7th of Jun | Story

Rock of the church of baseball


PEORIA, Illinois | Growing up, Rocky Vonachen didn’t have the slightest clue he would be in baseball one day. Now, his last name is synonymous with the sport in Peoria.

His father, Pete, a restaurateur, purchased the fledgling team in 1984, its second year in Peoria, and turned it into one of the top franchises in minor league baseball. He was forced to sell it because of health problems in 1988. Then the Chiefs fan base began to slip, so Vonachen and a group of investors purchased the team in 1994. Ever since, a Vonachen – first Pete, now Rocky – has led the organization.

“When the opportunity came to get back into baseball,” Rocky says, “it was a no-brainer.” Besides baseball, his career has spanned the restaurant and hospital industries, which are more similar to running a baseball team than one might think. There are the long hours, the customer service aspect and, of course, a cast of regulars and a rotation of new and interesting characters. 

Here are eight facts about the Chiefs president that Peoria residents might not even know.

1. Vonachen went to the University of New Orleans to play baseball. His freshman season, he led the nation in batting average. “I went 1-1,” he says. “That’s my claim to fame. Nobody beat me. Somebody might have tied me, but no one beat me.” He transferred to Lincoln Junior College for his sophomore season, then decided to give up playing the game and transferred to Bradley University in Peoria to finish his degree.

2. Numbers and statistics interested Vonachen and led him to get a degree in accounting. Upon graduating, he accepted a job with PricewaterhouseCoopers but they didn’t need him until the beginning of the following year, seven months later. So he continued bartending. “Come October, the bar owners said, ‘Would you be interested in buying it, we’re interested in selling,’” he says. He always thought about owning a business in the industry like his father, so he started negotiations with the bar owner. “I actually went up to Chicago for a week to train with Pricewaterhouse, came back, and the next Monday went in and quit,” he says. He bought the bar. “I had a short career as an accountant.” Vonachen went on to own two Rocky’s, college bars in Peoria and Normal, Illinois. He sold them in 1990.

3. He has regular tastes, at least when it comes to this old bartender and his beer. His beer of choice is Bud Light. And he usually only drinks beer.

4. Vonachen decided to get back into baseball because he loved the people part of it, loved walking around the park and talking with fans. But he actually thinks of himself as a shy person.

5. In his more than two decades with the team, one player stands out to Vonahcen: Albert Pujols, who played for the Chiefs in 2000. “If you would have seen him at that time and how hard he worked, you would have understood why he’s as good as he is, because he worked so hard at it,” he says. “And one of the nicest guys. Whenever I needed somebody to speak to kids, even though his English wasn’t the best, he was always the first to volunteer.”

6. He grew up a St. Louis Cardinals fan, but in the last five years has started watching more Cubs games because of the team’s affiliation. The Chiefs were a Low-A Cubs affiliate from 1985 until 1995, switched to the Cardinals from 1996 until 2004, then switched back to the Cubs in 2005. “I cheered for the Cardinals during the World Series,” he says. He got weird looks and was asked why a Cubs fan would cheer for the Cardinals. “I said, ‘I am a Cubs fan, but your pitcher (Jason Motte), your catcher (Yadier Molina) and your first baseman (Pujols) were all Peoria Chiefs, so I can be a Cardinals fan.’”

7. Vonachen’s office has a view from behind home plate. When the Chiefs started the process to build a new ballpark, they toured other stadiums and the spot behind home was popular for the offices of the heads of organizations. “As we were designing this, I said, ‘You can do anything you want, but I want my office right behind home plate so I have a view. If I’m going to be here all the time, I want a view,’” Rocky says. Now he jokes that because the hours are so long during the season, he should have just built an apartment at the stadium.

8. Rocky isn’t his real name. He’s actually Harold A. Vonachen III. His grandfather, Harold, was the medical director at Caterpillar and a doctor at what is now OSF St. Francis Medical Center. “The nuns just absolutely loved him,” Vonachen says. “When I was born, they were going to call me Pete after my dad. And the nuns said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, you’ve got to name him after Dr. Harold.’” His parents and the nuns went back and forth until a nun said, “‘If you’re going to name him Pete, call him Rocky because Peter was the rock of the church.’” He became Harold III, but has gone by Rocky since the day he was born.

Carolyn@AMinorLeagueSeason.com  @CarolynLaWell  @AMinorLgSeason

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