Midwest League Endures Frigid Start To Season

Clinton LumberKings general manager Ted Tornow said he couldn't believe his eyes as he stared out at Ashford University Field after yet another gulley-washer dumped six inches of rain in early April.

Where the team's center fielder would normally roam, he saw a family of ducks, paddling away as if the field "was another tributary of the Mississippi River," Tornow said.

It's hard to blame the ducks. Playing fields throughout the Midwest League had been better suited for mallards than minor leaguers during the first month of the season. A seemingly endless run of rain, snow and freezing temperatures forced the postponement or cancellation of 24 games by April 15—the same number of openings the 16-team league lost for all of last season. That number jumped to 37 over the next eight days and was gaining ground on the 59 openings lost in 2011, which Midwest League president George Spelius said was the most during his 27-year tenure.

"It's (impacting) player development and umpire development," Spelius said. "They can't develop when the outfield is up to your ankles in some spots—and those are at our nicer facilities."

The weather has taken a toll on both the bottom line of minor league franchises and the development of prospects. Tornow said he typically budgets for two or three rainouts a season, but his budget already was busted when four of Clinton's first nine home dates were called off.

"It makes you wonder who you made mad upstairs," Tornow said. "We're way over budget with our losses. So when it is sunny and shiny out, we're going to have to make hay while we can. And that puts a little more pressure on you. You have to sell more tickets on the days when you are confident the weather is going to be good."

Those days have been few and far between for most teams. The Athletics began their first season affiliated with Beloit by seeing six of the Snappers' first 16 games postponed, including three in a row from April 17-19. As a result, Beloit played three doubleheaders over a seven-game stretch—the most allowed by the Professional Baseball Agreement.

A's farm director Keith Lieppman admits he is reluctant to send reinforcements to Beloit.

"It has delayed us sending guys on the DL out to the Midwest, just because of the wet fields and weather situation," Lieppman said. "We're finding it better to keep guys (at the team's complex) in Arizona and keep playing rather than try to go out and encounter some of the scenarios Beloit is dealing with."

Players have replaced playing time on the field with hitting and pitching in tunnels at the ballpark and working out with strength coaches. “But it's nothing like playing in games," said Mariners farm director Chris Gwynn, whose players are in Clinton. "This sets them back a bit, but you just have to keep them focused."

The misery has been spread throughout the league—only Fort Wayne and Lake County had been spared a home rainout—but some teams have been hit harder than others. Wisconsin (Brewers) and Clinton each had lost five home dates, while Great Lakes (Dodgers) and Burlington (Angels) had each lost four.


Modern Woodmen Park (courtesy of Quad Cities River Bandits)

Clinton played four doubleheaders in an eight-game stretch. Cedar Rapids had the bad fortune of following up back-to-back rainouts in Wisconsin with two more  in Clinton. Kane County played just four games (both doubleheaders) over a seven-day road trip to Wisconsin, Beloit and Quad Cities.

For the second time in three years, the Mississippi River has risen and surrounded Quad Cities' Modern Woodmen Park with water. Flood barriers installed after the 2010 season have kept the ballpark and playing field dry, and no home dates were lost because the team was on the road when the flooding hit. But the planned installment of a ferris wheel beyond the outfield fence has likely been postponed until next year. The team hoped to have it up and running in July, but the site for the ferris wheel was underwater and was expected to be too wet for construction this spring.

Wisconsin, coming off an offseason $6.2 million renovation to Fox Cities Stadium, managed to celebrate Opening Day on a 39-degree evening before 3,036 fans.
"I've got to give them credit," Wisconsin general manager Rob Zerjav said of the fans. "Most of them looked like they were going to a Packers game, not a baseball game."

That may prove to be the high point for April, as five of the Timber Rattlers' next six home games were called off, as were three of their six road games. And when they have managed to get in a game, conditions have proven challenging—average game time temperatures for the Timber Rattlers has been 48 degrees, with three games at 36 or below.

"When you're playing, you have to have a base layer, but you can't wear too much," said Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson, a native of Appleton, Wis. "But as a coach, you can't have too many layers on."