On July 4 of last year, the Quad Cities River Bandits drew nearly 5,000 fans to their home of Modern Woodmen Park. They accomplished this despite the fact that the game occurred in the midst of a flood.
It sounds unbelievable, but it's true. Modern Woodmen Park, built in 1931, is located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa. Through most of the ballpark's history, flooding was a way of life. Water from the rising river would pour over the stadium walls, submerging the entirety of the playing field, sometimes rendering the ballpark uninhabitable for weeks at a time.
The 2004 addition of a nine-foot high outfield berm seating area improved the situation considerably -- the berm doubled as a floodwall -- but other areas of the stadium remained vulnerable. Sandbags were still utilized as the primary line of defense, but there's only so much that sandbags can do versus the might of the Mississippi.
These days, even a flood can't stop the River Bandits, as the team's Independence Day attendance figures illustrate. Prior to the 2011 season, the city of Davenport created an 800-foot long removable floodwall for Modern Woodmen Park, which consists of adjustable aluminum panels bolted into steel plates that have been installed on the ballpark perimeter. A pedestrian footbridge is then erected, beginning on dry land and extending over the floodwall and into the stadium. From there, it's business as (more or less) usual.
"It's a fascinating process. I never thought, working in Minor League Baseball, that I'd become a flooding expert," said River Bandits general manager Andrew Chesser, who is in his fourth season with the team. "But it's added a really cool element to the ballpark. The last two fourth of Julys we've had the floodwalls up.
"The city and the Army Corps of Engineers, they'll let us know the probability of flooding," he continued. "Before the season even starts, they'll release reports that say, 'There's been a lot of snow up in Wisconsin and if we get quick melts it's going to come our way, here are the expected dates and times.' We'll usually get 24 to 48 hours notice from the city of Davenport [that the floodwall will go up]. ... From that point there's honestly not a whole lot we can do -- the city takes care of all of it. They bring in all of their equipment --- forklifts, loaders."
While the floodwall is up, the River Bandits have to make adjustments to their usual methods of operation.
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"It presents some challenges, because at that point there's only one entrance and exit to the ballpark," said Chesser. "Like getting the trash out -- we can no longer throw it on a [John Deere] Gator and take it to the dumpsters. We have to put it on carts and manually roll it up a scaffolding system of a ramp and then take it to dumpsters that we've had to relocate to get them on high ground. Same thing with keg shipments, we do it one keg at a time on a dolly as opposed to just backing it up to a loading dock."
Another wrench in the operational works comes via the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which runs freight trains on tracks that pass directly in front of the stadium. The trains are able to run even when there is some water on the tracks, and the bridge that takes pedestrians over the floodwall isn't high enough for the train to pass underneath. The city will coordinate with the railroad to make sure trains aren't running when the game is going on, but the combination of flood conditions and a still-active railroad has led to at least one memorable day at the office for Chesser and his staff.
"The only way to enter and exit the ballpark was to go over the radio and say 'Hey, can you send the bucket truck over?'" said Chesser, referring to the type of truck most commonly associated with telephone workers. "It's all manned by the city. It's funny -- I had to wear my life vest even though we're driving over four feet of water. They just drop us in and drop us over, business as usual. … During the day we limit our staff, because if anything were to happen we've got to make sure we can get everybody out safely and quickly. During the flood times, the city has two fire marshals on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to make sure that if anything does go wrong -- any issues with the floodwalls -- they've got a quick response team to make sure everything is taken care of."
The team also has to notify fans not only that the game is happening, but that they will need to seek alternate means of parking since the stadium lots are entirely underwater.
"We've got a great relationship with all of the other businesses downtown, so we'll post the 20 parking lots downtown that we have approval [to have the fans park in]," said Chesser. "So we draw very well -- last year there were just under 5,000 people on July 4th, and every single one of our team's traditional parking spots were underwater. So that meant they were parking 10, 15, 20 blocks away. We rented golf carts and were essentially busing people in. … I could understand if people said, 'I don't feel like parking and walking 10 blocks,' but it was the Fourth of July and the people supported the game. 'Hey, we're going to have fireworks no matter what we do.' It was a neat moment."
The River Bandits appreciate this extra effort and do their best to reciprocate.
"The past two years, we've [done] a 'Beat the Flood' day. We open the gates and don't charge admission. Anyone can come out for free," he said. "It's a thank you to the people that have had their basements flooded or their businesses affected or spent the last two days [sand]bagging for other business and houses. We make it a rallying cry for the community -- to have an opportunity to come out and enjoy a free baseball game no matter how miserable the last couple days may have been."