GENEVA – Crystal Lake Cardinals pitcher Drew Peters surveyed a Fifth Third Bank Ballpark clubhouse food spread Monday afternoon and smiled.
The lanky left-hander generously had scattered fresh fruit and pretzels around his plate, but the pregame sustenance only played a small role in his happiness.
For a few hours, Peters and the rest of the Crystal Lake Cardinals had overlapped in the good life of their opponents, the Team USA collegiate national team. Two hours before first pitch, it was time to let everything soak in.
“It’s just a really cool experience to be able to feel this treatment,” Peters said, “and hopefully work harder so that eventually, we can be at this level.”
Team USA returned from a six-day tour of Japan last week. On Thursday, it opens a five-game series against counterparts from Cuba.
Call Monday’s 12-3 victory against the Cardinals a tune-up for that event. But still, consider the Cardinals grateful for the chance, engineered in part by well-connected Cardinals coach Armie Bombino of Crystal Lake.
“Yeah, I mean, you’ve got to sometimes step back and see who you’re playing against, because you never know,” said Cardinals third baseman Nick Richter, a Cary-Grove alumnus. “Especially when we’re this young. I think it’s fun, and it’s something I can tell my kids or something down the line.”
Eight Cardinals will be part of the Metro Collegiate Baseball League of Illinois All-Star team that opposes Team USA at 1 p.m. Tuesday at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark.
Pitchers certainly will have Team USA first baseman Sam Travis on their scouting report. The Providence alumnus and Indiana standout finished a home run short of the cycle while driving in three runs Monday.
Team USA smacked a pair of two-run homers in the second inning and kick-started its offense again with five combined runs in the eighth and ninth.
“It was a good experience, playing in a minor league stadium,” said Team USA right fielder Bradley Zimmer, who played in a summer league in California in 2012. “I thought it played pretty true, pretty normal. Other than the flies in my face constantly, I thought it was pretty fun.”
In about five weeks, the Cardinals will disperse to their respective campuses, not unlike their counterparts from Team USA. The Cardinals, a collection of college and junior college players hailing largely from the north and west suburbs, play in the Chicago area.
Three former McHenry County high school players were in Monday’s starting lineup. Richter led off before Crystal Lake Central graduates Nathan Pollock (center field) and Lee Spinelle (first base) batted fourth and sixth, respectively.
Reliever Dylan Cysewski, a fellow former Tiger, has been teammates with Pollock since youth ball.
“We’ve been playing with each other for our whole lives, pretty much, and it’s cool to experience something like this with him,” Cysewski said. “I never thought this would ever happen.”
Team USA brass reached out to Kane County Cougars officials earlier this summer, citing Fifth Third Bank Ballpark’s location and the fan base of the club it houses, the Kane County Cougars.
The Class-A Cougars are in the first season of a two-year player development contract with the Cubs. Their roster includes Cardinals alumnus Michael Heesch, a left-hander out of Prairie Ridge whose family now lives in Bartlett.
Bombino, who works at Deerfield-based Baxter Healthcare Corporation, calls baseball a hobby. He’s been coaching the Cardinals since 1997 and was quick to keep players updated when it appeared the Cardinals might have a chance to play the collegiate national team.
“Armie’s a great guy. He knows a lot of people,” Richter said. “I think him running the show, he did all he could to get as many people out here and make this as good of an experience as we could possibly have.”