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Feature Story

Different, but the same — The evolution of the Iowa Cubs continues

5/4/2022

Narciso Crook hit 14 home runs last season Double- and Triple-A play.
Photo by Dylan Heuer

Iowa Cubs President and General Manager Sam Bernabe does not, and never will, fear change.

For the past 39 years in his role at the managerial helm of Des Moines’ Triple-A professional baseball team, change has become a path well worn.

Thousands of players have come and gone, as have millions of fans. Even the stadium the team calls home has undergone considerable facelifts over the years.

But there was one change a year ago that did give Bernabe pause, and rightfully so. Principal owner and chairman of 22 years, Michael Gartner, made the announcement last December that the I-Cubs had been sold to Diamond Baseball Holdings, a subsidiary of global sports and entertainment company Endeavor. The announcement took the local baseball community by surprise.

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“It certainly was a big change and departure from a local, central-Iowa based ownership, to a publicly traded company,” Bernabe said.

But that’s as far as it got. Bernabe and his staff, many who have remained from the previous ownership, got right to work. The show, as they say, must go on. And it has.

Robel Garcia was one of the team leaders in hitting early in the 2022 season. Photo by Dylan Heuer

“It was expected to be different, but I think, in the long run, we’ve done a good job in maintaining that hometown feel,” Bernabe said of the months following. “I challenged myself to make sure that, if you didn’t know we sold the team, you’d never know we sold the team.”

And while the names at the top of the food chain may have changed, the approach to the everyday workings behind the scenes has not.

“This is my 39th year, and everyone who has worked for me knows that we start every day with a business model of ‘safe, clean and fun,’ whether it was under Michael’s ownership or otherwise,” Bernabe said. “That was part of the deal with the new ownership, that they knew that we were going to maintain that mantra, and they agreed to that. It was important to them as well.”

Whether it’s senior citizen discounts, kids running the bases after games, $1 hot dogs, or ticket prices, everyone participates, he said. The grass roots mentality of minor league baseball is that it’s affordable and reasonable enough to allow everyone to participate and be entertained.

“And, oh by way, there’s a baseball game going on,” he joked. 

On the field

Much of the early attention has been on 22-year-old outfielder Brennen Davis, the No. 1 prospect in the Chicago Cubs’ farm system. Davis reached Triple-A for the first time and hit homers in his first two at-bats as an I-Cub.

One of the team’s expected strengths heading into the season was its depth in its pitching staff. The team began the season by winning seven of its first 12 games in International League play as of April 20, and seven different pitchers accounted for the victories, including Eric Stout, Matt Swarmer, Erlich Uelmen, Conner Menez, Cayne Ueckert, Matt Dermody and Manuel Rodriguez.

Left fielder Donnie Dewees (.333 batting average), third baseman Robel Garcia (.276) and shortstop Dixon Machado (.270) are leading the team at the plate thus far.

First baseman Jared Young is flexing some muscle at the plate early with five home runs and 12 RBI in his first 38 at-bats. Machado leads the team with seven stolen bases. 

Dollars and scents

On Saturday, April 16, the team celebrated 30 years in Principal Park, which opened in 1992. The original stadium, Pioneer Park, was built at the current site in 1947. In 1959, the name was changed to Sec Taylor Stadium in honor of former Des Moines Register and Tribune sports editor Garner W. (Sec) Taylor. The Principal Financial Group purchased the naming rights to the stadium during the 2004 season. The old stadium was demolished on Sept. 10, 1991, and the $12 million rebuilding effort began that October. The first game in the new stadium was played on April 16, 1992.

Getting a new stadium built was as much about space as it was dollars. And scents — odiferous ones at that.

“When we were at the old stadium, we were in a steel deck building that seated about 3,500 people, and not comfortably,” Bernabe said. “I’d come into the ballpark on any given morning and have to go down and pump the sewage out of the dugouts when the storm sewer would back up. We’d clean and sanitize everything before the players got in, and then have to figure out how to get all of the activities going with very few resources relative to the building we were in.”

Iowa Cubs mascot, Cubbie, is a fan favorite at Principal Park. Photo by Dylan Heuer

In 1995, the ballpark added a new look with a remodeled clubhouse and 12 skyboxes in left field. The $2 million clubhouse expansion featured new locker room facilities for both the I-Cubs and visiting teams. The clubhouse complex also included new offices for the manager and coaches, laundry and storage facilities, an expanded training room, an indoor batting cage, a weight room and a family lounge.

Recent additions include the Betfred Sports Left Field Lounge located in the space formerly known as the Cub Club restaurant.

Cash isn’t king

At the end of this season, the club will begin phase one of a brand-new remodeling project, beginning with additional clubhouse improvements, Media Manager Colin Connolly said. Another notable change that’s already been put in motion has been the transition to making Principal Park entirely cashless.

“Cash will not be accepted for transactions inside the park, only debit or credit payments,” Connolly said. “Fans have access to two reverse ATM machines, which are available inside Principal Park near the Cambria Fan Services Center behind home plate, if they need to transfer cash onto a card.”

First baseman Jared Young hit five home runs in the first 12 games of the 2022 campaign. Photo by Dylan Heuer

The best way to buy tickets for Iowa Cubs games is online, Connolly said, although print-at-home options are still available. The traditional game program has also gone digital. Fans can look for QR codes outside and inside the ballpark to download the game program for free.

Home Plate Club (sections JJ-PP) tickets are $35 for adults and children. Club Box (sections AA-ZZ) tickets are $16 for both adults and children. Reserved Grandstand (sections 4-16) tickets are $14 for adults and $8 for children, and General Admission tickets are $9 for adults and $5 for children.

It’s more than a game

While the game is the main attraction, it’s the promotions that sometimes garner the most attention, be it before or after the game, or between innings. In other words, there’s rarely a dull moment.

“Promotions help grow the crowds, which helps the players and staff and the park have a great positive energy/good buzz during the games,” Connolly said.

Pre-Game Catch on the Field is back this year on Saturdays, as is Kids Run the Bases after games on Sunday. Also returning is a three-game name change.

President and General Manager Sam Bernabe returned this year for his 39th season with the organization.

“We’re taking part in three ‘Copa’ games again this year in which the team will temporarily change its name to ‘Demonios de Des Moines’ for three games as part of Minor League Baseball’s ‘Copa de la Diversion,’ or ‘Fun Cup’ initiative,” Connolly said. “The initiative was created to celebrate local Hispanic and Latino culture and heritage, and this will be the third year in a row we will be wearing those jerseys and doing fun concession items with that.”

The annual citizenship ceremony will be held on Friday, July 1 with special holiday fireworks shows on July 1, 2 and 3, Connolly added.

Iowa Hawkeye basketball star Caitlin Clark will throw out the first pitch and conduct a meet and greet on June 18. The first 1,000 fans will receive a replica Caitlin Clark jersey. Other promotions include Christmas in July, Marvel Defenders of the Diamond night, a pop-it giveaway with the team’s new logo, and an appearance by Chicago Cubs’ mascot Clark the Cub.

“Getting the community involved and building relationships is what we are built on,” Connolly said. “If you look at our promotions or our sponsors around the stadium, you see how important our local partners are to our continued success year after year. We are always looking to get involved in the community and show our support in any way we can.”

Shortstop Dixon Machado is expected to be a leader at the plate and defensively for the I-Cubs in 2022. Photo by Dylan Heuer

Expectations

The fans themselves, for the most part, have remained unchanged over the years, Bernabe said. With success came greater expectations, though — a problem Bernabe will take on any day that ends in “y.”

“If anything, the fans have greater expectations for us, and rightfully so,” he said. “We try not to rest in any capacity when it comes to promotions and doing the right things by the fans. They expect that, and we try to give it to them. We’re not without mistakes, but hopefully we don’t make many, and the ones we do make, we can correct quickly, whether it’s a promotion, the facility or pricing. We try to keep the fans in mind in everything we do.”

The expectations end there for Bernabe, though. For him, it’s all about the fans. What transpires on the field is a completely different matter and beyond his control. It’s Triple-A baseball after all. While it’s great to win games, the bottom line is this: The team exists to develop players for transition onto the parent club’s roster in Major League Baseball — in the I-Cubs’ case, the Chicago Cubs.

“I really never have any expectations because our team is really an extension of the Chicago Cubs’ roster,” he said. “Anyone who is on our roster here can be called up at any time to play in Chicago. We’re an insurance policy before we’re anything else.”
Case in point, Davis: a burgeoning star in the making, according to many, including Bernabe.

“He’s a tremendous player. You don’t want to wait around in the summer because he may not be here all that long,” Bernabe said. “Expectations are never in my ideas of how things should go because just about every day is spring training here. The rosters and lineups change so much. We move a lot of players between here and Chicago on a regular basis, so it’s tough to have a level of expectation.

“I love to win, just like everyone else does, but our job is to help the Chicago Cubs win and do whatever we can to make that happen. If it means sending our star player, a catcher, a front-line pitcher, that’s what we’re here for, to fill in that gap. It changes our lineup, but that’s OK. That’s what we’re here to do.”

The future

As the world inches closer to pre-pandemic normalcy, so does the general public’s need to gather and watch live sports. Connolly said the I-Cubs are ready.

“We are super excited to welcome our great fans back to Principal Park at full capacity and with no COVID-19 limitations for the first time since 2019,” Connolly said. “We hope to pack the seats for each and every home game in 2022 and for years to come and continue to be a place where fans can find happiness and make memories.”

Despite the changes in ownership and having spent his last 39 summers at the ball field, Bernabe isn’t ready to call it quits just yet. There’s still work to do, and plenty of gas left in the tank.

“At least I think I still have some,” the 2014 Baseball America Minor League Executive of the Year joked. “I’ve got a great staff and some people who have been with me a long, long time who know what they’re doing. The beauty of that is I don’t have to worry about whether the job is getting done — I know that it is. I have some aspirations of doing some things when I am done, like traveling with my wife, but I’m not ready to hang it up just yet. It’s not a bad gig.” ♦


AWARDS AND HONORS

In 1992 and 2009, the I-Cubs were honored by Baseball America magazine with the Bob Freitas Award, which recognizes the top minor league team in each classification. In 1992, the I-Cubs were also named the top tourist attraction in the state by the Iowa Tourism Council. In 1996 and 1998, Baseball America ranked Principal Park as one of the best minor league ballparks in the country and the stadium with the best view.

In 2010, Head Groundskeeper Chris Schlosser was recognized with the Pacific Coast League Sports Turf Manager of the Year Award. Schlosser and his staff are annually rated among the best in the league in the annual survey of PCL field managers and were formally recognized. ♦


IMPROVEMENTS

In 2002, a new playing surface was constructed at Principal Park. The project took three months to complete and cost nearly $1 million. The field featured the same type of grass as Wrigley Field in Chicago and is one of the best playing fields in the minor leagues.

During the winter between the 2005 and 2006 seasons, Principal Park underwent an extensive renovation at a cost of $6.8 million. New seats were installed throughout the ballpark and a new scoreboard and video board were placed. Prior to the 2007 season, the fountain in right field was built, a bleacher section was added in front of the scoreboard, and a giant kids’ play area was installed in the first base side of the concourse.

In 2015, a state-of-the-art HD Daktronics video board was installed above the bleachers in right field. The new unit replaced the previous right field structure and measures 64 feet wide by 24 feet tall. Also, the Principal Park grounds crew installed a new playing surface prior to the 2015 campaign comprised of 265 tons of sand and 2.5 acres of sod from a Colorado sod farm. Finally, a brand-new elevator was installed inside the west entrance.

The I-Cubs extended the backstop netting to the far ends of each dugout to increase the safety of fans prior to the 2016 season. Poles were buried 30 feet underground outside of the left and right field walls to support the heavy netting. In total, the project cost around $100,000. The I-Cubs were pioneers of Major League Baseball’s recommendation that each park follow suit by 2017.

Prior to the 2017 season, the Iowa Cubs installed an HD ribbon video board above the left field suites. The display is more than 10 feet high by 130 feet wide and features a 15HD pixel layout. It allows the team to include more highlights and statistics throughout the game.

In June of 2017, state-of-the-art Musco LED lights were installed in the stadium. The lights allow for improved visibility for players and fans, and also add to the ballpark experience with the ability to “dance” to music and multi-colored up-lights to illuminate each structure base.

Prior to what would have been the 2020 campaign, the ballpark’s netting was extended for the second time to span from foul pole to foul pole. The increased protections were put in place to ensure that fans continue to have a safe and enjoyable experience at Principal Park.

Following the 2022 season, work is expected to begin to update Principal Park to the compliance of Major League Baseball’s standards. This work will be phase one of the City of Des Moines’ master plan to re-imagine Principal Park for future generations. ♦

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