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‘We’ll support the Chiefs no matter what,’ Peoria pol says of Cubs decision

PeoriChiefs owner Pete Vonachen stands place where he likes watch batting practice O' Brien Field PeoriIll. Monday Sept. 8 2003.

Peoria Chiefs owner Pete Vonachen stands in the place where he likes to watch batting practice at O' Brien Field in Peoria, Ill., Monday, Sept. 8, 2003. Vonachen has owned the Class A team twice, and seen it affliliated with both the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. Now into September with both the Cubs and Cardinals in a pennant chase, baseball fever is burning across central Illinois, where Cubs and Cardinals fans are as evenly split as Democrats and Republicans. Vonachen feels the emotionaltugs also having many friends on both sides. (AP Photo/Josh Bradshaw)

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Updated: September 23, 2012 6:24AM

News that the Peoria Chiefs may be losing their Class A minor league affiliation with the Cubs caught many in the Downstate city by surprise Tuesday.

“I think this will be a disappointment to folks, but we’ll support the Chiefs no matter who the team is,” state Sen. David Koehler (D-Peoria) said.

Cubs great Greg Maddux played for the team. So did Mark Grace, Rafael Palmeiro and New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi.

Those former Cubs got their starts playing for the team’s minor league affiliate in Peoria, which has a storied history when it comes to professional baseball.

The city on the shores of the Illinois River has hosted teams going back all the way to the 1880s before Chicago’s National League baseball franchise settled on the Cubs name as its moniker.

The Chiefs current tie to the Cubs was rooted in the close friendship that existed between the minor league team’s owner, Pete Vonachen, and Cubs icon Harry Caray. Vonachen later wound up eulogizing Caray at his funeral.

The move by Wrigley Field to yank its minor league affiliate and move to Kane County, first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, isn’t the first time the Cubs organization has left Peoria nor the first time a Major League team has pulled apart of its farm system.

After Vonachen bought the Chiefs in the early 1980s, he struck a minor league deal with the Cubs that lasted between 1985 and 1994, when the Major League team pulled up stakes and moved to Rockford.

Dating back to the 1930s, minor-league affiliates for the Reds, Indians, Cardinals, Yankees, Angels and Cubs played in Peoria.

In 2002, the team and city helped build a two-square-block stadium along Peoria’s riverfront.

A short time later, the team wound up cutting a minor league deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, bringing blue-chip future talent like Albert Pujols to play in Peoria. In 2004, the Chiefs affiliation switched back to the Cubs, where it’s been ever since.

Koehler said he believes the still-new stadium will be an attractive draw to another minor-league franchise tied to a big-league club.

“It’s a lovely park. I was there on opening day. The place was packed,” he said. “I think Peoria would be a very desirable place to have an affiliate. This is a good baseball town.”

Will Ball, chairman of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, had not heard of the development with the Cubs, and said it would be “premature” to talk about its impact on Peoria.

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