The Joliet Route 66 Stadium was rocking Tuesday night with the Joliet Slammers playing their home opener.
Season ticket-holders such as Robert Lobati have been coming to Slammers games for years. The lifelong Joliet resident has loved the game so much, he was an umpire for 37 years and has now been a season ticket-holder for the past three seasons.
“I love it,” Lobati said. “They haven’t been very good the last couple [of] years, but that’s baseball.”
Lobati said he also was impressed with the new artificial turf at the stadium. The city and the team wanted the more durable surface to be used for events at the stadium. So the city spent $1.7 million for the turf, more security and other upgrades to the venue. The City Council spent over a year working on the project and despite some delays because of the weather, the turf was ready Tuesday for the Slammers home opener.
This will also be the first season in more than a decade and a half that the sign at the front gate at the stadium does not say Silver Cross Field. It was officially renamed Joliet Route 66 Stadium last year after the Silver Cross Hospital naming rights contract expired at the end of 2016.
Besides the action on the field, there was another interesting story line playing out at Tuesday’s game. The Slammers were facing the Evansville Otters, who have an outfielder on their roster with family ties to the Joliet area, although he himself is not from the area.
Zach Welz, 26, is in his second year with the Otters and is a cousin to many in the Churnovic family of Joliet. Welz’s grandfather has a sister who still lives in the Joliet area, so when the family found out he would be in town when his team played the Slammers, they arranged a family get-together.
Lori Bonds and Rick Churnovic were related to Welz through their mother, Welz’s great-aunt. They arranged for more than 20 of their family members to come out to the game and sit right above the Otters dugout, although Welz lived in California and had not actually met his extended family in Joliet.
“We decided we should come out and say ‘Hello,’ ” Churnovic said.
About half an hour before first pitch, Welz managed to find his family and stuck his head out from under the dugout to greet them.
“Hey!” about 10 of his relatives said when they saw him. “There’s Zach!”
Welz said his grandfather had told him about his Joliet family so he wanted to make a point to see them. They said they’d love to show him around town, but tonight they just wanted to provide his own personal cheering section.
The extra cheering might have helped because Welz hit a home run in his first at-bat.
“He definitely looks like a Welz!” one of the family members said.