September 2009

A New Generation of Cardinals

One of those funny little things about working in Minor League Baseball is that, for the most part, you really don’t get much of a chance to watch a whole lot of Major League Baseball.

I’ve always found this to be a bit ironic. Many people get into the business of baseball in large part because they love the sport and want to be close to it. I’m one of the fortunate ones whose job is to actually watch all of the River Bandits games, but most baseball professionals in non-broadcast positions really don’t get to watch much of their team’s games either.

So, we all have this time of year. September. One month of regular season major league baseball to enjoy before the playoffs hit.

This year, I have really enjoyed watching the Cardinals charge towards the playoffs. Please don’t share this information with anybody that I grew up with in the northern suburbs of Chicago. While I grew up a die-hard Cubs fan – and still am – the opportunity to work with players, coaches and front office staffers from the St. Louis organization has made it impossible not to root for their success.

And at this point, the Cardinals are riddled with former QC’ers at the big league level and throughout the organization.

On Saturday, their 6-3 win in Colorado officially clinched the NL-Central title. Five members of their roster played in the Quad Cities, including outfielders Colby Rasmus (’06) and Rick Ankiel (’05), relievers Kyle McClellan (’05) and Jason Motte (’06), and infielder Tyler Greene (’06).

Rasmus, Ankiel, McClellan and Motte have been on the big league roster all season and have played crucial roles to help the Cards’ to a division title. Greene has been up and down between Triple-A and the majors, and is not the only former QC’er to contribute in St. Louis without an everyday role. Others include infielder Jarrett Hoffpauir (’05), outfielders Shane Robinson (’06) and Nick Stavinoha (’05), pitcher P.J. Walters (’07), and since-traded hurlers Clayton Mortensen (’07) and Chris Perez (’06).

That’s 11 former Quad Cities players that have contributed to the Cardinals’ 2009 NL-Central title, or more than a quarter (28%) of the 40 players that have suited up for the Redbirds in all. Rasmus, who was a Midwest League All-Star in 2006, is in the conversation for National League Rookie of the Year. McClellan, who suffered a Tommy John-inducing injury with Quad Cities in 2005, has been lights out in the bullpen.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly enjoy watching these guys make it to the bigs. And I look forward to watching how far this group of Cardinals can go in the playoffs.

Down to Two

Good morning everyone!

The River Bandits season may be over, but the Midwest League playoffs have been pretty exhilarating. The championship series starts tonight, with Fort Wayne playing host to Burlington at Parkview Field.

It should be a great match-up. Fort Wayne got to this point thanks to a 10th-inning walk-off homer in the deciding game against Great Lakes last night, and is looking to finish up a storybook season. The rebranded TinCaps boasted the best regular season record in all of Minor League Baseball while setting new attendance marks in their brand new downtown ballpark – which is a magnificent facility, by the way. They’ve got the one of the league’s best pitchers in strikeout king Simon Castro, as well as one of the league’s best young players in 19-year-old Jaff Decker.

But don’t look past Burlington. The defending champs have been one of the hottest teams over the last month and are powered by a number of potent bats and one of the league’s best bullpens. Jason Taylor – who was part of last year’s championship squad – hit a two-run homer in the first inning last night, providing all the offense in a 2-1 win over Cedar Rapids in the rubber match of the Western Division finals.

To get to this point, there have been more walk-offs and exciting finishes than I can remember in past years. How about Great Lakes’ Jaime Pedroza? All he did was launch a game-winning homer in the 10th inning of game three to help the Loons past West Michigan in the first round, and then save the day with a game-tying three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth in game two against Fort Wayne to spark a four-comeback, 11-10 win in 11 innings. Or Peoria’s Chris Huseby? With the game on the line against Cedar Rapids, the talented closer issued four walks and hit a batter to force in the game-tying and game-winning runs to end the Chiefs season and help the Kernels move along.

No shortage of action in this post-season. I can’t imagine things will be any different now that the league is whittled down to two. Enjoy!

The Year That Was

The baseball season is a funny thing. You spend five months in a seemingly unending stretch of daily baseball games. Then you get to the end and wonder how it passed so quickly.

Every year I get to a point in August or September where, over the course of a broadcast, I refer back to something that happened in April. Every year when that happens, I am once again struck by the fact that I am literally referring to something that occurred five months ago.

With such a lengthy season, there will inevitably be multiple peaks and valleys for every team. The River Bandits are no exception. While it would be easy to malign a sub-.500 finish (61-78) and a second consecutive season watching the playoffs unfold from afar, that simply doesn’t do justice to the season that was.

To that end, I’d like to recap some of the highlights from the 2009 season. To me, these are things that will enter my mind down the road when I reminisce about it. Oddly enough, it seems the Beloit Snappers had a lot to do with the River Bandits’ success this year…

  • The most important thing that happened to the River Bandits this year came outside the white lines. The resurgence of baseball in the Quad Cities over the past two years is one of those things that will have far more of a long-lasting place in history than anything that happened on the diamond this summer. Total attendance (236,401) and average attendance (3,694) were both the highest since 1995 and among the top-five figures in franchise history. Since the ownership change following the 2007 season, attendance has increased 64 percent on a per-game basis (2,254 to 3,694) and 59 percent on an annual basis (148,773 to 236,401). Bandits baseball is back. And that’s a fact.
  • On the field, there were a few other occurrences with important historical context. One was the first game of an April 15 doubleheader at Modern Woodmen Park against the Beloit Snappers. Hector Cardenas started and threw five nearly perfect innings, with the only baserunner coming on a two-out error in the third. Kevin Thomas entered to pitch the final two frames, twirling a perfect sixth before working around an error and a walk in the seventh to induce a game-ending double play. The end result? A 3-0 win and the first no-hitter achieved by Quad Cities since 2001. It was just the 10th no-hitter in franchise history, the third since 1977, and the first ever combined no-no.
  • On April 22, the River Bandits beat the Snappers 4-2 and Steve Dillard managed his 413th game for Quad Cities. On June 21, the River Bandits used a six-run ninth-inning to beat the Snappers, 6-4, on the final day of the first half and earn Dillard his 211th managerial win with Quad Cities. Both were franchise records, and Dillard ended the season with 242 wins and 541 games managed in his Quad Cities career (two seasons managing an Astros affiliate in 1993-94 and two more with the Cardinals in 2008-09). He has had a tremendous impact on the history of Quad Cities baseball and is one of the true good guys in the game of baseball.
  • There were also some fantastic individual efforts over the course of the season. Charlie Cutler hit .351 in 66 games and led the league in hitting for an extended period of time before being promoted to Palm Beach. Chris Swauger (.296 in 31G) also had a great early season before being promoted in May. Despite a slow start, Alex Castellanos might have been the best offensive player the River Bandits had over the course of the year, batting .270 when he went up and collecting more doubles (21) and stolen bases (21) than anybody else in a QC uniform in 2009. At the end of the season, Xavier Scruggs (.295, 7HR, 33 RBI, .527 SLG% in 34G) and Jermaine Curtis (.304, 12-2B, 12-SB, .426 OBP in 30G) also stood out as having exceptional impacts.
  • On the mound, I don’t think anybody was as impressive as Casey Mulligan, who used a variety of arm angles and some pretty serious stuff to blow Midwest League hitters away to the tune of 36 strikeouts in 20 innings, a 0.45 ERA, and nine saves in as many tries. Dave Carpenter picked up where Mulligan left off, inheriting the closer’s role and going 12-for-14 in save tries with 77 punch-outs in 67.1 innings. Both were light-hitting but strong-armed catchers on Opening Day of 2008. Arquimedes Nieto also comes to mind. Barely six feet tall (if that), he used a wicked changeup to lead the team with 89 strikeouts and deliver arguably the most exciting game of the season – his near no-hitter on the Fourth of July in Cedar Rapids. That game is the only I can honestly say I got butterflies in my stomach during the action.
  • Lastly, when it’s all said and done, the 2009 season may go down as a glimpse of the future. The last two weeks saw the additions of the top two picks by St. Louis in the ’09 draft. First-rounder Shelby Miller – a true phenom at just 18-years-old – has mid- to high-90’s gas with a hammer curve and a changeup that most kids his age can only dream of. Second-rounder Robert Stock, a 19-year-old catcher, is one of the brightest kids you’ll come across on a baseball diamond. Both finished the season with Quad Cities with the design of starting 2010 in the same place. Looks like Bandits fans everywhere just hit the jackpot.

While the River Bandits season has come to an end, there is still great baseball being played in the minor leagues. In addition to the Midwest League post-season, both upper level Cardinals affiliates have reached the playoffs (Memphis in the Pacific Coast League and Springfield in the Texas League). I’ll continue to blog about their results as the coming weeks unfold.

Also, feel free to shoot any questions my way. I’m more than happy to respond to your inquiries through this blog!

Last Chance

Here we go. The last hoorah. One last rodeo.

It’s hard to believe, but the 2009 baseball season is coming to a close. The last homestand of the season begins tonight. Just three home games remain before the River Bandits go into hibernation for seven months. Scary thought, right?

Fortunately, the River Bandits are going out with a bang. Big surprise, right? Like you never saw that one coming. If you’ve learned anything over the last two years, I hope it is the meaning of the words “Bandit-style.”

Tonight is Modern Woodmen Half-Price Night at the ballpark, and our friends at Modern Woodmen of America are also giving away River Bandits hats to the first 1,000 fans through the gates. I think people in the Quad Cities have realized over the last few years that not every naming rights deal is an evil corporate alliance. Modern Woodmen of America has proven that, enabling the River Bandits to lower ticket prices while offering a series of half-price nights and even hosting a nightly in-game promotion in which they give away money!

Oh by the way, the Klement’s Racing Sausages will be at Modern Woodmen Park tonight. You know, those sausages that famously race around Miller Park in Milwaukee? That’s right. We got ’em.

Tomorrow’s game (Thursday) will be special for a number of reasons. First, as those of you who read this blog regularly already know, Cardinals’ 2009 first-round pick Shelby Miller will make his professional debut. He will start and throw one inning, so don’t be late! If you ever wanted to know what an 18-year-old throwing high ’90s cheese with a hammer breaking ball looks like, this is your chance. It will also be the last Thirst-day Thursday of the year ($2 drink specials) and the popular Tattoo Night! Bill’s Garage Tattoo Emporium will be here giving FREE River Bandits tattoos. Anybody that gets one will then be able to show the tattoo at the box office next season and receive a free berm ticket to ANY game!

And, alas, Friday will follow. The last home game of the season. Of course, the River Bandits have to go out in style… Bandit-style that is!

Friday will feature a Modern Woodmen Park first – the Bandit Wedding. The promotion was the winner of last winter’s Name the Promotion contest and has been in the planning process ever since. All of a sudden, we’ve got a wedding for nearly 700 people on our hands! Michael Spain and Ashley Baxter will get married on the field one hour before game time, and then will party all night with their friends and family in the reception on the Suite Level.

Friday will also be Fan Appreciation Night, and we’ve got prizes from all over the Quad Cities to give to you. The evening will then wind down in true Bandit-style fashion, with the most extravagant fireworks display of the year lighting up the night sky to celebrate another great season on the banks of the Mississippi River.

The next three days should be a blast. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.