids cheered. “But it’s worth it.”

Sipf said having baseball back and fans at Dozer Park was about “community, pride, love, and enjoyment,” and perhaps optimism that the worst of COVID-19 is over.

“Things are starting to get back and life is starting to get back,” he said. “Hopefully we can continue taking care of one another, masking up and getting our vaccines, and things can get back to normal even quicker.”

Friends Ashley Johnson of Washington and Stephanie Leverton of East Peoria had seats a couple rows behind the Chiefs’ dugout along the first base line. Johnson said they go to “every game, every year,” so the lost season left a void.

“We’re just so relieved to be back here watching the boys play and getting back into baseball, enjoying the start of the summer,” said Johnson.

“I think it’s great, especially with the community of Peoria coming together to cheer on a local team,” added Leverton. “I know the boys appreciate it. It’s just awesome to be back; I have chills. Just being able to actually witness it, not through a TV screen, is an awesome feeling.”

Mott joked that getting ready for an opening day after such a long delay was similar to a wedding: a lot of planning, then before you know it, it’s over.

“It seems like it's definitely been 20 months,” he said. “That's something I hope I never go through again, not having a season. Just looking out every day seeing an unused ballpark, that was pretty tough. So to see fans here, season-ticket holders and people coming up to me that I haven’t seen in a long time, it’s good to reconnect with them, for sure.”

Like Sipf, Johnson expressed optimism that COVID-19 may be subsiding.

“Hopefully it’s finally starting to die down, it's going away and we can get back to our normal lives,” she said before offering similar optimism for the rest of the Chiefs’ season.

“We hope to have the seats filled so everybody can cheer on the boys and hopefully get a championship this year.”

Not everything went as the Chiefs hoped on opening night, however. Peoria suffered a 3-2 decision to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers that dropped their record to 1-6 to start the season.

Peoria remains an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, elevated to the High-A Central division from the now-defunct Low-A Midwest League. This year’s roster includes several players who were with the team in 2019, and former Chiefs manager Chris Swauger is back following a two-season hiatus.

“We've all been missing this. I think everybody's happy that baseball's back, especially in Peoria,” said Swauger. “We have a great fan base and a lot of support here. Everybody does a good job and makes us feel welcome, and we definitely felt that tonight.”

Despite the outcome, usher Jeff Walker summarized the positive vibe of the night that ended with a fireworks show: “There’s nothing like Peoria Chiefs baseball.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.