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Ball drops at iconic stadium

The iconic Thillens baseball sign once outside stadium. Phocourtesy Mel Thillens.

The iconic Thillens baseball sign once outside the stadium. Photo courtesy Mel Thillens.

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Updated: July 23, 2013 6:17AM

For much of the last 75 years, Thillens stadium and its two perfectly manicured baseball diamonds were the place where Little League memories were made.

Now, the Little League field of dreams has turned into a neglected nightmare for the Thillens family — so much so that they demanded the family name be removed from the stadium at Devon and Kedzie, so people don’t think their thriving financial services company is going out of business.

This spring, the Chicago Park District that now owns and still operates the stadium obliged by removing both the Thillens name from the sign outside and the Thillens armored car from the scoreboard.

Last week, the baseball-shaped sign outside the stadium was also removed. It was so badly rusted, the park district officials were afraid it or pieces of it might fall and become a safety hazard.

On Friday, Mel Thillens lamented the demise of a baseball treasure that his father opened in 1938 and was operated by a family foundation until 2005.

After trying for years to persuade the park district to maintain the stadium he donated only to have his calls, emails and certified letters ignored, Thillens said he had no choice but to take drastic measures.

“Rust was dripping down the ball outside. The outfield had divots, holes and weeds in it. Lights on the scoreboard weren’t replaced. We weren’t proud to have our name on it. People think it’s our ballpark. It’s not good,” said Thillens, 67, who used to run the stadium and book all of its events.

“I understand the park district’s problem. They can’t be expected to maintain one Little League park differently than the hundreds they have under their control. We were dropping $250,000 a year. How can they do that when they’re closing schools? But it didn’t change the fact that people were thinking it was us. Our business is doing very well. But it looked like we were going out of business.”

Thillens said he even offered to paint the ball and the scoreboard for the park district, only to be told park district unions would not allow it.

“They weren’t being responsive. I said, ‘I can understand your problems, but please. It’s an embarrassment.’ I’m sure Mr. Willis [the name on Willis Tower] wouldn’t want his name on a building that wasn’t up to his standards,” he said.

Park district spokesperson Jessica Maxey-Faulkner acknowledged that all traces of the Thillens name have been removed from the stadium. Maxey-Faulkner insisted that the park district has maintained Thillens so it can “continue as a place of historical significance” that “thousands of children enjoy” each year.

“The Thillens family asked some time ago to have its name removed, and we accommodated this request during a recent maintenance effort. The Chicago Park District will continue to maintain the stadium,” she wrote.

Former North Side Ald. Bernard Stone (50th), who spearheaded the 2005 drive to save Thillens, condemned the park district for allowing the baseball treasure to fall into such a dismal state of disrepair.

“The park district should be ashamed of themselves. I gave them close to $1 million in city funds with the understanding they would use it on Thillens Stadium. The Cubs put in $500,000. Everybody made donations. They had an obligation to maintain that place,” Stone said.

“That stadium has meant so much to so many people. It’s part of their childhood memories. It was like playing in the big leagues. When we were trying to work out a deal to save it, I got calls from executives from big companies telling me how they had played ball there when they were kids. They should light a fire under the park district” to fix it.

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