Midwest League Part III: Covering their bases

Midwest League Baseball
Baseball is a business, show business; in its way part of the entertainment industry, despite all the quasi-pastoral associations that surround the game. — photo by David Henderson

On a Thursday evening in June, Patrick Wisdom of the visiting Peoria Chiefs hit an opposite field home run just beyond the reach of Cedar Rapids Kernels right fielder Adam Brett Walker. Walker leaped and knocked against a section of the padded outfield wall sponsored by the insurance and investment provider Transamerica. A roughly 4-foot-wide strip of padding came loose, slumped and fell down on the warning track, revealing a patch of bare fence. Walker looked at it for a second, then picked up the padding and hurled it up back onto the fence. Not perfect but good enough. No stoppage of play. The show went on.

Baseball is a business, show business; in its way part of the entertainment industry, despite all the quasi-pastoral associations that surround the game. Industrial agriculture is in the air here and advertised on the outfield walls, in case you forget you are in Iowa. Teams need advertisers and can’t presume the cost of baseball alone will equal tickets sold. The players don’t wear ad-splattered uniforms like NASCAR drivers or professional soccer players (at least not yet), but commercial and carnivalesque appeals abound.

Promotions, freebies, amusements and spectacle are legion in the Midwest League: concerts; fireworks; bouncy houses; bobbleheads; acrobats and flaming baton jugglers; ring toss to win a tricycle; refrigerator, keg and used car giveaways; Kids Run the Bases Sunday; Superman, Star Wars and Trek Nights; Flat Screen Family Sunday; Disco Night; Tattoo Night (patrons get season tickets for getting inked with the team logo); Cowboy Monkey Rodeo; CHiPs Night at the Ballpark, featuring Erik Estrada; and Wrestling Night at the Ballpark, featuring George “The Animal” Steele (who has a master’s degree). The circus is always in town.

Midwest League Baseball
You can see Superman, Captain America, Batman and Spiderman roam the aisles hawking concessions, molded foam torsos highlighting their heroic pecs and abs. — photo by David Henderson

All this might be beneath the dignity of high-minded purists, but schtick—however corny—seems to be essential. The Kernels’ mascot Mr. Shucks dances “Gangnam Style.” Free t-shirts are thrown from atop dugouts, flung from slingshots, launched from “blasters” as a golf cart zooms around the perimeter of the field. Two fans are brought on the field between innings, rest their foreheads on the handles of baseball bats and spin around until dizzy, then race off on crutches.

Local KGAN sports director Jared Aarons, displaying a refreshing lack of fake broadcaster gravitas, moonlights for the Kernels as a between-innings on-field MC. Dressed as a banana he judges a footrace between three slices of pizza, later he dons a hot dog costume and postgame he is Luigi (of Mario Brothers fame), directing kids to stay behind the sideline ropes before a helicopter arrives to drop candy on the field.

You can see Superman, Captain America, Batman and Spiderman roam the aisles hawking concessions, molded foam torsos highlighting their heroic pecs and abs.

“Cotton candy here!” says Superman. “Best cotton candy in the game of baseball.”

“Yes, this is my day job,” the Man of Steel proclaims after another pass around the concourse.

When the Cedar Rapids grounds crew rakes the infield, barely dirty bases are removed and replaced with brilliant white ones. Then the Noelridge Dental Tooth Fairy, a young woman with diaphanous wings strapped to her back, skips lightly—no, floats and hovers—from station to station, brushing the bases with a gigantic toothbrush.

The Quad Cities River Bandits, now an affiliate of the Houston Astros (after the St. Louis Cardinals signed a new player development contract with Peoria, ending an eight-year relationship with the River Bandits), play their games at Modern Woodmen Park on the banks of the Mississippi River in Davenport. Known as Municipal Stadium when it opened in 1931, it was re-named John O’Donnell Stadium in 1971 to honor a legendary sports editor. When the Main Street Iowa ownership group took over in 2007, the stadium was re-dubbed Modern Woodmen Park, after “fraternal financial service provider” Modern Woodmen of America signed on for a 10-year naming rights contract.

Just beyond right field the Centennial Bridge stretches across the river to Rock Island. Great views are enabled by a walkway that stretches around the entire perimeter of the ballpark. It is so beautiful you might not even mind the clouds of mayflies and other insects in the thick summer air.

If you don’t want to deal with insects and heat, and have the money, many climate-controlled luxury suites have been installed in the last decade. Massive renovations in 2002 made room for more convenient food and drink offerings on the concourse, a large team store and the Mediacom Sports Lounge. In 2008, a few rows of corn were planted near the River Bandits bullpen. When it reaches full-height, players emerge from the corn, “Field-of-Dreams-style” during pregame introductions. Attendance has been on the rise for the last decade in the Quad Cities, averaging 3,582 a game in 2012, versus 1,729 in 2002.

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Midwest League Baseball
— photo by David Henderson

But not everyone loves the changes. Steve Holmes, producer of the 2001 documentary The New Ball Game, understands the business pressures on minor league franchises, but laments the passing of the smaller, more intimate experience at the ballpark.

“I grudgingly accept that it has to be that way,” Holmes told me for a radio feature in 2011. “And if, for whatever reason, this team doesn’t draw, there are plenty of cities that would love to have the River Bandits. So, I hated the renovation. I thought it was a much classier, quainter ballpark the way it was before the renovation was done.”

New things keep coming. Partnering with the City of Davenport, the River Bandits’ ownership group added a 300-foot dual zip line and a 25-foot climbing wall to the entertainment beyond the diamond for this season. A ferris wheel was slated to start circulating on the edge of the ballpark in June, but that piece of Coney Island on the Mississippi is on hold for a bit, as spring flooding postponed the project. A carousel and an immersive “4-D” movie theatre with vibrating seats and mist effects are in the works as well.

Is it a ballpark or an amusement park? Yes.

Photos by David Henderson

Multimedia reporter @DavidVHenderson regrets not having met George “The Animal” Steele.