I have remained a baseball fan virtually all of my life, even as I have grown weary of the changes in the Major League game – few players who stick with one team for their careers, owners who bilk every last cent out of the fans who bother to show up, and the increasing separation between the team haves and have-nots that has created a near permanent baseball underclass. Sometimes I find myself scratching my head, wondering what made me a fan in the first place. Maybe tonight will help me remember. I will be attending a Minor League Class A game, pitting the local Swing of the Quad Cities, a Class A affiliate of my hometown St. Louis Cardinals, against the Western Michigan Whitecaps. It is a perfect evening for a baseball game in Davenport. The sky is a deep blue, one seamless color uninterrupted by even a hint of a cloud. As the day’s warmth recedes with the sun, the evening air cools into the 70s.
John O’Donnell Stadium is the kind of baseball shrine whose mere presence can re-ignite my interest in the game. It hosted its first baseball game on May 26 1931, with 2800 fans cheering for the Davenport Blue Sox. Since that time, Quad Cities fans have cheered for minor league teams called the Cubs, Pirates, Quads, DavSox, Angels, and River Bandits. Positioned on the Davenport riverfront between railroad tracks and a river bridge, the gently curving brick façade and arched entryways project a dignified presence. Unprotected by a levee, during its 75 years the stadium has survived not only the comings and goings of several teams, but also some serious flooding, most notably in 1993 when the field was submersed for several weeks. The stadium underwent extensive renovations in 2004.
Tickets are not hard to come by tonight. Dozens of people, including me, stand in line to buy game day tickets; none will be turned away. At $9, a box seat is a bargain. As I enter the stadium, I scan the menus at the concession stands and see mostly ballpark staples like hot dogs, nachos, and ice cream; the beer options include a local microbrew. I grab a $4 Brat and $5 raspberry wheat ale and head to my seat eight rows behind home plate and just a touch down the first base line. The view is unbeatable. Directly in front of me is the on-deck circle for the visiting Whitecaps. I am nearly close enough to scratch the back of the next batter. The field has major league dimensions – 343 to left, 400 to center, and 318 down the right field line. Beyond the fences, the right and left field grass is occupied by fans on blankets. Just beyond the exterior wall stretches the currently placid Mississippi River and the downtown profiles of Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois. To my right, the view is framed by the Centennial Bridge with its graceful steel arches reflecting the waning sunlight. The park is not only in downtown, it is enveloped by downtown. Trains rumble and roar just feet from the stadium and gulls swoop in from the river, buzzing the pitchers in the process. Later in the evening, fireworks from Rock Island, visible just beyond center field, test the concentration skills of batters for both teams.
The game begins promptly at 7. Two left-handed pitchers are set to duel it out – Chris Cody for the Whitecaps and Brad Furnish for the Swing. One player stands out for me, not because of any exceptional skills but because he has the perfect baseball name – Deik Scram. He is great headline material: “Wham Bam Scram” or “Seek-and-Destroy Deik” or maybe just “Deik-and-Destroy” or how about “Sheik Deik Commands Swing to Scram”. Opposing teams will probably gravitate toward words like geek, meek or weak.
The action in the stadium never stops, even between innings. In the second inning, two children race toy tractors down the first base line. The tractors are John Deere, of course, being that their World Headquarters are just up the road in Moline. A couple of innings later, two adults volunteer to put their heads on a bat and spin in circles for ten seconds, then sprint to a finish line a few yards away. When they lift their heads and start running, one of them veers sharply to the right, stumbles, and falls down. Everyone laughs. Watching people look silly never gets old.
I have a most excellent chance to grab a foul ball souvenir. A line drive screams up the aisle next to me, faster then a developer to a tax break. The ball hits a concrete step and ricochets into the back of a man to my right and behind me. The ball lands with a thud on the concrete floor and rolls under my seat, brushing against my left foot. For a split second, I look back at the man in curiosity, wondering if he is OK, then regain my senses and start searching for the ball. Alas, I hesitated just long enough to give the five-year old in front of me a chance to grab the ball right out from under me.
As for the game, the Whitecaps piece together a 3-0 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh. The offense of the Swing has been punchless to this point but finally shows life. After loading the bases, the Swing score their first run on an errant throw to first base. Finally the fans have cause to cheer. The stadium crew celebrates with a modest display of fireworks. If an unearned run is a good enough excuse for fireworks, I wonder what they will do if something really dramatic happens. The noise level increases. The next batter, Willian Sandoval, is overmatched and strikes out, temporarily deflating the crowd. Up steps second baseman Jared Schweitzer, already with two hits on the night. Smack! He rips a pitch over the left field wall and nearly out of the stadium, clearing the bases with a dramatic grand slam and giving the Swing a 5-3 lead. The crowd erupts but the fireworks don’t, at least not right away. The ground crew is probably as shocked as anyone else. Unfortunately, the Swing can’t hold the lead. They bring in their usually reliable closer, Kenny Maiques, but he does not have his best stuff tonight. The Whitecaps score three times in the top of the ninth and hold on to win the game 6-5. All-in-all, the quality of the play is higher than I expected for a Class A game.
Attendance at Swing games has been declining in recent years, but a new ownership group is hoping to re-ignite fan interest. I hope they succeed. In an era where baseball is increasingly corporate and prohibitively expensive for families, the minor leagues offer a refreshing reminder of the way baseball used to be. If you are in the Quad Cities, check out the Swing. You won’t be disappointed. As for Deik, he has a rough night, going 0-5, and slowing the momentum of the Scram Tram to the Majors. I still have my fingers crossed for him.
Bad Decision of the Day: Not eating a full meal before the game. The stadium vendors sell primarily fried foods, something I had eaten aplenty in the previous couple of days.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2007