Midwest floodwaters force minor league baseball team on the road for weeks

“Even if it was my 15th season managing, I don’t know if I would know how to handle this,” the team's manager said.

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By Phil McCausland

The historic and deadly flooding that has crippled the Midwest for months, and caused billions of dollars in damage to farms and state infrastructure, is also fouling up one Davenport, Iowa, minor league baseball team’s ability to play the nation’s favorite pastime.

The rising waters, which are expected to affect millions across as many as 25 states through the summer, have robbed the Quad City River Bandits, a Class A minor league team affiliated with the Houston Astros, of the chance to play at home.

The encroaching waters of the Mississippi River have forced the team to remain almost perpetually on the road for the first six weeks of their season.

“The wall failing as of a couple days ago and seeing the footage of the downtown area right now is pretty shocking to be honest with you,” Matt Ruppenthal, who was drafted by the Houston Astros in 2017, said. “We’re in a spot right now where we don’t know when we’ll be able to get to play at home.”

Though the team remains in first place, they can’t access their stadium as it's surrounded by water. That means the players are unable to practice regularly, stadium employees have had to find other jobs and the team has known little else than the road for most of the season.

“As a staff, we rent a house in Davenport and we’ve slept there maybe four times,” Ray Hernandez, the first-year manager of the team, said. “We’re on the road every day. Luckily, the Astros are letting us stay overnight in places when we should be on the bus.”

Aerial view of flooding in Davenport, Iowa, on April 30, 2019. QCDRONE / via Facebook/Reuters

The bus is no longer just a means of transport for the River Bandits. It serves as Hernandez’s office and as the team’s headquarters, but it doesn’t allow these baseball hopefuls — still far from the Major Leagues — a place to grow their skills or play in front of a supportive crowd.

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“They have had three practices at our field,” said Jacqueline Holm, who has served as general manager since October. “They’ve barely been on the field. It’s been difficult for them to do anything. We’ve basically had to use the team bus as a clubhouse and storage unit.”

While the River Bandit’s stadium is saved from floodwaters by a levee system and can be accessible during floods, thanks to a catwalk 21 feet in the air, that’s still not enough to deal with the record-high water that hit 22.64 feet Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.

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Though the waters are high and have rendered the stadium inaccessible, it hasn’t had a major impact on the city itself. Only a few dozen businesses and residents in Davenport, approximately 103,000, are affected by the floodwaters, thanks to a unique flood protection system.

Many towns along the Mississippi River have built flood walls to protect against rising waters, but the city has declined to follow suit for decades. Instead, it has worked to build flood-resistant buildings and created a riverwalk area around the baseball stadium that can accommodate the additional water while building a temporary berm system when necessary.

“We have embraced the Mississippi River,” Frank Klipsch, who has served as Davenport’s mayor since 2016, said. “It has become more and more popular to take on this kind of resiliency plan because if we put up a wall, it makes it worse for communities further downriver.”

Ryan Lincoln maneuvers his boat through flood waters on May 2, 2019 in Davenport, Iowa.Kevin E. Schmidt / Quad-City Times via Zuma Press

Still, some unlucky business owners saw multiple feet of water flow into their restaurants and storefronts this week when that temporary levee, which had already stood for 40 days this year, suddenly broke.

More rain is also expected to hit the region early next week — a fact well known by Kyle Carter, who owns a bar downtown and serves as the executive director of the Downtown Davenport Partnership.

“This community is used to flooding,” he said over the phone, as he and other business owners worked to build additional sandbag protections. "We’re not strangers, but this is historic at this point. We’re dealing with something that we have never seen.”

It’s certainly not something that the baseball hopefuls ever thought they would see, and it has made a difficult career path even tougher.

Though many major league baseball players can earn astronomical sums — more than $4 million on average, according to the Associated Press — minor leaguers are often left pinching pennies to make ends meet. The maximum starting salary of $5,500 in 2014 was weakened when Congress passed its spending bill in March 2018. The legislation contained a provision that protected teams from paying minor league players minimum-wage and overtime, effectively rendering a league minimum obsolete.

For the River Bandits, that means players live with host families or pool resources to rent apartments near the stadium. The flooding has added to difficulties they already face.

The additional challenges facing his players is certainly not missed by the River Bandit’s first-year manager, who praised their resiliency and ability to maintain focus.

Nevertheless, it's a unique and difficult situation, Hernandez admitted.

“Even if it was my 15th season managing, I don’t know if I would know how to handle this,” he said. “I mean, who would I even call to ask and get advice?”