The Oaks of the System: An Iowa Cubs Primer
You could be forgiven, were you an Iowa Cubs fan, for feeling just a little bit aggrieved at the moment. A perfect storm (of crap, from their perspective at least) has prevented the Principal Park faithful from even enjoying a single game of what was supposed to be a comically stacked infield.
Before the season, Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register implored I-Cubs supporters to catch the “special trio of Iowa Cubs infielders while they’re still around.” For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, that “special trio” consisted of Cubs uber-prospects Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, with a Javy Baez chaser. Special, indeed.
Iowa fans knew, even then, that the arrangement was fleeting, transient, ephemeral. What they found out was that it was a complete fantasy. Bryant was called up after only 7 games with the I-Cubs, and Russell was called up less than a week later. Add to that Baez’s personal tragedy off the field, and the Iowa faithful saw exactly 0 games featuring their “special trio.”
And while Bryant did play 7 games for Iowa this season, they were all on the road. Russell played exactly 4 games at Principal Park before his call up, and Baez (thankfully) should be returning soon, but has yet to see a game for the I-Cubs this year. Such is the life of the minor league fan.
2015 marks the 35th year of the Iowa-Chicago partnership, making it the 7th longest minor-major affiliation in baseball. In September of 2014, the teams announced an extension of their agreement, ensuring that Iowa remains the Cubs’ top minor league affiliate through at least 2018. The history of professional baseball in Des Moines, however, is a lengthy one.
The first professional team played in Des Moines beginning in 1887. As was the style at the time, teams appeared and disappeared in the area sporadically until 1969, when the Iowa Oaks became the city’s first AAA affiliate. From 1969 through 1980, the Oaks served as the AAA affiliate for the Oakland A’s, the Chicago White Sox, and the Houston Astros. The team retained the Oaks moniker through the 1981 season, their first as a Cubs affiliate. In 1982, they changed the name to the Iowa Cubs, which has stuck to the present.
The I-Cubs play in what is now known as Principal Park (as the Principal Insurance company bought the naming rights for the stadium in 2004), which lies at the convergence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, and boasts a view of downtown Des Moines and the state capitol building. While the current stadium dates back to the 1992 season, the current stadium site has been continuously active since 1947, when it was known as Pioneer Park.
The ballpark was renamed Sec Taylor Stadium in 1959 to honor legendary Des Moines sports editor Garner W. (Sec) Taylor. As a nod of respect to the Sec Taylor tradition, Principal Insurance let the name stand for playing field itself (think, “The Sec Taylor field at Principal stadium”… that kind of awkward name that tries to shoehorn corporate sponsorship in with human-interest naming conventions).
In a feat of winter construction the current Wrigley Field contractor could take a lesson from, Sec Taylor Stadium (Version 1.0) was demolished at the end of the 1991 season, and was amazingly ready for the I-Cubs home opener on April 17, 1992. Perhaps the $12 million budget belies the more modest building requirements, and I should cut our current contractors some slack (but I’m sure winter construction in Iowa is no picnic either!).
Since the 1992 reopening of the stadium, the Cubs organization has made regular improvements, including skybox installation, renovated clubhouses, and a new playing surface. The stadium has been recognized by Baseball America and by the Iowa Board of Tourism as one of the top minor league experiences and one of Iowa’s top tourist destinations, respectively.
While the official capacity of Principal Park is 11,500, the team occasionally is able to exceed its capacity, and its all-time largest crowd for a game was on June 8, 2007 as the team hosted the New Orleans Zephyrs in front of 15,188 fans.
As a Cubs affiliate, Iowa has a cumulative regular-season record of 2408-2378 (.503 win pct). Their best regular seasons came in 1993 and 1998, when the team finished 85-59 (we should probably also note the 2008 team, which went 83-59, and missed the playoff in a tie-breaker to the Memphis Redbirds). The I-Cubs’ worst regular season came in 1992, when they went 51-92. In between the extremes, team has posted 17 losing seasons, 16 winning seasons, and 1 .500 season (2009).
In their current incarnation, Iowa has made the AAA playoffs 8 times, most recently in 2008. They won their only AAA championship in 1993 (in the American Association) when “Tuffy” Rhodes (he really teased us there with this game and Opening Day 1994) hit a Game 7, 11th inning walk-off home run to defeat the Nashville Sounds.
Single-Season Record Holders (click HERE for a more comprehensive list)
Average (min. 250 Abs): Derrick White .363 (1998)
Hits: Mel Hall 165 (1982)
Home Runs: Bryan LaHair 38 (2011)
RBIs: Mel Hall 125 (1982)
Stolen Bases: Chico Walker 67 (1986)
Wins: Reggie Patterson (1984); Dave Masters (1988); Kurt Miller (1998); Dave Swartbaugh (1998) – 14
Saves: Jermaine VanBuren 25 (2005)
ERA (100+ IP): Rich Hill 1.80 (2006)
Ks: Carlos Zambrano 155 (2001)*
Career Record Holders
Minor league career record holders are a bit dubious in that (obviously) many of the team’s best players are promoted. However, I would imagine that, while not all of these players made a mark in the major leagues, they probably correlate at least moderately with a list of Iowa fan favorites because, for whatever reason, they stuck around. I compiled these stats myself from individual year stats from Baseball Reference. Thanks to them for making that information available. Of course, all errors are my own.
Games Played: Tom Grant (1981-1985) – 541. Grant came up in the 1983 season for a cup of coffee, appearing in 16 games in all 3 outfield positions.
Hits: Micah Hoffpauir (2004-2010) – 517. As many of you will remember, Hoffpauir teased Cubs fans in 2008, when he hit .342 in 73 ABs. After playing over 100 games for the parent club in 2009 – in which his numbers disappointed – Hoffpauir played only 24 games in 2010 and never again appeared in the majors. Incidentally, Hoffpauir (probably not surprisingly) also ranks 3rd all-time in games played at Iowa with 491.
Home Runs: Joe Hicks (1981-1984, 1986) – 90. Joe was a career minor leaguer who played from 1978 – 1987. I’m not sure where Joe Hicks went in 1985… but he doesn’t appear to have played organized baseball. He came back for one more season in the Cubs organization in 1986 (he hit 18 HRs),after which he left the organization. He played one more season in 1987 in the Yankees organization at the A and AA level.
Next 4 on the all-time HR list: a who’s who of ghosts of prospects past – Jason Dubois (88), Micah Hoffpauir (81) and Julio Zuleta (64).
RBIs: Micah Hoffpauir – 378.
Appearances: Laddie Renfro (1987-88; 90-92) – 192. Renfroe had a cup of coffee during the 1991 season, appearing in 4 games, all in a relief role. He pitched 4.2 innings, giving up 11 hits and 7 ER.
Wins: J.R. Mathes (2007-2011) – 42. Mathes was a career minor leaguer who pitched in the Cubs organization from 2004-2011. He never made a major league appearance.
Losses: Kennie Steenstra (1993-1998) – 41. Another player with a limited stint with the major league club. Steenstra appeared in 4 games (all in relief) in 1998, posting a 10.80 ERA in 3.1 IP. He left the Cubs organization after the 1998 season, playing in various places for 4 more years. He never again appeared in the major leagues.
Saves: Blake Parker (2012-present) – 66. This one wasn’t even close. Second on the list? Our old pal Brian Schlitter, with 36. Blake Parker has actually seen some significant major league time, appearing in 49 games in 2013, with pretty decent numbers to boot. He has been up and down between Iowa and Chicago since, and is currently on the 7-day DL with the I-Cubs.
What to Know Going Forward
Roster turnover, of course, is nothing new for the minor league fan, or the minor league executive. Despite the temptation, and despite the occasional yield to that temptation (Kris Bryant already has a shirsey night scheduled and features on the team’s media guide cover), those who run minor league organizations know better than to hang their marketing efforts on specific players, particularly the “big” prospects.
Instead, executives sell the ballpark, the atmosphere, and – in this case – the mascot, Cubbie. As Iowa president and GM Sam Bernabe put it, “I’ll sell Cubbie all day long, because everybody relates to Cubbie. And because he’s always here. He doesn’t get called up.”
Perhaps there’s a silver lining here, though. While it’s true that the Iowa Cubs are never likely to see the best out of Bryant, Russell, or Baez, they almost certainly got to see the best of players like Rich Hill, Micah Hoffpauir, Felix Pie, or Brooks Kieschnick, who may not quite have lived up to the hype for the parent club. There must be a certain joy in that.
But spare a thought for Iowa fans, who may be missing out on witnessing true greatness in their ranks this season (at least they got 70 games of Bryant last year, eh?) If they’re lucky though, they might get to see good performances from Dan Vogelbach or Kyle Schwarber, who can’t seem to be contained at the moment by AA pitching. Between that and the occasional rehab assignment, they get their fair share of talent through the ranks.
*Vida Blue actually holds the all-time franchise record, with 165 in 1970.