As his 10th season as the owner of the Quad-Cities River Bandits nears an end, Dave Heller is having as much fun today as he had when he welcomed the first fans to Modern Woodmen Park 10 seasons ago.
“It gets better every year,’’ Heller said earlier this week, watching the Midwest League team clinch sole possession of the second-half championship in the Western Division.
“I see pictures of me holding my nine-and-a-half-year-old son when he was an infant and it reminds me that it has been 10 seasons now. The time, it’s flown by.’’
Then, as now, Heller takes nothing for granted.
He can frequently be found before and after games just beyond the entry gates, thanking fans who have helped the River Bandits top 200,000 in attendance in each of past 10 years for choosing to spend an evening at Davenport’s riverfront ballpark.
“There are a lot of entertainment options in the Quad-Cities. We’ve worked to make Modern Woodmen Park a family-friendly environment for everyone,’’ Heller said. “That has always been our goal, to make this a place people want to be.’’
That objective continues to extend beyond the confines of the River Bandits’ 70-game home schedule at a facility which has been recognized as the best minor-league ballpark in America.
From the amusement rides that attract people well into fall during a farmer’s market in an adjacent parking lot to the receptions and meetings which take place in and out of baseball season, Modern Woodmen Park has become a year-round destination for Quad-City area residents.
“We want this place to be a regional attraction, something which brings people to Davenport and the Quad-Cities from 60, 70 miles away,’’ Heller said. “We want people to come for the baseball and we want them to have other reasons for people to enjoy the best ballpark in America.’’
Creativity has not been in short supply throughout Heller’s time in the Quad-Cities.
The menagerie of amusement rides including a Ferris wheel, roller coaster and two-story carousel draws long lines regularly.
With proceeds benefiting area charities, the River Bandits have contributed thousands of dollars annually to projects such as Flu-Free Quad-Cities which funds flu shots for area youths.
The Bandit Scholars program has provided multiple one-year full-tuition scholarships and provided internship opportunities.
Throughout the past 10 years, fans have been engaged with plenty of unique opportunities beyond collecting the usual assortment of caps, bobbleheads, pint glasses, magnet schedules and other items given away at minor league games.
Fans in the Quad-Cities have hauled home refrigerators, flat-screen televisions, Fitbits and DVD players, often given away in multiples of nine, one per inning.
The River Bandits hosted the debut of the Baseball Hall of Fame Tour in 2016, bringing Cooperstown to the Quad-Cities for eight days in the tour’s only minor-league stop in its first season.
A Circle of Life promotion gave away baby gifts, college scholarships, a wedding and a funeral one weekend several years ago.
The River Bandits’ annual Mega Candy Drop showers young fans with marshmallows as they collect candy dropped from a passing helicopter, a promotion which has been copied by dozens of minor-league teams across the country.
Next Sunday, the River Bandits will offer fans a first-time twist on that successful promotion, hosting the first-ever Mega Matchbox Drop following an afternoon home game.
Not every idea has worked.
The hot tub that once sat underneath a tent in a picnic area down the right field line is long gone.
Winter weather and riverfront winds led to a short life for the tiki huts that sat behind the fence in right field, a collection that included a tiki bar and a tiki bed.
“There have been some things we have done and that we have learned from,’’ Heller said. “But, I think we’re better from those experiences. We pride ourselves on being willing to experiment and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do, the dollars we’ve raised for charities and the fun we’ve had doing it.’’
The lessons include learning that fans in the Quad-Cities make ticket purchases a last-minute decision.
“We annually lead the league in walk-up ticket sales by a large margin, and the Mallards folks have told us they see the same thing,’’ Heller said. “That’s part of the way this market works and we’ve come to expect it.’’
Heller is proud of the River Bandits’ long-term relationships with its parent clubs, including as a Houston Astros affiliate the past five seasons.
He points to this season’s installation of LED lighting this season, a first nationally for any minor-league team below the AAA level, and a $300,000 project, as an example of how the team has worked to put itself in compliance with stadium standards that will become even more important in 2020 when a new Professional Baseball Agreement between the major and minor leagues is implemented.
“We understand that our role at the end of the day is to provide a good environment for players to work in as they work to get to the major leagues,’’ Heller said.
Heller praises the daily work of River Bandits general manager Andrew Chesser and assistant general manager Jacqueline Holm “making sure the team feels comfortable.’’
He said the organization’s ability to draw talented people to its front-office staff has added to the creativity over the years.
“As proud as we are to have hosted so many players on their way to the major leagues – Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Jon Jay and many others – we’re equally proud of our front-office personnel who have advanced in the business,’’ Heller said.
“From Stefanie Brown, the head of all things digital in minor-league baseball, to Joe Kubly who is the president of the Grand Junction Rockies and Travis Painter who is the GM of the Hagerstown Suns, and many more that’s part of what we are here to do.’’
All of those objectives, from creating new and different experiences for guests at Modern Woodmen Park to providing job opportunities for young professionals in the business of baseball, will continue as minor-league baseball continues to evolve.
“The minor leagues will continue to change. I think we’ll see it in the next few years in our own league, but the River Bandits will always be here,’’ Heller said. “We’ve worked to make this one of the premier facilities in minor-league baseball to ensure that fans in the Quad-Cities will always have a team to root for.’’
And Heller expects those fans to enjoy the next 10 seasons as much as they have liked the last.
“We’re going to have as much fun having fun at Modern Woodmen Park as we’ve had the past 10 years,’’ Heller said. “This is a great community, a place we’ve made our home, and I’m promising we’ll keep coming up with new ideas, new experiences.’’