August 2009

Ace in the Hole

On Wednesday, the Quad Cities River Bandits met Shelby Miller. You can hear his interview at the bottom of this blog entry. For those of you that are reading that name for the first time, here’s a quick recap:

An 18-year-old fireballer from Brownwood, Texas – “right in the middle of the state,” as he says – Shelby was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals with the 19th overall pick in the 2009 draft. Two months later he signed on the dotted line for a cool $2.875 million, the kind of money reserved for top of the line talents. Word is that he was considered a top 10 guy, and the Cardinals were fortunate that he was still available at pick 19 because some teams shied away from his bonus demands.

A four-seam fastball that hits 98 mph with movement and a curveball that projects to be a plus major league pitch down the road tends do increase a guys draft stock. Shelby also throws a sinker and a changeup that he didn’t need to use much in high school, but Cardinals pitching coordinator Dyar Miller told me that in his bullpen at Busch Stadium on Tuesday, both pitches possessed pretty good movement.

As it stands now, here is the plan. And rest assured, these plans have a habit of changing early and often. But as of now, the plan is for Shelby to throw another side session today and then a third one on Saturday and a batting practice session next Monday in Clinton. If all goes well, that would leave him on track to throw about 30 pitches in his professional debut at Modern Woodmen Park on Thursday, September 3, and 40-45 pitches a few days later in the season finale on September 7.

By the way, one of the reasons this is a big deal – besides the fact that he is a first-round pick with high expectations – is that he was in high school just a few months ago. You don’t see a lot of high school draft picks making their pro debuts at the full-season level. Even first-rounders like Colby Rasmus and Pete Kozma, high school selections in 2005 and 2007, respectively, spent their draft summers in short-season ball before reaching the Quad Cities the following season. I think that speaks to just how highly the Cardinals think of Shelby, and how much potential they believe he truly possesses.

One last note. The coolest thing about Shelby’s last couple of days, including his introduction to the Cardinals “family” in St. Louis on Tuesday? He said it was the surreal experience of meeting John Smoltz in the Busch Stadium clubhouse. I can see that. But how could that be cooler than getting a ride from St. Louis with Dyar Miller himself??? To be a fly on the wall in that car!

And finally, here is my interview with Shelby from before Wednesday night’s game, after he met the River Bandits for the first time in Peoria:
082609 – Shelby Miller.WMA

We’ve Come a Long Way

This morning, Steve Batterson of the Quad-City Times dropped by the ballpark to interview me for his “Getting to Know” feature for the paper. Every Wednesday, readers of the Times can “get to know” a different River Bandits personality through the weekly feature.

As Steve and I were chatting, one of his questions got me thinking about all of the changes that have gone on here over the last two years. Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the here and now. It can be an amazing thing to take a step back and look at how far we’ve come.

Some of you already know that I was the only full-time staff member retained through the ownership transition following the 2007 season. It sounds crazy, but the five years I’ve been with the club is considered a relatively long stay in this business.

Prior to the ownership change, working for the Swing of the Quad Cities wasn’t exactly the most sought-after job in the business. Attendance was down, the community had a poor perception of our operation, the front office experienced high turnover every off-season, and… well… you all saw the jerseys our players had to wear.

Through it all, however, it was clear that baseball could thrive in this market. What was so frustrating was that we did not have the opportunity to work towards that goal. It was a stagnant operation.

That all changed in 2007, when Main Street Iowa purchased the franchise from the previous owner, Seventh Inning Stretch.

Suddenly, wild ideas for outlandish promotions were welcome. Customer service was emphasized as a critical element to bringing the fans back. Resources were devoted to enhancing the fan experience through ballpark additions, zany promotions, and an improved production department.

It’s hard to believe that in only two seasons since the ownership change, total attendance has surged from 148,773 in 2007 to 222,858 and counting this year. When all is said and done, it will be an increase of nearly 100,000 fans per season in just two years. All you have to is look around the ballpark and you’ll need more than two hands to count all of the fantastic additions to an already beautiful facility in Modern Woodmen Park. And, best of all, fans are proud be boast the River Bandits as their hometown team again. I see people wearing Bandits hats and shirts all the time when I’m out in public. People hear that I work for the River Bandits and immediately begin rapid-firing questions about what its like to work for the club.

Things have come a long way over the past two years. And I’m proud to say that I was a part of it.

Draft Day Part II

I know, I know. The draft was more than two months ago. But with the signing deadline having past last night, many of the first round picks just signed. It almost feels like Draft Part II.

Of course Stephen Strasburg – now a Washington National – made the biggest headlines, inking a record $15.1 million major league contract with a record $7.5 million signing bonus. Yipes. I guess now he can upgrade from that Schwinn now. Those kind of dollar figures are pretty mind boggling, aren’t they? And I can’t believe people are calling for him to be in the big leagues later this year. Sounds like a great way to take a $15.8 million investment and increase the odds that he flames out if you ask me.

I think a lot of people were surprised that there were only three first-rounders that didn’t sign, one of which – Aaron Crow – was not beholden to the same signing deadline in his negotiations with the Royals.

Of course, in our world, the biggest signing was that of St. Louis Cardinals’ first-rounder Shelby Miller. The St. Louis Cardinals made a bold move by picking him in the first place. Though they grabbed the flame-throwing righty at No. 19 overall, the only reason the talented high schooler dropped that far was because teams were scared off by perceived bonus demands. That marked an agressive move by an organization that had been criticized for playing it safe and electing to draft lower-risk, lower-ceiling prospects in recent drafts. I’m not sure I buy into that criticism, but that’s certainly what was flying around the papers in St. Louis.

In signing Miller for $2.875 million, the Cardinals took a high ceiling prospect with front-of-the-rotation potential. They had to go above slot to sign him, but came in well below the reported $4 million he was asking for. We’re talking about a guy that was rated by Baseball America as the 7th-rated right-handed pitcher in the entire draft. He went 10-2 as a high school senior in Brownwood, Texas, posting a 1.90 ERA while racking up 153 strikeouts in just 77 innings.

And while he likely won’t be able to pitch this season, the ace-of-the-future could very well be wearing a River Bandits uniform in 2010.

Home Sweet Home

What a wild one last night! The River Bandits ended up losing in 15 innings in Kane County, but other than the final score it was a fantastic ballgame. Five QC pitchers combined to hold the Cougars to six hits – only three of which left the infield – and four relievers put together a stretch in which 26 men in a row were retired at one point. That’s one out shy of a perfect game!!!

Unfortunately, what should have been the 27th consecutive out was instead played into a two-out error, ultimately leading to the unearned run that ended the night. Kevin Thomas will try to pitch the Bandits to a split in tonight’s road trip finale at Elfstrom Stadium.

Then, it’s back to Davenport on Saturday. And what a homestand we’ve got planned! Remember, there are only 11 home games remaining this season. Hard to believe, but it’s true. Eight of them come up this week and there are some fantastic promotions in store, so now’s the time visit the ballpark. For a full list of promotions you can click here. For Ben Chiswick’s personal favorites, read on…

The fun starts on Saturday night with the Rascal bobblehead doll giveaway. It’s the final installment of the four-part series featuring Brett Wallace, Pete Kozma, Steve Dillard and Rascal emerging from the corn field. SWEET collector’s items. But after the game, the Rockin’ Saturday concert is the best one yet – Dueling Pianos! Personally, I love Dueling Pianos. Always a good time. Somebody please make sure they don’t try to avoid playing “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel.

Sunday, we’re hosting an Xbox Madden 2010 tournament just two days after the game’s release. Awesome. Tuesday is going to be Salute to the Mustache. Sure, mustache’s can be kind of creepy, but I’ve got a feeling this will be highly entertaining.

Later in the week and into next week, a couple of other exciting things to talk about. Those of you that listen to me on the radio have likely heard me talking about BirdZerk! In fact, he was in Kane County last night (although I noticed he was conspicuously absent as the game went into the 15th). He is one of these traveling entertainment acts and is HILARIOUS. If you’ve got kids it’s a can’t-miss show, and he’ll be at Modern Woodmen Park on Thursday.

After a Rascal wind-up doll giveaway on Friday, Saturday the 21st is going to be Jimmy Buffett Night. You gotta love the Parrot Heads. What a laid-back bunch of dudes. I wish I had a Hawaiian shirt, then maybe they would let me into the club. The River Bandits will be wearing sweet Jimmy Buffett-style jerseys that will be auctioned off in support of Genesis Health System charities – a great cause.

If I haven’t given you good enough reasons to visit Modern Woodmen Park this week, then you should really stop trying to steal Christmas every year. Nobody likes a downer.

Bandits are back on Saturday and charging hard for the playoffs. See you at the ballpark, and wish us luck tonight in Kane County!

Gearing up

When the River Bandits returned to the team hotel after Tuesday night’s 4-2 win in Kane County, manager Steve Dillard found a new present waiting outside.

Meet Scott Schneider, a right-handed pitcher from California who was just called up from Batavia. Schneider was a 20th-round pick out of St. Mary’s College in June and blazed through the New York-Penn League, going 2-0 with a sparkling 0.92 ERA and a rediculous 47-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39.1 innings of work with the Muckdogs. He will be plugged into the starting rotation to make his River Bandits debut on Thursday, and Miguel Tapia – after starting tonight in Kane County – will return to the bullpen.

Although I’ll probably regret saying it, this move likely represents the final piece of the puzzle as the River Bandits continue their charge towards the playoffs. Of course, now that I did say it, expect another 14-transaction day any time now. The series of transactions on August 3 revamped the offense, and now the additions of Schneider and Eric Fornataro have solidified the rotation. Combine that with a bullpen that has steadily improved with the likes of Ramon Delgado and Dave Carpenter, and suddenly this team has emerged as one to be reckoned with around the Midwest League.

Did you know that the starting rotation has combined to post a 2.64 ERA while issuing just 13 walks over the last 13 games? That the offense has averaged more than six runs per game since August 3? That closer Dave Carpenter has gone more than two months without blowing a save and has a 1.42 ERA over his last 16 appearances?

Twenty-five games left in the season, and Quad Cities is currenlty tied with Clinton for the Western Division’s second-half wild card spot. Game on.

HUGE homestand coming up at Modern Woodmen Park starting Saturday. In addition to eight key games against the teams the River Bandits are currently battling with for a playoff spot, there is also a ton going on promotionally. I’ll blog about the highlights in the coming days, but can anybody say “dueling pianos”? I love that stuff!

Really?

Four homers, 16 runs batted in and a 1.185 slugging percentage. Really? In his first seven games in the Midwest League?

On Monday, Xavier Scruggs – the River Bandits new first baseman – was named the Midwest League Player of the Week. In his first week. After missing the first two months of the season with a left bicep injury and playing just a handful of games with short-season Batavia.

All he did was lead the league in hits (15), home runs, RBI, slugging and extra-base hits (8). That’s all. Oh, and he also hit .556.

Not only has Scruggs been dominant in his first week of Midwest League action, but he has also stayed humble. You don’t here him barking about how well he is playing or admiring one of his four long home runs. He told me today that, while he has always beleived in his abilities, even he was a bit surprised at the gaudy numbers he has put up already.

A lot of guys would be trying to make up for lost time after being sidelined for two months to start the year. But Scruggs – who likely would have started the 2009 season with Quad Cities had it not been for an injury incurred while swinging a bat during spring training – is not afraid to go the other way with an outside pitch or stay patient and draw a walk despite potential RBI opportunities standing on the basepaths.

Take a listen to the conversation I had with Xavier after batting practice this afternoon, which will air on my pre-game show tonight: 081009 – Xavier Scruggs.WMA. On WYEC 93.9 FM or streaming through www.RiverBandits.com for those of you keeping track.

By the way, how about a special mention for new third baseman Jermaine Curtis? Had it not been for Scruggs’s monster week, Curtis may very well have been named the league’s best position player. His six doubles, four stolen bases and nine runs scored led the league, and he also was among the league leaders with seven extra-base hits (T-2), a .606 on-base percentage (3), an .833 slugging percentage (3) and a .458 batting average (5). Not bad. Curtis was a fifth-round pick out of UCLA in the 2008 draft.

No wonder the River Bandits have won five of their last eight games.

New-look Bandits

A pitchers’ duel went againt the Bandits last night, but we’re back in Burlington for a Sunday afternoon game.

Quad Cities is a whole new team since Monday’s roster overhaul. Xavier Scruggs and Jermaine Curtis are leading a new-look lineup that has averaged 6.2 runs and eight extra-base hits per game since the roster shakeup. Suddenly, this lineup packs a pretty good punch.

The other big thing is that the pitching was already starting to come around. River Bandits starters are 5-3 with a 2.04 ERA and just 10 walks over their last 10 games. The bullpen has been nearly as good. If you haven’t seen Jonathan Gonzalez pitch out of the bullpen yet, he’s shown the ability to throw three pitches for strikes and he hasn’t allowed a hit in six innings since joining the River Bandits.

And remember, Quad Cities is just one game out of a playoff spot with 28 to play. This team figures to play some exciting baseball down the stretch.

Quick injury update: Kevin Thomas had to leave Saturday night’s start in the second inning after getting struck by a line drive. Though he’s got a pretty good bruise to show for it, he will more than likely be able to make his next start on Thursday in Kane County.

I’ve gotta run. Daytime baseball – heat index is 100 degrees in Burlington today – awaits.

Who are these guys?

Monday was a day unlike any other that I have seen since I began working in baseball. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons I love this business. Whether its on the field or off it, you never know what the next day will hold. Every day brings new challenges and keeps you on your toes.

Yesterday, there were 14 transactions made affecting the River Bandits roster. After I sent out the official moves, I had about 10 responses from my peers around the league, all of which featured some sort of sarcastic yet witty comment. Seven new players officially joined the team, while seven others left town.

And from the first pitch fired off by Kevin Thomas last night, you could feel the new-look River Bandits getting a burst of adrenaline. Not only did Thomas throw seven dominant innings, but Quad Cities exploded for six runs in the first and led by as much as 9-0 in a blowout win. New first baseman Xavier Scruggs made the biggest splash of all, clubbing a pair of two-run homers to the delight of the excited crowd.

There are just 33 games left, and the Bandits are right in the thick of the playoff race.

But in addition to the tremendous boost provided by the seven new River Bandits, the flurry of roster moves also gave me a moment to reflect about the human side of the game. It is easy for fans to forget, after all, that the players between the white lines are real people, just like you and me. For them, baseball is more than a game – it is their livelihood, their future, their hopes and dreams.

For a player, there is nothing more rewarding than earning a promotion. Matt Carpenter, Arquimedes Nieto, Osvaldo Morales and Jose Garcia all moved up to Palm Beach. Conversely, a demotion can be pretty demoralizing for the guys. Jon Edwards, Travis Mitchell and Kyle Conley were all sent down to Batavia. What is sometimes difficult for players to realize, however, is that there is a difference between a promotion and a setback.

For example, one of the players that joined the River Bandits yesterday was Jermaine Curtis, a third baseman that was sent down from Palm Beach. But you have to remember that Curtis was just drafted last summer, and he skipped the Quad Cities in the first place when he started the season with Palm Beach. A shortstop named Tyler Greene immediately comes to mind. After initially skipping this level, Greene was struggling at Palm Beach and was sent down to the Quad Cities midway through the 2006 season. He went on to hit 15 homers and drive in 47 runs in 59 games in the Midwest League, and broke spring training the next year at Double-A – staying right on track. As many of you likely already know, Greene made his big league debut earlier this season and has played 41 games for the Cardinals.

What I guess I’m trying to say is that it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Today’s setback may simply be a short-lived one, and in the grand scheme of things may even turn out to be a positive. Just ask Tyler Greene.

 

By the way… T-minus two days, 11 hours and 57 minutes until the Professional Pillow Fight League rolls in on Thursday! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Welcome to August!

Hard to believe, but here we are. We’ve played over 100 games and nearly four months. The River Bandits have traveled all over the Midwest. We’ve seen wins and losses, 14-inning games and rain-shortened seven-inning affairs, blowouts, suspended games, and a host of other twists and turns that inevitably pop up over the course of a full season. That’s why you’ve gotta love this game.

I am writing this post from Grand Chute, Wisconsin, a suburb of Appleton about 30 miles southwest of Green Bay. For a born-and-raised Chicago Bears fan like me, this is as close as I get to enemy territory. I can practically feel the green and yellow Kryptonite pushing me away.

But not so fast! We’ve got two games left to play against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers at Fox Cities Stadium. The River Bandits blew out the Rattlers last night, 7-0, thanks in large part to another great starting performance by Arquimedes Nieto. You gotta love this guy. He’s 20 years old, listed at 175 pounds, and no way he  touches six feet tall – but he’s got a wicked changeup and when his control is on he’s dangerous. Most guys, especially ones with a slight build like his, wear down as the season goes on. But not “Arqy.” He finished July with a 2.72 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 36.1 innings, making it easily his best month of the season.

After this trip we’ve got another loaded homestand coming up Monday-Thursday at Modern Woodmen Park. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? It wasn’t more than two years ago that our homestands were plain, boring and as run-of-the-mill as you could get. Now, even a four-day, middle-of-the-week homestand is loaded with promotions. 

Tuesday and Wednesday will be two huge crowds thanks to the annual events held at the ballpark by the Quad Cities Homebuilders & Remodelers Association and the Optimists International. If you like candy – and the huge success of last week’s candy drop makes me thing that more than a few of you do – we’ve also got Halloween in August coming on Wednesday. I might even try to sneak away from the radio booth to see if I can knock on some suite doors and go trick-or-treating!

But the most unique thing going on this week is on Thursday. Never mind the $2 drink specials on a Thirst-day Thursday. Never mind a special Thursday night fireworks show after the game. DID YOU KNOW THERE WAS A PROFESSIONAL PILLOW FIGHTING LEAGUE?!?!?!

Yup, it’s for real. I’m dead series. Click here for proof. They’ve even got instructions on how to try out. Now look, I’m a married man. Happily married in fact. Wendy, if you’re reading this, I love you more than anything in the world.

But the day a bunch of cute, young and energetic women pillowfighting in front of a beer-infused crowd doesn’t sound like fun is the day I need to be checked into a nursing home.