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Monday, September 6, 2010

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.


  1. How about this for joy: the Memphis Redbirds beat the Iowa Cubs in what had to be the most exciting, edge-of-your-seat minor league game this year. The Redbirds' bullpen gives up one run in 11 innings in a game in which, if Memphis lost, Iowa wins a playoff spot. Allen Craig drives in the winning run in the top of the 15th, and Tyler Norrick pitches three shutout innings for the win.

    So today, it's a winner-take-all game. Winner goes home to face Oklahoma City for the first round of the PCL playoffs, the loser team might get a few call-ups to the big league club to sit on the bench to watch the finish of a lost season.

    Why not forget all the Joe Strauss-stirred up palace intrigue with LaRussa, Rasmus and Pujols and follow a team that just hustles and plays the game with joy -- your Memphis Redbirds.

    And maybe root for some players who will be a part of a Cardinals' playoff team in 2011 -- if whoever is the manager will allow them to play instead of Proven Veterans(TM).

  2. Chris,
    Great story! I love the pyromaniacs in the bullpen part - haha!

    I too was rejuvenated by catching some minor league baseball this weekend. Amazing how live baseball and the fun of the minor league games can recharge our baseball fan battery! ;)

    And Michael, I am BEYOND excited about our Memphis Redbirds and their chance today! It was the first thing I thought of when I woke up today! I have butterflies already! That would be amazing! How I wish I were in Iowa today! ;)

    (If they win, they come to my hometown for the PCL playoffs!!)

    GO CARDS!! (Angela is cheering them on in Milwaukee today)

    and GOOOOOOO BabyBirds!!!! (come see me this week!)

  3. Great description of a fun day at the ballpark. Takes me back to watching players who just love to play the game. Love Birdzerk and the corn patch Field of Dreams team entrance. Loved getting the whole Cardinal hot mess off my mind! ;-) BTW BIRDZERK is now what I'm going to say I'm going instead of insane. I'm going BIRDZERK!!!


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