Cardinal baseball, from the girls
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.