Each spring and summer, hundreds of young baseball and softball players grab their mitts, bats and backpacks and descend on Pekin’s Shade Park to play ball.
Parents, family members and fans watch intently from bleachers and lawn chairs, and along fences at the park’s four diamonds during games that often are equal parts competitive and instructional.
The Pekin Union Mission house and travel baseball and softball programs have been based at Shade Park for more than 20 years. After a year like no other in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a sense of normalcy in the park this spring and summer.
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“We started our games in June last year, about three months late, and less than 400 kids played,” said Mission executive director Bryan Cheek. “We had about 600 kids play this year, back to our 2019 level.
“A lot of familiar names came back.”
How many are involved?
More than 90 players were on eight Mission travel baseball teams ranging in age from U8 to U14. Those teams played from April through July.
There were eight Mission house baseball and softball divisions, from ages 4-5 to ages 11-13 in baseball and from ages 5-6 to ages 13-17 in softball.
About 35 Mission staff members were pitchers, catchers and umpires during house league games, and worked in concessions.
The Mission house season began on the Memorial Day weekend and ended right on time in late July despite several rainy weekends. House games were played from Thursday through Sunday each week.
“Rain was a recurring theme during the house season and set us back,” Cheek said, “but it wasn’t that difficult to get all the games rescheduled.”
Shade Park gets a makeover
Shade Park was spruced up before the travel and house seasons began.
Areas were painted, flowers were planted, and volunteers from travel baseball teams cleaned the park on two weekends, including clearing downed tree limbs.
There also were two major upgrades thanks to donations from area businesses.
Pekin Insurance, a longtime Mission team sponsor and outfield fence advertiser, purchased new wireless, LED scoreboards for Diamond 1 and Diamond 2. Cheek said the old scoreboards were at least 30 years old.
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Each new scoreboard cost $4,500. Electricians from Koener Electric of Bartonville did the installation work for free.
Replacing the scoreboards was an easy decision for Pekin Insurance’s executive team after getting the request from the Mission, said Pekin Insurance CEO Dan Connell.
“After watching my kids play at Shade Park and helping run the scoreboards there, I knew the scoreboards didn’t always work,” Connell said.
RockyTop Roofing and Construction, a Pekin company that is a team sponsor, provided the labor and materials for a new 24-foot-by-24-foot picnic pavilion near the Diamond 2 concession stand that replaced an aging canopy.
“We went to the park at the end of our work days. It took us about a week to build the pavilion,” said Mike Neville, RockyTop vice president.
Cheek called the new scoreboards and picnic pavilion tremendous upgrades for the park.
“They cost a lot of money, and it didn’t cost the Mission a thing,” he said. “We appreciate what those businesses did for us.”
The Mission also has annual fall baseball and softball house programs. Games this year will be from mid-September to mid-October. Cheek estimates about 250 to 300 kids will play.
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.