An Interview with Pete and Rocky Vonachen

Pete Vonachen
Few baseball executives have been as synonymous with their franchise as Pete Vonachen has been with the Peoria Chiefs. Harold A. "Pete" Vonachen is a guiding force for the Chiefs, serving as chairman of the board of directors.

Vonachen first purchased the Chiefs franchise in 1984, and while serving as president and general manager, built one of the strongest organizations in the minor leagues. Under his leadership, Peoria was the first Midwest League team to draw more than 200,000 fans in one season, and led the Midwest League in attendance for four straight years. The Chiefs subsequently earned recognition in national publications such as Sports Illustrated, USA Weekend, and Baseball America. He sold the franchise in 1988.

After a five-year absence from professional baseball, Vonachen led a group of local investors in purchasing the Chiefs and assumed general manager duties a second time. After restoring stability to the franchise, he handed over general manager duties to his son Rocky in 1996.

Vonachen was named minor league executive of the year in 1985. He is a graduate and trustee of Bradley University and is a member of the Bradley athletic department and Peoria Area Sports Hall of Fame.

Vonachen and his wife Donna live in Peoria. They have five children and nine grandchildren.

Rocky Vonachen
Harold A. "Rocky" Vonachen III serves as Peoria Chiefs president and general manager. Like his father, he is in his second stint with the team, having been involved with advertising and related duties in the mid-1980s. He led the Chiefs office to receive the John H. Johnson President's Award in 1999 for best front office staff in the Midwest League.

Vonachen formerly owned and operated several area establishments, including Rocky's Hitching Post and Vonachen's Downtown in Peoria, as well as Rocky's II in Normal. From 1990 to 1993, he served as manager of community relations for OSF Saint Francis Medical Center.

An alumnus of Bergan High School and Bradley University, Vonachen is an active community leader. He currently serves on the Peoria Park District board, and is involved with several other charity functions in the area.

Vonachen and his wife Amy live in Peoria with their three daughters, Megan, Abby, and Claire.

Tell us about your decision to first become involved in baseball--when and how did it happen? How many family members are involved with the Peoria Chiefs? When did Rocky become involved? In what capacity?

Pete: In 1993, the Peoria Suns, a Class A Midwest League team in its first year, was experiencing very hard times. Affiliated with the California Angels, the team wasn't much of a draw in Peoria, Illinois. It was obvious the team wouldn't survive and would leave town.

At the urging of Paul King and Phil Theobald of the Journal Star, I bought the team in Fall 1983. The economy was on a down turn and Peoria had very high unemployment. I strongly felt professional baseball--the best family entertainment--would serve as a shot in the arm to the community's morale.

We were ranked eighth by Sporting News of all the minor league teams in every Class as we built attendance up to 225,000.

Three family members, Pete, chairman of the board; Rocky, president, and Mark, director of stadium operations are involved with the Chiefs.

Describe the time frame/process that led to Rocky becoming general manager. What roles to each of you play today?

Pete: Rocky became involved as assistant general manager when we bought the team in 1994. Since the beginning, Rocky handled many of the day-to-day responsibilities of the ballclub, and did a very good job. Since I was not getting any younger, it only made sense to give him full responsibility.

Rocky: The chairman position is an honorary position, but Dad definitely still has a say in the operation.

What are some of your most memorable moments as a sports team owner?

Pete: There are so many it would be hard to describe all of them. The best memories are having your players, managers, and trainers make it to the big leagues.

Prime time players--such as Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmerio, Joe Girardi, and Mark Grace and more than 40 others. Three of our ex-managers are now big league coaches; Pete Mackanin (Expos), Jim Tracy (Dodgers), and Brad Mills (Phillies); and four trainers--three with the Cubs and one with the Colorado Rockies.

Advanciung all the way to the league championship game in our second year, even though we lost 2 to 1 in the fog in Kenosha.

Also, bringing such baseball greats to Peoria like Mickey Mantle, Bob Feller, Harry Caray, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, Mark Grace, and many more.

Rocky: The most significant memories for both of us are bringing families to the ballpark and seeing them have fun. Baseball is still the best most economical sports entertainment there is. This is important to the quality of life of our community.

Describe the history of the Peoria Chiefs. How has the attendance fluctuated over the years? How supportive is the Peoria community considering the limits of the current stadium?

Pete: The Peoria Suns became the Peoria Chiefs in 1984. We brought back the name "Chiefs" from the old Three I league team in the 1950s. After one year of affiliation with the Angels, we switched to the Chicago Cubs. This was a real plus as Peoria has a tremendous amount of Cub fans.

For health reasons, I sold the team in 1989. The Cubs became disenchanted with the new owners and made the decision to move the team to Rockford the year before we bought the team back. The only option we had was to become affiliated with the Boston Red Sox, a wonderful organization with a deep tradition, but not a good fit for Peoria.

Because of my friendship with the Cardinal General Manager, Dal Maxvill, we were able to pull off a trade to send the Red Sox to Battle Creek so Peoria could have a Cardinal affiliation. I always say, "The guys you drink with will always help you." The Cardinals, and the Cubs, have a very strong fan base in Peoria. We just signed a new four year contract with St. Louis, which puts us in a very favorable situation.

Rocky: Attendance over the years has fluctuated--with a high in the late '80s of 225,000 to the current level of 155,000. In the years of the higher attendance, many nights you could get a free ticket to a game at the nearest grocery store or bank. The philosophy all through minor league baseball was to flood the market with free tickets and make your money off the concessions. That philosophy does not work today; with the rising cost of operating a minor league franchise you need the ticket revenue as well as concessions to be profitable. In 1995 we changed the ticket policy, eliminating free tickets, which caused a decrease in attendance--but an increase in ticket revenue.

Pete: The Peoria and central Illinois area has been very supportive over the years. Both the business community and the fans have been great. Peoria is a baseball town and they enjoy seeing good baseball.

In your first go-around as owners of the Chiefs, what did you to set attendance records?

Pete: I don't think we did things that other teams didn't do. Our philosophy was to become deeply involved in the community. Give the fans a very entertaining evening at a very reasonable price.

We put together a strong marketing program that featured caps, baseball, fireworks, equipment bags, etc. We were one of the first in the league to build picnic decks, which helped attendance. The Peoria Chiefs were the first minor league baseball team to shoot off fireworks after home runs. It was a huge attraction.

What is the value of having a minor league baseball team in a community like Peoria?

Rocky: Besides being the best affordable family entertainment in central Illinois, it's a quality of life issue. Peoria is a great place to live and we need Chiefs baseball, Riverman hockey, Bradley basketball, the Opera, Ballet, the park system, etc. All those things combined are what make Peoria an attractive place to live. But we need to continue to improve because the competition for good young workers is extremely competitive, and it's getting harder and harder to recruit and retain the good employees from going elsewhere.

What are the public misconceptions, if any, to owning a sports team? How will a new stadium help the minor league team image? With recruiting? With attendance?

Pete: I think most people look at it as a hobby rather than business. It's fun, but we can assure you, it is very hard work. Long hours and low pay. Class A baseball is usually a stepping stone for our young staff.

It's not all that glamorous at times. The weather in the Spring is cold and rainy, the Summers are hot, therefore, seven and eight day home stands are generally grueling.

We don't have a large grounds crew, so everyone from the president to the interns pull on the field tarp when there are unexpected rain storms. Winters are not a vacation either. All of the staff works full time to line up the promotions, sell the advertising, and sell tickets. We have a very active booster club that is invaluable to us. They interact with the players and help them with problems during the season. Our staff works with them to prepare for the upcoming season. Glamorous yes, but a lot of hard work.

Rocky: We are professional baseball, with all our players being signed to professional contracts with the St. Louis Cardinals, and we should have a professional facility to play in.

Right now we play in a college facility with some nice seats around the field. I hate to say it, but it's hard to provide that professional atmosphere in a college facility. A new mini-major league stadium in downtown Peoria will provide the fans with the professional atmosphere and experience they want, and should have, when they come to a game. A new facility will give us a professional image.

Pete: It's all about the experience. People love to go to the ballpark, but because of the ever-rising costs of attending a major league game, the fans cannot go as often as they would like.

Minor League Baseball is a great alternative and the cities with the new stadiums are leading the way. It's that professional image and atmosphere, along with the experience both before and after the game, that will keep the fans coming back on a more regular basis, as well as draw from a larger area of central Illinois. The stadium will become a destination point.

Tell us about the decision to sell the team, and then to buy it back. What did you learn during your first term as owners, and what have you done differently during your second term?

Pete: In 1989 I was completely burned out. After more than 40 years in business, and learning I was a diabetic, I decided it was time to call it quits. What did I learn? I should have never sold it.

The new owners from Chicago didn't adjust to the Peoria life style, and unfortunately, weren't accepted by the fans. They had their differences with the Cubs, which prompted them to leave for Rockford. That was a major setback.

During that time, professional baseball had lost all the momentum we had built up during the first five years--dropping from 225,00 in attendance to 100,000 in 1993. The decision to buy it back stemmed from the fact the team was financially in trouble, and most likely would have left town.

We were urged by a group of citizens to purchase the team and keep it in Peoria. A limited partnership was formed with about 40 investors. These civic-mined people, which include us, came forward and invested their money to ensure that the team stayed in Peoria. This total commitment was approximately $2 million. That's a hefty sum to commit to ensure a quality of life in Peoria.

Since purchasing the team, we have not been able to regain the momentum we had during our first tenure. We have not done one thing different the second time than the first time. We aggressively marketed our tickets; promotions, and advertising--but our attendance never reached the numbers we had before. Why? Things change.

First of all, the riverfront started to blossom and all the activity moved to the riverfront as Summer attractions drew fans away from us. It became very apparent to us that we had to be part of the riverfront scene, not compete with them.

In 1993, waves of new stadiums were being built for minor league teams, particularly in the Midwest League. At the present time, out of 14 teams in our league we are rated eighth. Only ahead of small market teams such as Clinton, Beloit, Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Battle Creek.

Since 1993, six new stadiums have been built, with more to come. We researched and reviewed our entire operations--marketing, public relations, and ticket prices. Every time we came to the same conclusion. The stadium is a college facility in the wrong location. A facility that is no longer a first class experience for our fans.

People today want a state-of-the-art facility, and the fans are willing to pay for it. Just research the teams with new stadiums in our league and you will find that is exactly the situation.

We must be part of the downtown riverfront ambiance and action, not isolated in an obsolete facility with inadequate parking and remote location.

How did the plan to build a downtown baseball stadium evolve? As a private venture, who are the other investors? Will more be needed?

Rocky: After getting back into baseball in 1994 and looking not only around the Midwest League but also around the country, we noticed the teams that were doing the best and leading their respective leagues in attendance were the ones with new facilities.

Appleton, Wisc., averaging 70,000 before their new park, now consistently draws 230,000 in their new ballpark built in 1995. We saw Lansing MI. build a $26 million ballpark, and draw 500,000 each year since the first pitch. There are many other examples around the country that we can point to. It was in 1997 that I think we first talked to local leaders about the idea of a new downtown ballpark for Peoria.

As I previously stated, the Peoria Chiefs are owned by a group of approximately 40 Peoria Citizens. Along with the original investors and their $2 million investment, an additional $4 million must be raised. This must be accomplished by additional funds from the present investors, plus new investors. We are confident this amount can be raised.

Where did the final figure for the project come in? What is the time line for the new stadium--from ground breaking to opening day?

Rocky: The cost for the ballpark itself is $15,700,000, which will be privately financed, owned and operated. At no risk to the taxpayer. We've worked with HNTB Sports out of Kansas City, and River City Construction locally, arrive at the stadium cost numbers. Another $5 million will be needed from the City for land, infrastructure, and business relocation. A portion of that money will come from Illinois First dollars with the City's actual out-of-pocket expense about $3 million.

If everyone can come to an agreement on how much the City is willing to put into the project, we could be playing ball by April 2002.

You've said a downtown stadium will add to the quality of life for Peoria residents. How so? How will it help a developing downtown?

Rocky: Because of the number of people we will draw for baseball games, concerts, movies, and a host of other events it becomes attractive for business to locate where the action is. More than 300,000 people will help support the already developing Riverfront, as well as attract new business around the ballpark area, which right now is ripe for development.

Fans will be able to experience Peoria's downtown both before and/or after the games. It's the overall experience of going to a Chiefs baseball game that will bring people downtown. With the new Hope 6 project to the south and the ballpark as the anchor to the north, the area between Kumpf and MacAuther is ripe for development. It could become Peoria's own Wrigleyville.

Once you have the additional space and improved facilities, what can Peoria expect to see at the new stadium that will draw capacity crowds? Tell us about your ideas for the "rooftops" near the ballpark.

Rocky: The new stadium will be a mini-major league stadium, a smaller version of Camden Yards or Coors Field, designed by major league stadium architects HNTB with all the amenities of a major league facility.

The ballpark will seat 7,500--6,500 permanent seats and 1,000 lawn seats--which are located down the right/left field lines, and are very popular with the fans. The concession stands will be along the covered concourse, which will allow fans to watch the game while in line. The stadium will feature 16 luxury suites on the second level equivalent to any major league park for those businesses or individuals that want to entertain their friends/clients in style.

The stadium scoreboard/video board will also have a major league look. There will be remote cameras around the ballpark to catch the action on the field, as well as show replays of all the great plays and fans reaction. And I would love to put a deck up on top of the Born Paint building like at Wrigley Field. I think it's hard for many people to visualize what we are talking about, but it will be much like the Civic Center. Once people see the new ballpark they will fall in love with it.

As I said before, it's all about the experience--not only at the ballpark, but around the ballpark--that will draw the capacity crowds.

Do you believe the City Council and those in opposition do not understand what is expected of the city, why improved infrastructure is so important to city growth, and how the stadium would improve the area between the ballpark and the old Warner Homes site?

Pete: I don't believe it's a case of council members not wanting a stadium, they all see the benefits. It's more of how are they going to fund their share of the project with so many other demands on the cities budget as well. But the city needs to invest in infrastructure to help the city grow, and that's what we are trying to do.

If Pete Vonachen Stadium is inadequate, what is the future of baseball in Peoria? Would you consider building the stadium in another location, East Peoria, for instance?

Rocky: We are committed to providing baseball in Peoria, and believe downtown Peoria is the place we need to be to raise professional baseball in central Illinois to a new level of entertainment.

We have not and will not use the threat of moving to another city as leverage for a new ballpark. If we are not successful with this project we will explore our options at that time. But until then, Peoria is the home for the Chiefs.

With the stadium project underway, what are your future plans?

Rocky: We will continue to work with the city as long as we can stay on a timeline that will see the ballpark completed for opening day 2002. IBI