Column: Essential to our communities

Column: Essential to our communities

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Frank Wulf doesn’t get around like he used to. At 98, who does? A proud World War II veteran, Frank knows growing old is not for softies. His knees hurt. His arthritis acts up. Mostly, his heart aches for his beloved Dorothy, who died 12 years ago.

When Dorothy was alive, she and Frank never missed a Bandits game. When she passed, we named their seats.

Frank still attends most games. He and his friends swap stories, catch up on their families. The fellowship they share never ceases to touch me.

Frank and his friends, to me, represent everything great about Minor League Baseball: the camaraderie, intimacy, and feeling of community you find in a ballpark. In our beautiful, diverse and disparate two-state community, Modern Woodmen Park is where we all come together as one, cheer for the home team, and see future Major League stars.

Unfortunately, Major League Baseball (MLB) proposes to take away that sense of community – and, in so doing, make unemployed some 275 River Bandits’ players, coaches and staff.

That’s not fair.

The relationship between MLB and Minor League Baseball (MiLB) is governed by the Professional Baseball Agreement, which essentially has not changed in 30 years. It expires in September.

Now MLB’s proposing a big change: eliminate 42 of 160 teams. That way, each MLB team would have four affiliates instead of five or six, saving each about $350,000 annually.

That sounds like a lot of money. But consider the context. Last year, the Yankees grossed around $700 million. So $350,000 is .0005%.

Half of 1/10 of 1%.

Do you know what the River Bandits buy with half of 1/10 of 1%? Toilet paper.

For that tiny savings, MLB would kill off 42 teams, including both the Clinton Lumber Kings and Burlington Bees. Initial reports, since discredited by MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem, placed the River Bandits on that list. So perhaps the Bandits are safe. But there’s no reason for any Iowa team to be contracted – especially after MLB just signed a $1 billion sponsorship deal with Nike.

In "justifying" eliminating 42 teams, MLB claims 25% of MiLB ballparks don’t meet facilities standards. That number seems overblown.

Burlington and Clinton each spent $6.5 million to meet facilities standards. Modern Woodmen Park, resplendent with energy-efficient LED lights, a top-rated field, a myriad of family-friendly amusement rides including Iowa’s largest Ferris wheel and only double-decker carousel, absolutely meets — and frequently exceeds — facilities standards. USA Today named it the "Best Minor League Ballpark in America." Moreover, there are $3 million in new improvements on the way, including high-definition videoboards and ribbonboards.

If MLB wants to eliminate ballparks that don’t meet facilities standards, go ahead. But none of Iowa’s teams should be affected. If it’s about improving player wellness, reducing travel, or providing players more days off, MiLB stands ready to help.

But if it’s about saving MLB clubs $350,000, we need to fight back furiously.

We’ve already started. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Sens. Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst have expressed strong opposition to contraction. U.S. Reps. Dave Loebsack, Cheri Bustos, Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, have also voiced displeasure. Collectively, they represent some serious firepower. We hope MLB will listen.

MiLB is doing all it can to save Iowa’s clubs. So am I. I love the Quad-Cities, and I’m 100% committed to keeping our team here. Not in some nightmarish "Dream League," the economics and logistics of which could never work, but as a proud MLB affiliate.

Affiliated MiLB teams grow baseball by expanding its fan base, and our community enjoys watching future MLB stars.

We’re not only the players’ first rung on the ladder to The Show, we’re the first step for our staff. Ask Tommy Thrall, our ex-broadcaster, who calls games for MLB’s Cincinnati Reds. Or Whitney Campbell, our ex-community relations director, who today holds a similar position for MLB’s Oakland A’s.

More important, we’re essential to our communities. The Bandits spend nearly $2 million annually with Quad-Cities vendors and generate hundreds of thousands of tax dollars. If we were eliminated, how would those dollars be replaced?

We also give away about $600,000 a year in cash and in-kind donations. We underwrite MiLB’s largest college scholarship program, covering all tuition costs for four area students, and fund free flu shots for every Quad-Cities child. Last year, we joined Genesis in raising $101,000 for those devastated by flooding. That level of philanthropy is irreplaceable.

Baseball is America’s pastime, and the River Bandits, LumberKings and Bees are deeply woven into the cultural fabric of our cities. Our teams are extensions of our communities, part of their DNA. Each deserves to remain affiliated with MLB. For Frank Wulf and for every Iowan, young and old, who’s ever enjoyed a warm summer’s evening at one of our picturesque ballparks.

Dave Heller is the owner of the Quad-Cities River Bandits.

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