On the Road: First Pitches, Ferocious Franks, and Freedom of Speech in Iowa

Thumbnail image for i-cubslogo.gifLast night my blogging efforts were felled by a staggeringly slow internet connection at the otherwise amenity-laden Embassy Suites in downtown Des Moines. Adam Lambert had performed in the city that evening, so my theory is that the small army of fans staying at the hotel were hogging the bandwidth in their attempts to exhaustively document the performance of this American Idol superstar.

This is just a theory.

But here’s to new beginnings! Live and direct from the palatial confines of the West Burlington AmericInn, I now bring you a full recap of my night at Principal Park (for the MiLB.com story, click HERE).


The above picture was taken during a brief tour of the facility provided by uber-hospitable Scott Sailor, the I-Cubs’ director of logistics. He extolled the beautiful views that Principal Park offers, which include the waterfront scenery of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers as well as the gleaming Iowa State Capitol Building.




But already I’m getting ahead of myself. After the tour I wandered over to what has been dubbed “Sandberg’s Alley”, where I-Cubs manager Ryne Sandberg signs autographs for 10-15 minutes prior to each ballgame. The line for his John Hancock went up the stairs and snaked far down the concourse:


Shortly after 6:30, Sandberg dutifully emerged:


At this point, I was on the field in order to engage in a task I had never done before: the ceremonial first pitch! I hadn’t had time to practice, and simply hoped that whatever skills were left over from my long-ago playing days (ages 5-16) would once again manifest themselves.

They did, to a degree. While the pitch was a bit off the plate, it didn’t bounce and that was really my only goal. It wasn’t exactly a pretty sight:




I think I heard the PA announcer refer to me as an “award-winning” writer, although in reality my awards mantle remains as barren as the day I bought it (I really put the cart before the horse with that purchase). Still, I appreciate the sentiment!

I didn’t have time to rest, on my laurels or otherwise, as the evening’s next task was to suit up as “Hot Dog” in the nightly mascot race. My competitors were a pair of affable I-Cubs interns: Austin Strawhacker (chef) and Greg Mullen (Taquito).

The Chef and I:


“Feel free to push, kick, hurt us, whatever,” Strawhacker told me as we were suiting up, and indeed it turned out to be a very physical race. 

We started out with a dizzy bat race:


And then it was to get sprintin’. The force of our on-field impact was so great that it damaged the following photos:



I’m not exactly sure what led to what, but Hot Dog ended up finishing last. Regardless, the race was very well-received by the fans. Even having had the experience of attending mascot camp, I was still caught off guard by the number of high fives and hugs I was asked to dole out afterwards (in addition to one autograph request, which was extremely difficult given the padded four-finger gloves).

One supportive kid yelled “You tried your best, Hot Dog!” as I walked past. “And you failed!” quickly added another.

My final on-field appearance came in the fifth inning, throwing t-shirts out of the passenger seat of a golf cart while stadium operations manager Jeff Tilley manned the attached t-shirt gun.

No pictures exist of this half-inning adventure, but here’s a shot of Tilley doing what he does best (from the I-Cubs’ photostream):


It was now the bottom of the fifth inning, and the sun had long disappeared. Still, I felt obligated to take a photographically-minded walk around the outside of the stadium:


This boy and his dog were located beyond the outfield, but more statues could be found at the front entrance.



This statue is in honor of former I-Cubs owner Ken Grandquist, and reads “Like the seams of a baseball which never ends, Ken Grandquist’s lover for the game was neverending.”


Principal Park was built in 1992 and still feels fresh, so I was struck by how rustic this portion of the fence looked from the back.


Back inside the stadium, I decided it was time to hit up the concession stand. The lure of a Chicago Hot Dog was too great to ignore…


Featuring the most day-glo relish known to man!


I would never drink on the job, of course, but I still visited the “Beer Box” — a walk-in cooler featuring 20 different kinds of beer.



Fans can contemplate a crucial American right while enjoying their hot dog and beer.


This sign is courtesy of I-Cubs owner Michael Gartner, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who told me “I’d be in jail without the First Amendment.”

In addition to free speech, Principal Park fans take advantage of the freedom of assembly. Here are some shots from the stadium, where 9106 fans gathered on this slightly chilly Friday night:







The Iowa Cubs won this all-important game, 4-2, to open up a one-game lead over the visiting Memphis Redbirds with just three to play. It wasn’t easy, though, as the Redbirds brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the ninth inning. In such a tough situation, you need a man on the mound with nerves of steel and unhittable stuff.

Anyone but this guy, in other words.




  1. theheirloom

    Thanks for this post, Ben! I went down to Des Moines in June to check out the Ryno Phenomenon – and came home with a smile on my face! There seems to be a mutual love between the Hall of Famer and the fans of Central Iowa. Still, the fans must be wondering if Ryno will jump to Chicago next year or not – or, could he be back next year to “finish the job” (depending on the outcome of today’s game)?

    I have to admit that I missed the public art around the ballpark. Though I loved the entire experience at Principal Park – not to mention all 14 innings of the game I attended as the Cubs squeaked a win over Albuquerque.

    In all, being spoiled with Target Field – one must come to the minors for some perspective that baseball can be enjoyed at the most purest of form. That’s what I try to do every year. Thanks for giving me inspiration to do this, Ben!


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