By Matthew Girard
Killeen Daily Herald
Killeen isn't the official home of any Continental Baseball League teams yet, but the independent semi-professional league will try to leave its mark on the city with a three-game exhibition in conjunction with Killeen's 125th anniversary celebration.
The Texas Heat and the Tarrant County Blue Thunder will play in the league's debut game at 7 tonight at the Killeen High School baseball field, with the Heat taking on the Lewisville Lizards at 7 p.m. Saturday and the Bay Area Toros in the series finale at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
CBL director of operations and communications Bob Ibach said the choice of having the league's inaugural game played in Killeen wasn't a hard decision.
"There is a very good support group there, especially with the military in town," said Ibach, who became associated with CBL owner Ron Baron at the 2005 MLB Winter Meetings in Dallas. "We wanted to do these three exhibition games this weekend to put our feet into the water, so to speak, and see the kind of turnout we would get. As we move forward, we are certainly looking at Killeen as one of those new locations for the near future."
The CBL is not affiliated with any Major Lerague Baseball teams, but is designed to give players a chance to be seen by major league scouts.
"It gives youngsters an opportunity that may not have gotten drafted by a professional team to be seen by pro scouts," Ibach said. "It gives that player, who was overlooked in the player draft or knocked down because of injury, another opportunity."
Along with Ibach, who was the Chicago Cubs' director of public relations and publications from 1981-89, the league boasts three former MLB players in different capacities.
Jay Johnstone, who played for 20 years and was a member of two World Series title-winning teams, is the league's team relations director and former Texas Rangers Curtis Wilkerson and Tom Goodwin are managers for the Blue Thunder and Lizards, respectively.
Wilkerson, an 11-year vet who also played for the Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals, said he wanted to continue be around the game when asked how he became a part of the CBL.
"I wanted to stay involved with baseball," said Wilkerson, who won't be in Killeen due to a death in the family. "I figured here was a chance to manage in an independent league and I'm close to home."
Wilkerson said independent baseball leagues are worth the price of admission.
"I would say some guys could probably play in high A-ball in the minor leagues," Wilkerson said. "We've got some pitchers that could probably pitch in double-A. There also some guys that are trying to get a second chance, and that's what independent baseball is for."
The CBL's 60-game regular season starts on May 25 and runs through August 12 followed by the playoffs.
Ibach said having people who have been around the MLB is an asset for the league.
"All of those guys weren't stars," Ibach said. "They were very good baseball players, they had to work very hard to get what they could and they all had very long careers. I call them a bunch of survivors.' They knew how to do the little things to stay around and have a successful career in the big leagues."
Johnstone, who was the 1966 AL Rookie of the Year with the California Angels, will be on hand for the games and will host a free baseball clinic from noon to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Killeen baseball field.
Tickets for each game are $5 and be purchased at the gate or in advance at the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce (254) 526-9551. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Killeen Police Department's Law Enforcement Assistance Fund and the Killeen Independent School District's Education Foundation.
Contact Matthew Girard at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7569