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Thomas Geyer

Former major league baseball player Gene Oliver of Rock Island and his wife of 50 years, Marilyn, sat in their front-row seats directly behind home plate Thursday night at Davenport's newly renovated John O'Donnell Stadium.

Engaging in the time-honored ballpark ritual of consuming a hot dog and a beer, Gene Oliver, who played for the Cubs, Cardinal, Braves, Phillies and Red Sox, looked around the stadium at the miraculous metamorphosis that had taken place.

"I can't believe it," he said. "I spent 11 years in the major leagues. We've seen a lot of ballparks, and this is major league. There is no doubt in my mind that if people come one time, they will come often. This is not just a beautiful minor league environment; this is a beautiful major league environment. The ambiance of the stadium is absolutely major league. Everything is perfect.

"If a kid doesn't get any farther than Class A and plays here, he'll still be able to say he played in the major leagues," he said. "Davenport built its Field of Dreams. It's the rebirth of baseball in the Quad-Cities. It will bring back fan interest, without a doubt."

And fans showed up for both the game, and to get a look at the stadium. In fact it was packed with fans showing their pride in their new arena.

It was so crowded that Joan Jacques of Bettendorf could not believe that there was a line into the men's restroom. "I've never seen men stand in line. We stand in line all the time in airports, ballparks, everywhere. This is the best part of the whole ballgame," she said with a laugh.

Gary Bergert of Bettendorf has been selling beer in the stadium stands for three years.

Sweating heavily, the strap to his cooler box, filled with ice and beer, tugged on the back of his neck and shoulders.

"I can't remember it being this busy on opening night," he said. "But this stadium, it's better than Wrigley Field."

After the pomp and circumstance that usually attends the opening of a new stadium, Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew threw the ceremonial first pitch.

And the game was on, The Swing of the Quad-Cities vs. the Burlington Bees.

"It's beautiful," said Andrew Larson of Bettendorf, who was at the game with his wife, Jennifer, and their four daughters.

As their children ran around, Andrew and Jennifer lounged on the grass behind the right field fence.

"There's not a bad seat in the house," Andrew said, adding that he usually attends 10 to 15 games a year. "And there's lots of open space for the kids to play. It used to be you had to make them keep their seats. And you know kids; they're not always interested in the game. It's nice to see so many people here."

Not a bad seat is right. Spectators should take a baseball glove with them because no matter where in the stands people sit, they have an excellent chance to nab a foul ball, which is part of the fun of going to a game.

Just be careful, and heed the warning signs posted around the park, which say, "Beware of flying objects from the field."

Dorothy Wulf, 87, of Davenport, was 15 when she watched the first game played in the old riverfront stadium. That was in 1931, and on the field were the Davenport Blue Sox.

"It's like I've died and gone to heaven," she said as she looked around the stadium.

Davenport Police Chief Mike Bladel spent the evening with his two grandsons, Gerrett Humphrey, 7, and Brennen Bladel, 6. It was the kids' first game, and they were enjoying the sites, and running around the park with their grandfather in tow.

"This is fun," Gerrett said. "And our team is winning."

Well, not quite at that point, but a few minutes later, the Swing scored a run to take a 1-0 lead, which turned out to be the final score.

But it was not just the stands that were full. The outfield perimeter was packed with people sitting on blankets, the gentle incline making for comfortable seating on the plush grass of the surrounding berm.

John Masengarb of Bettendorf stood behind the left-center field fence.

"My seats are in Section 9," he said. "But I'd rather stand out here. It's nicer. Besides, we can support our outfielders when they make a good diving catch." Then with a twinkle in his eye, "And we can badger the opposing team."

Naturally, a large number of community business and political leaders were on hand for the opening.

"I've lived in Davenport all my life and was born along the river, and to stand here and look at this park with the Mississippi River in the background, it's breathtaking," said Rep. Jim Van Fossen, R-Davenport. "This is an example of tax dollars well spent. This is an investment that will give a lot back to the community."

Sen. Bryan Sievers, R-New Liberty, played baseball at Iowa State. The new stadium acted like a magnet. He said he was ready to take the field. "This location is one of the most beautiful settings in all of baseball," he said.

"This is truly a diamond in its setting," he added, the metaphor not being lost on anyone who heard his comment. "We talk about quality of life in the Quad-Cities. Well, this is the way we do it."

Thom Hart, former Davenport mayor and current president of the Quad-City Development Group, whose job is to attract industry and business to the area, said he is pleased with the ballpark, and the turnout for the game.

"We've kept an important entity here in the Quad-Cities, the team," he said. "It's important to have fun things to do and great places to go, and this is it."

Oliver seemed to understand the feelings of everyone at the game.

"The Quad-Cities, the City of Davenport, ought to be proud for bringing this facility to our home team," he said.

Thomas Geyer can be contacted at (563) 383-2328 or

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