A DREAM COME TRUE : In the Quad Cities, Angels Mean Everything to Fans
“ The process is all so slow, as dreams are slow, as dreams suspend time like a balloon hung in midair. . . . But it seems that even for dreams, I have to work and wait. It hardly seems fair. “
----W.P. Kinsella in his novel, “Shoeless Joe”
“I want (double-A) Midland to lose every game, I want (triple-A ) Edmonton to lose every game and I want the Angels to lose every game. I want every guy that’s ahead of me to get hurt and the ones that don’t get hurt I want them to do lousy, because this is a career. If everybody does good, well, where is there going to be an opening for me? That’s why we check what the Angels do every morning. We’ll look in the paper and say, ‘Damn it, they won again.”’
----An unidentified member of the Class-A Quad City Angels.
Any time she wants, Rita Richwine can look out the second story window of her company lunchroom, gaze over the Mississippi River--birthplace of some of the meanest bugs ever to attack a shortstop--and see what’s going on at John O’Donnell Stadium.
Her father introduced her to baseball, but asthma and a host of allergies--including an aversion to corn tassels, akin to being allergic to air in these parts--kept her from playing the game.
Still, she loved baseball. One summer when she was a child, the television tube blew, rendering every game a blackout. But when games were scheduled for broadcast, she’d turn on the set, draw close as if preparing to hug it, and listen to games.
And now she embraces this stadium where the dreams live and an unfathomable amount of river flies die. The Quad City Angels, one of the Angels’ two Class-A teams, play here and Richwine comes to every home game, sitting in the first seat of the first row behind the home team dugout.
When she isn’t at a game--keeping score accompanied by a radio tuned to Mario Impemba, “Voice of the Angels"--she’s making the players’ meals, passing out pots, pans, towels and laundry detergent.
Richwine, who lives in Moline, Ill., founded a support group, not a booster club, before this season. And Rita almost single-handedly supports the support group.
“We had 38 that said they would be active in the group,” she said. “We have about 12 that actually are. And, to be honest, I would say I’m 90% of the group.”
Oddly enough, besides the kamikaze bugs, the sub-freezing temperatures, the unbearable heat (it’s not so much the heat but the 80%-100% humidity), besides living three and four to an apartment, with $11 a day on the road and Happy Hour leftovers at home--"Another round of Buffalo Wings, awwwright !"--the hardest thing for many of the kids playing ball in the Quad Cities to adjust to is the kind of niceness doled out by people such as Richwine.
“People from Southern California, when someone is nice to you, you usually think there’s a reason behind it,” said Kyle Abbott, Quad City pitcher and the Angels’ No. 1 pick in the 1989 draft. “You’re real suspicious at first and then you realize these people are just being nice. That’s quite a concept to get used to.”
Every year Richwine chooses her favorite players, every year she roots for them to do well and every year she cries when their talent takes them out of Iowa.
This is enough for her. She doesn’t care about wins and losses. The Angels finished 26 1/2 games out of first place last season in the Midwest League’s Southern Division. The year before, they were 46 games out. This season they won their first game, then dropped 10 in a row. At another point in the season, they lost eight in a row.
But it’s enough for Richwine to watch ballplayers “still willing to say hello and sign an autograph,” in a 5,300-seat stadium cozy as a den that sits on the bank of the nation’s greatest river, below a clumsy steel girder bridge that looks as if it was constructed from a very large erector set.
Though located in the heart of America’s breadbasket, though the movie “Field of Dreams"--based on Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe"--was shot less than an hour from it in a cornfield, there is nothing about this place that strikes of farm life.
The Quad Cities--two in Illinois, two in Iowa--border each other, separated by the Mississippi River.
Davenport--home to John O’Donnell Stadium--is a city of more than 103,000, littered with countless soot-stained brick factories and warehouses that give the place that little bit of Pittsburgh feel.
“We’re definitely not Green Acres,” said Davenport resident Tom George.
Moline is home to the huge John Deere plant and the more residential communities of Rock Island, Ill., and Bettendorf, Iowa, would never be mistaken for rural.
“I think most people when they first come here are looking for hogs and all that farm stuff,” said Eddie Rodriguez, Quad City manager. “I know I was.”
For most of the 1980s people weren’t looking at all to come to the stadium. It had fallen into disrepair, transients slept on the benches and on the ground. There were no box seats just rusty folding chairs, bathrooms were too small.
“Does the word hellhole ring a bell?” Impemba said.
But a new owner, Rick Holtzman, and the infusion of $3 million during the past two years produced a face lift and a return of a respectable clientele.
“We’re getting the families to come back,” said Mike Tatoian, Quad City general manager. “For years this was a place where people just came to get drunk. Parents were afraid to bring their kids down here. But now we’re getting old ladies out here again.”
Which, Tatoian explains, is good and bad. Old ladies buy tickets, but they rarely purchase nachos with jalapeno-cheese sauce.
The team drew 115,000 last season, and is on pace to draw well over 150,000 this year.
“I think we’ve turned the corner,” Tatoian said, whose duties include cleaning backed-up sewers, washing windows and pulling the tarp on the field.
The team could turn 360s for the next decade and it would never be enough for the players. It seems a bit sad that so many of them who are welcomed by Richwine are so eager to get out.
But she seems to pay it little mind. Choosing her favorite player each year not because of RBIs or ERAs, but by virtue of a kindness done, a nice smile, a willingness to chat.
In fact, her favorite player this season, infielder/outfielder J.R. Phillips, hates baseball, refuses to watch it, refuses to talk about it, believes it to be “ the most boring sport in the world.”
J.R., a star athlete at La Puente’s Bishop Amat High School, says he’d much rather watch tractor-truck pulls, which doesn’t faze Richwine.
“I like J.R. because he signs the most autographs,” she said.
Tom George, who, in his five years of faithfully following the club has been known to voluntarily help passing hot dogs or take tickets at the stadium entrance, came upon his all-time favorite player by way of boredom.
“It was a dull game and a friend and I decided it would be fun to randomly choose a player and make him the hero for the rest of the year,” he said. “We looked at the roster and one name stuck out at us.”
George and his friends made banners for the player, chanting his name whenever he batted.
The name belonged to outfielder Dante Bichette, who went on to make it to the big team at the beginning of this season before being sent to the Angels’ triple-A affiliate in Edmonton.
“Fan favorites at this level are born from nicknames, unusual names, a kid with a nice smile,” Impemba said. “These people don’t know these players. They don’t know where they’re going or where they’ve come from. They’re just looking for someone to latch on to and root for.”
Richwine fell for her all-time favorite Angel, Gary Buckels, now at triple-A Edmonton, when he picked up part of her program that had blown on the field.
“When Gary handed it back to me, a gentleman, and I use that term loosely, sitting next to me said ‘Some women will do anything to meet a ballplayer.’
“I blushed, Gary blushed, and that was it, he was my favorite,” she said.
She sends Buckels birthday cards and recalls his promotion from Quad City to double-A Midland like a death in the family.
“He came over to me and said, ‘There’s something I have to tell you.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘I’m not going to be here after tonight.’ ”
Her voice weakens.
“I said, ‘Why, where are you going?’ He said Midland. I cried for three days. I think I’m going to cry right now.”
“‘This must be heaven,’ he says.
“‘No, it’s Iowa,’ I reply.”
--Kinsella, “Shoeless Joe.”
“Like everyone else, I’d like to get out of here . “
----J.R. Phillips, Angel player.
Does heaven have flies?
It’s not that there are a lot of flies at John O’Donnell Stadium, it’s that every fly on the continent seems to be at the stadium, as if it were some mandatory midway point, an Ellis Island for flying insects.
Games have been called at the stadium because of the flies. Players are regularly attacked, getting flies in their eyes and hair. They are regularly swallowed--the bugs, not the players--by accident. Crowds have been known to retreat one row at a time as the flies made their way up the stands.
Thus the price is paid for a riverfront view.
“I’ll tell other teams it’s the Davenport snow,” said Rodriguez. “Snow in June.”
The first time Impemba broadcast a game from the stadium, he actually thought the flies were a slow moving rainstorm.
The flies, called Shag flies, May flies, River flies, or any one of innumerable expletives, are the type that live just 24 hours.
“They hatch in the river, fly up, buzz around for 24 hours, die and liter the ground,” Impemba said. “As far as I can tell, that’s their only purpose on this earth.”
Players strike back anyway they can, some putting two-way tape outside the dugout to snare the flies, then using them as fishing lures.
With the warm summer months bringing out the spiders and their webs, pitcher Mike Erbe has taken to catching the flies, placing them on the spider webs and “watching the spiders suck the blood from the flies. It’s sort of like catering.”
The flies don’t come until the heat of the summer months. Which means the players are free from pests but not from hypothermia during the chill of April and May.
When the team opened this season at Cedar Rapids, the thermometer tipped to 19 degrees.
“I had on a pair of long johns, two pairs of shorts, two pairs of socks, a T-shirt, a long-sleeve shirt, a jacket, another jacket and I was still freezing,” said pitcher Mark Zapella.
“I got a hit in the first inning and I couldn’t feel my hands for the rest of the game,” Phillips said. “That was scary.”
Then the thaw comes, microwave-style. Temperatures in 90s with humidity to match. Buckels once said there’s no problem getting warmed up in Quad City, “You just stand there and melt.”
Not only does it play havoc with sweat glands, but transportation.
A few of the players chipped in on a 1980 Chevy Citation, dubbed the Car of Personality because the overhead runner was ripped out of the car and the ceiling was used to engrave “peoples’ favorite bands, favorite saying, it was very vulgar,” Erbe said.
The local color wasn’t restricted to the interior.
“The car got egged,” Erbe said.
“It didn’t get egged,” said Abbott, who played at Mission Viejo High. “It got hit by a poultry farm.”
One night, perhaps after one too many buffalo wings, several of the guys decided to break dance on the car and ended breaking some windows.
By the time of that hot July afternoon, the car was well-stocked with character. Unfortunately, it was void of oil.
“We thought it would just run on gas and water,” Erbe said. “Boy, I’ve never seen so much smoke.”
The car was abandoned, foiling a planned Viking funeral for the Car of Personality at the end of the season.
“We were going to drive it into the Mississippi and just watch it float away,” Erbe said.
In attempt to keep his players--many of whom are away from home or at least some type of supervision for the first time--out of trouble, Rodriguez employs a rather loose network of spies, bartenders, informants and guys who spend a lot of time on barstools.
“It’s amazing how quickly they find out where the happening places are,” Rodriguez said. “It’s like they don’t have to be told. It’s like radar.”
And readings so far this season have come to one conclusion.
“Moline rages,” yell five players and various friends at a Davenport restaurant called “The Ground Round.”
If Moline does rage, you ask, what are they doing in Davenport?
“Free food,” Phillips says.
Buffalo wings, awwwright!
When things get a bit too festive, Rodriguez, who spent seven years as a player in the Baltimore and Angel farm systems, may dole out some forceful advice or a $5 fine. At the Class-A level, $5 can mean financial ruin.
“You should see, they get awful cranky when you tell them they’re out five bucks,” Rodriguez said.
Which has made Abbott, no relation, by the way, to Angel pitcher Jim Abbott, particularly popular in these parts. He worried at first that the fact that he signed for a $200,000 bonus might rub some players the wrong way.
He couldn’t have been more mistaken.
“When we heard he was coming, everybody wanted him to be their roommate so they wouldn’t have to spend anymore money,” Erbe said. “I got him.”
And he laughs one of those mad scientist laughs. Maybe it’s just for show or maybe it’s knowing he and Abbott are going car shopping, and guess who’s paying?
ON THE ROAD TO ANAHEIM
Team: Quad City Angels
Classification: Class A
Manager: Eddie Rodriguez
1988 Record: 60-79 (Sixth place, Southern Division)
Stadium: John O’Donnell Stadium
Capacity: 5,300 (1988 average attendance--1,649 for 70 dates)
The Quad Cities are:
Bettendorf, Iowa (Pop. 27,381)
Davenport, Iowa (103,264)
Moline, Ill. (46,407)
Rock Island, Ill. (46,821)