Diamond Diaries

Cardinal baseball, from the girls

Tag Archives: River Bandits

Finding Joy at the Ballpark

 

Modern Woodmen Park, home of the Quad Cities River Bandits

These are tough days to be a Cardinals fan. As if the August collapse wasn’t bad enough (oh, in case anyone besides Erika noticed, I didn’t do an “August in review” like I’ve done every month since April – no desire to take another look at those games or individual numbers beyond Albert’s or Jaime Garcia’s once the month finally ended last week), there are the increasingly louder “Tony La Russa must go” voices making their opinions known. (And, truthfully, I’m starting to agree with them.) Then, yesterday brought the multiple La Russa/Colby Rasmus/Albert reports, articles and blog posts on whether Colby did or didn’t request a trade and Albert’s subsequent comments. Oy vey!

The malaise we Cardinals fans are going through is tough to take. The other day, my friend Michael e-mailed me this: “Oh, for the Cardinals to have some joy in the dugout. Not arrogance, not strutting, just some joy.” I agreed. And I came upon my solution for trying to find that joy again: head to the ballpark. Not to St. Louis, as I’m about 200 miles up the Mississippi River from there. But close to home, just across the river at Modern Woodmen Park, watching the Quad Cities River Bandits.

Their final regular season game is today, meaning there weren’t a lot of opportunities left to catch baseball at our beautiful riverfront park. (They are in the Midwest League playoffs this week, however, having clinched the division last week, so this is not their last game.) I wrote about one of my Bandits game excursions several months ago and have been to more than a few games this summer. But it had been a while between games before I went last Saturday – so much time that much of the roster was different. Promoted to Palm Beach were guys like C.J. Beatty, Deryk Hooker, D’Marcus Ingram, Ryde Rodriguez and Niko Vasquez, replaced by the likes of Alan Ahmady, August Minor League Player of the Month Rainel Rosario, Colin Walsh and former Padre minor leaguer Nick Greenwood (although we’ll just overlook how he came to be a Bandit). Last week was a 6-3 Bandits win where both Bandits old (relatively speaking), like Shelby Miller and Matt Adams, and new, like Rosario and Greenwood, all played key roles. And that, combined with the Cards continued struggles last week, had me anxious for more fun at the ballpark two nights ago.

I’d been watching the Cardinals and Reds on the FOX game of the week before I left, so was in even more desperate need of a pick-me-up by the time I reached the ballpark. Once again I went with my friend Keith, a good game companion even though he’s not a baseball fan like I am. Given Saturday’s weather – a high of only 70 degrees after a sweltering summer – and the holiday weekend, the ballpark was packed. And, once seated, the game playing out in real life before me was much like the one I’d been watching from downriver in St. Louis: home team errors led to unearned runs and not much hitting by our guys. The Bandits were extremely impatient at the plate early on, so much that even Keith (who is learning more about baseball but not really what I’d consider a huge fan) was yelling at them to stop constantly swinging at the first pitch, especially since they were grounding into outs. To make matters worse, the Bandits were playing the Peoria Chiefs, the Midwest League Cubs affiliate who wear the Cubs road gray uniforms. And, given that the Quad Cities is a mix of both Cubs and Cards fans, there were quite a few cheers for the Chiefs.

Yet, despite all that, it was hard to be upset. Maybe it’s because the Bandits had won five in a row going into Saturday night’s game and clinched their division. Or possibly it was because the weather was incredible – I had to put on my Bandits sweatshirt in the fourth inning. It could have been the entertaining-when-he-was-interacting-with-the-players-or-umpires-but-otherwise-not-amusing antics of Birdzerk. Or perhaps it was just that the beer was extremely cold, the bratwurst was extremely tasty and I had a terrific view of Robert Stock. (Yes, he’s young enough to be my son, but he won my heart forever when he gave my niece crap for wearing a Cubs shirt on Bandits opening day this year, saying he wasn’t sure if he could sign her baseball because of it – and again a few minutes later when he said she was nice to share when he asked to borrow her Sharpie to sign another autograph.)

By the seventh inning, when the Bandits were down 8-2, Keith wanted to walk around the ballpark and head to the tiki bar behind right field. First we stopped to look at the corn planted in a little patch behind the Bandits bullpen – the team enters through the now-grown corn to start the game (just like in “Field of Dreams”). As we started to move on, I noticed something I’d never seen at a ballgame before: the guys in the bullpen (which is nothing more than a row of folding chairs) had lit a bunch of cups on fire and were adding even more to the blaze. Were they cold? Bored? Getting ready for the post-game fireworks show? Regardless, it cracked us up. (I did get pictures, but they are too dark beyond the little fire!) A few minutes later, Keith and I continued our journey on the path above the grass berm that was being cleared of fans in preparation for the fireworks. As we walked, a Bandits employee reminded us we couldn’t stay out there once the game ended. After stopping to admire yet again the beauty of the Mississippi River, the Centennial Bridge and its lights reflected onto the water, we finally ended up at the tiki bar – after last call. We watched a bit more of the game from this vantage point, until the bottom of the ninth started and we wanted to get better seats for the fireworks.

So we moved back to the grandstand, choosing seats at the top of the section just behind home plate. The couple who had just vacated them were still standing there and talked to us. They had driven two hours to the game, from Morris, Ill. (hometown of Scott Spiezio!), although we never did find out if they were there rooting for the Bandits or Chiefs. The man proudly showed off a bat he’d received from a Chiefs player during batting practice before they departed. Then, after the now-obligatory chanting of the firework’s sponsor’s name by the on-field announcer, the lights went out and the display began. In contrast to the Bandits usual fireworks show, there instead was slow, instrumental movie soundtrack-sounding music that accompanied much of them, which made us very glad to hear “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood once it finally began. (We did, however, miss hearing the usual “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen – the other Bandits fireworks staple.)

And as the crowed went “ooooh” and “aaaah” over what really were spectacular fireworks, I realized that the night had accomplished what I’d hoped: given me back some of the pleasure that comes from watching baseball that’s been missing the past few weeks. True, the Bandits lost – the first time all season I’d watched them lose – but it had been a fun night and, more importantly, it was baseball. In a matter of months, after the 2010 World Series champion is crowned and during that dreary time before the 2011 season begins, I can look back and remember that Saturday night during Labor Day weekend when I was able to sit outside wearing just a sweatshirt. I’ll be counting the days until I can do that again – as well as watch the big Cardinals on TV.

Win or lose, there definitely is a joy to watching the game in person – and, also win or lose, that joy of watching live baseball in 2010 will be gone all too soon.

Come for the Atmosphere, Stay for the Baseball

Monday’s post by Erika wonderfully captured the magnitude of her family’s pilgrimage to St. Louis for a Cardinals game. Living in the Quad Cities, I have the chance to see a form of Cardinals’ baseball regularly: the River Bandits, their Class A minor league team. And baseball at this level is a much different experience than what takes place 200 miles to the south.

No. 76 in Derrick Goold’s book 100 Things Cardinals Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die is to visit the River Bandits. It’s the ballpark itself, though, that merits the mention on his list. Modern Woodmen Park is along the banks of the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa, and offers a beautiful view of the riverfront and the Centennial Bridge. If you saw the movie Sugar, you saw firsthand how lovely the ballpark really is. (The picture above, from the River Bandits website, doesn’t really do justice.) As Goold wrote, “come for the atmosphere, stay for the baseball.”

It’s true the baseball at this level can seem secondary, as going to a game here is more for entertainment than knowing the players. The River Bandits staff makes sure everyone in attendance has plenty to do. There’s a kids play area down the right field line with a bounce house and other games, plus a tiki bar beyond the right field fence to provide a grown-up play area. Outfield seating is along the grass berm – while it was constructed to provide flood control, it also provides a unique way to experience the game. There’s a walkway along the outfield so you can stroll along and look at the Mississippi River. The left field corner is a season-long work-in-progress: corn is planted each season, so the players can walk through it as they are introduced, just like in Field of Dreams (filmed in Dyersville, Iowa, about 70 miles away). Between innings are on-field games ranging from two-person toilet races to racing Rascal, the Bandits mascot, around the bases.

Of course, there is actually a game played. You can get an up-close and very affordable view of it as well, since box seats range in price from $9 to $12. The top price seats are behind the plate, offering the added attraction of watching the nightly collection of scouts utilizing their radar guns and taking notes on what the players are doing.

It’s the top prospects that the scouts are there to watch. Through the years, and through team affiliations with the Cubs, Angels, Astros and Twins, I’ve seen firsthand players like Shawon Dunston, Jim Edmonds, Richard Hidalgo, the one and only Aaron Miles, Billy Wagner, Bobby Kielty, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. But success here doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in the big leauges. I remember very well Michael Restovich, who played for the River Bandits in 1999. He had a monster season and hit .312 with 21 home runs and a franchise-record 107 RBI. He did make it to the majors, but played only 152 games total over six seasons and for five teams. (He is still playing baseball, currently with the Dodgers Triple A team in Albuquerque.)

Since 2005, the Quad Cities team has been a Cardinals affiliate. That year, Rick Ankiel spent a couple months here as he transitioned to outfielder from pitcher. I went to his first game, as he’d been one of my favorite Cardinals and I’d been at his then-final major league start in May 2001. It was an ordinary crowd and an ordinary night; the only memory that stands out is a terrific throw he made in from right field.

Many of the current Cardinals have made their way through the Quad Cities. I remember seeing both Jaime Garcia and Colby Rasmus here only a few years ago, and Nick Stavinoha was here in 2005. The Swing had a female public address announcer that year – and she loved saying his last name, dragging out each syllable before every at-bat. He was worth the extra effort, though: he hit .344 and hit 14 homers.

Because these players are just beginning their careers, the team marketing doesn’t usually focus on a player. The Swing, however, took full advantage of the five innings that Mark Mulder pitched here during an August 2006 rehab start. For 2007, his picture (complete in the Swing baby blues) graced the cover of the team’s schedule plus there was a Mark Mulder Swing bobblehead night. His one-game appearance was a big deal and the ballpark was packed. Of course I was there, and my friend Kathy captured Mark’s memorable Swing career in the adjacent photo.

This year, the River Bandits tickets feature a photo of Shelby Miller, likely taken during the three innings he pitched here at the end of last season. Miller, along with Joe Kelly and Robert Stock, are the top prospects we can see play here for now. The thing is, as Bandits fans yet also Cardinals fans, we never want to see these guys stick around very long. It’s the first stop along the journey, so we want them moving up to Palm Beach or beyond as quickly as they can.

And as a baseball fan, I can appreciate the entire experience that attending a River Bandits game offers. Friday night I was with my friend Keith, who goes for the entertainment value more than the baseball. Yet he admitted he has a new respect for the players on the field after we saw Sugar last year, especially those players who have come to the Quad Cities from outside the U.S. He would patiently pause our conversation, which ranged from the movie to burying St. Joseph statues to player superstitions and more, whenever my attention was sidetracked by the on-field action. Yes, it’s definitely the atmosphere. But for me it’s also the baseball.

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