Playing Ball After The Flood

The flooding that has plagued much of Eastern Iowa largely left the area’s minor league ballparks unscathed, yet the flooded homes and businesses in the teams’ surrounding communities raises concerns over their immediate future.

The low Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels had a bird-eye view of the flooding that left 480 blocks of the city’s downtown underwater after the Iowa River crested at 32 feet, roughly 20 feet above flood levels. However the flood, considered the worst since 1993, never approached the Kernels’ ballpark that sits atop one of the city’s tallest hills. "If we were going to be worried about water in the stadium," Kernels spokesman Andrew Pantini said, "then the whole city was going to be wiped out."

Yet despite plans to open their gates as scheduled on Thursday following the Midwest League’s all-star break, it remains unclear how the Kernels will fare attracting fans to the ballpark in a region where bridges and roads are washed out and a large portion of its population are still unable to return to their homes.

"It took me two hours to get home, to make a 10-mile drive," Pantini said of his commute on Thursday at the peak of the flooding. "They were closing bridges left and right as the water kept rising . . . They say it is going to take anywhere from two weeks to two years before everything is back to where it was. I can’t even imagine if people are going to move back to (the hardest-hit) area. Do they even have a choice? It’s almost like what people went through in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, just not quite on the same scale."

Cedar Rapids general manager Jack Roeder spent part of Monday afternoon meeting with city officials to see if his ballpark—whose parking lot was a staging area for relief workers and whose concourse served as sleeping quarters for 150 national guardsmen over the weekend—would be cleared to open for fans on Thursday. The main logistical concern, Pantini said, was if the many roads in and out of the city currently washed over would be passable.

The Iowa Cubs’ ballpark was not spared from the storm, yet their long-term prognosis may be better than that of their neighbors as Des Moines did not suffer the same level of destruction as Cedar Rapids.

Principal Park sits on the flood side of the levee built to protect Des Moines and by Thursday morning had taken on several feet of water spanning from the bullpen to within 20 feet of the infield. By Friday evening the water had receded out of the ballpark and the Cubs’ grounds crew worked to get the field into playing condition by Saturday morning. Needing to get the day’s game in against Nashville because of scheduling difficulties—the two teams were already scheduled to play a doubleheader on Monday—but with the city under voluntary evacuation orders, the Cubs received permission only to play a game closed to the public.

The Cubs re-opened their gates on Sunday and drew a little over 5,000 fans to the ballpark, well below their average but an impressive figure, GM San Bernabe said, considering the circumstances. They drew another 10,000 for Monday’s doubleheader.

"There are a lot of people struggling in the area," Bernabe said. "It’s been a rainy, rainy time."

Staying Afloat

Bernabe had a decision to make as he read forecasts of rising flood waters late last week. Should he bring the team home as scheduled after completing its 13-game road trip in Memphis last Thursday or take up Redbirds president Dave Chase on his offer to host the Cubs’ four-day, five-game weekend series against Nashville.

At stake was merely the team’s hope for turning a profit.

"It is a pretty fine line between revenue and expenses," Bernabe said. "Whenever you are taking dates out of a calendar, that is another opportunity lost to pay the bills."

The veteran GM who was around for the then-record flooding of 1993 gambled that the team would be able to get in three dates of its five-game series—a prospect with enough financial implications to bring the team home.

"This was a fairly big homestand for us," he said. "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."

After all, though this may be the worst stretch of bad weather the team has seen this season, it is hardly the first. Cold weather and rainy conditions have left the Cubs averaging just over 5,700 fans this season, well off of last year’s 8,200 average.

"I was asked during an interview how long have we been battling the floods. I said since April 1st," said Bernabe, now in his 25th season with the Cubs. "The weather has been brutal. I’ve never seen anything like this. We’ve had 32 home dates. I can’t think of us having four good ones."

The inevitable question that rises out of the floodwaters in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines is how do minor league teams, so dependent on each stadium opening and fans spending money at the ballpark, stay afloat during such a tragedy?

"It’s important for us to play from an economic standpoint," Pantini said. "We’ll look to take advantage of good weather and good crowds. Companies affected by the flooding are hoping that we will play to provide a diversion for their employees."

"In Cedar Rapids and Iowa City (where flooding was the worst) what they are going through you just hope for the best," Bernabe said. "Fortunately we were not on that side of it and it was not as disastrous here."

The Cubs did not miss any home dates when the Iowa River crested during the flooding of 1993 as the team was in the middle of an extended road trip. Iowa hardly seemed to skip a beat at the turnstile, drawing 446,860 fans one year after bringing in 453,386.

However the level of destruction from the flooding was hardly comparable to the current situation in Cedar Rapids.