Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the Iowa Cubs’ 2009 season is what the team had to endure in 2008.
The I-Cubs’ return to normalcy after one of the worst natural disasters to hit the region was no small feat—neither was the 10.2 percent increase the Triple-A Pacific Coast League affiliate saw at the gate in 2009.
Iowa has been one of the PCL’s steadiest teams for years. But the 2008 season was as challenging as any the team has faced. Floods ravaged much of Iowa that June, including the Cubs’ hometown of Des Moines. The team had already battled bad weather for most of the spring and had eight home dates washed out in all, sapping its attendance.
Minor league teams anticipate losing two or three home games a year to the weather, but eight is far more than anyone can budget.
“Weather is always a problem for anyone who runs an outdoor venue, and certainly all of us in the baseball business,” Iowa general manager Sam Bernabe said. “We live and die by Mother Nature. We plan for 72 days of as much baseball as we can do and as much promotions as we can do and whatever she gives us on top of that is what she gives us.”
The Cubs’ home, Principal Park, is situated next to the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers. When the floods hit, the park took on several feet of water in the dugouts and some of the outfield and bullpens. The Cubs were on the road in Memphis at the time, but were scheduled to return home for a weekend series with Nashville starting Friday, June 13.
Memphis Redbirds president Dave Chase offered to let the Cubs host the series in Memphis, but Bernabe, knowing how crucial weekend home dates are in minor league baseball, decided to have the teams come to Des Moines and see what they could do.
“This was a fairly big homestand for us,” Bernabe told Baseball America at the time. “I needed to play every date I could. I felt that if I moved those four dates to Memphis and if we were going to make that decision to stay there, then we would stay the whole four days. I was betting that we would get something in of the homestand and do some business.”
The field was still unplayable that first day, but by June 14, the waters had receded and the groundscrew was able to get the field in playing shape. However, the city still had evacuation orders in effect, resulting in the unusual spectacle of the two teams playing a game in a literally empty ballpark. The club was able to reopen Principal Park to fans for a Sunday doubleheader and drew over 5,000, but there was a drag on attendance for the rest of the season. The Cubs wound up drawing 487,348 fans for the 2008 season, well down from their total of 576,310 in 2007.
“The city was limping along,” Bernabe said. “There was a lot of damage and a lot of people that lost their businesses. They were hurting. That’s always problematic for those of us in the business that are trying to sell tickets to the very same people.”
So what did the Cubs feel needed to be changed heading into 2009? Nothing.
The team focused on maintaining a level of consistency. Rather than try to reinvent themselves, the Cubs stayed with what they knew worked, and they were rewarded with attendance returning to the levels the team had become accustomed to. The Cubs finished fourth in the PCL with 536,872 fans attending games in 2009. Their 2009 average of 7,895 was up 6.9 percent from 7,384 in 2008. The I-Cubs were one of the few PCL teams to see their attendance rise in spite of the down economy, and Iowa had easily the biggest jump in overall attendance among the league’s teams not opening new ballparks.
“I think the fans in our market know and understand what to expect,” Bernabe said. “They understand how to come to the ballpark. I think it would’ve been easy to panic and try to create something new coming out of a disaster like that. My staff did a great job maintaining the status quo.”
Certainly, being affiliated with the Chicago Cubs and their rabid fanbase helps, but that doesn’t mean the I-Cubs don’t put in any less effort on the promotional front. The Cubs’ menu of promotions includes most of the standard fare, such as fireworks nights and dollar hot dog nights.
The team does put a twist on the Thirsty Thursday routine many minor league teams use. At Principal Park, Thursday nights are mug club nights, where fans buy their own mug and can use it at the park and at establishments around town that sponsor the team to receive discounted drinks every Thursday for the rest of the season.
The Cubs have their share of charitable ventures as well, including working with the local Miracle League, which helps handicapped children play baseball, and having food pantry nights every Monday. For those games, fans who bring in canned goods can receive a free general admission ticket.
It’s a great marriage between a team and it’s city, one that’s stood the test of time and the trials and tribulations of natural disasters.
“We’re very fortunate to have great partners in our business in this town,” Bernabe said. “The fanbase is intelligent and they like coming to the ballpark, and we try to accommodate them every way we can.”