For Cubs, flight delays a lesson in patience

Triple-A Iowa's airline ordeal underscores challenges facing PCL clubs

The Iowa Cubs dealt with airline delays and hotel vouchers during a recent trip from Des Moines to El Paso. (MiLB.com, AP)

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | June 12, 2015 10:00 AM

On the afternoon of May 28, the Iowa Cubs enjoyed an exhilarating, come-from-behind, walk-off win against the Reno Aces. On the evening of May 29, they were pummeled, 14-2, by the El Paso Chihuahuas. The extreme discrepancy between these two contests may very well have been a result of what happened in between.

As for the game on May 28 -- a 12:08 p.m. matinee at Principal Park in Des Moines -- the I-Cubs couldn't have asked for more. Not only did Matt Szczur's three-run homer give the Cubs an improbable win, it also ended the game well in advance of that afternoon's 3:45 p.m. curfew.

Yes, a day game curfew.

Prior to the ballgame, the Pacific Coast League had stipulated that an inning could not begin after 3:45 p.m. as both the I-Cubs and the Aces had flights to catch out of Des Moines International Airport that evening. The Aces, returning to Reno to begin a homestand the next day, were scheduled to depart at 6 p.m. The I-Cubs, meanwhile, were slated to catch a 6:15 flight to Houston. They'd then connect in Houston for a flight to El Paso, which was scheduled to arrive at 10:15 p.m. Mountain Time.

The I-Cubs' equipment wouldn't be making the trip with the team, however. Jeff Tilley, director of stadium operations, had arranged for it to be trucked directly from Principal Park to the El Paso Chihuahuas' home, Southwest University Park.

"We're loading up the truck now," Tilley told me during the waning moments of the May 28 ballgame. "It should arrive [in El Paso] by 10:45. It's safer than trying to fly the equipment, and makes it so that the TSA doesn't get so backed up [at the security gate]. Instead of them having to deal with 140 bags [the cumulative equipment haul of both teams], it will just be 70."

The good news is that the I-Cubs' equipment made it to El Paso without incident. The bad news is that the team didn't, as the conclusion of May 28's game marked the start of what would become a fairly epic ordeal. Cubs broadcaster Randy Wehofer, a veteran PCL traveler, lived to tell the tale.

The I-Cubs left Principal Park for the Des Moines airport at 4:45 p.m. in good spirits after that afternoon's walk-off victory. This ballpark departure was later than originally planned, as the team had already received word that their 6:15 flight would not be departing on time.

Iowa's Tilley
Iowa Cubs director of stadium operations Jeff Tilley coordinates travel logistics for the club. (Benjamin Hill/MiLB.com)

"After the game ended, we found out that our plane leaving Des Moines was delayed until 7:45," said Wehofer. "The plane was coming from Chicago and had a mechanical issue. We started working on all of our connections with the airlines to see what we could do about making our connection in Houston due to the delay. Initially, we thought it would work because [the I-Cubs] accounted for 35 of the 50 seats on the plane."

After spending a few idle hours at the airport, Iowa boarded its flight a little after 8 p.m. Their travel time to Houston was approximately two hours; it remained unclear whether they'd be able to make their connection to El Paso.

"We landed in Houston at 10:38 and I immediately turned my phone back on to see what we could find out," said Wehofer. "I had a message from Jeff Tilley that they could only hold the connection until 10:40 or the crew would go over their hours and be illegal to fly. We stood on the plane waiting for the door to open for another 15 minutes and the other plane left in the meantime."

Thus, the I-Cubs found themselves stranded in Houston for the night.


• Read more about Ben Hill's Midwest trip »


"I began working with the [United Airlines] customer service counter," said Wehofer. "Since the delay was a mechanical issue, United was responsible for putting us up in a hotel. We produced a room list so they could print vouchers for us to take to a hotel with some food vouchers as well."

The Cubs made it to their Houston hotel around midnight, but most of the players didn't have a change of clothes or their basic toiletries.

"We couldn't get our baggage in Houston when we were stranded," said Wehofer. "We got packs from the airline that had a toothbrush, deodorant and a comb inside and then [we had] whatever was in our carry-ons. Thankfully, our baseball equipment went by truck and was not part of this ordeal. Another 50-60 bags may have resulted in us not playing [in El Paso on May 29], as there is no guarantee they would've all made it with us."

The next morning, the Triple-A team traveled back to the Houston airport via two hotel shuttle buses. They were due to catch a 10:35 a.m. "extra session" flight, which had been added to the day's itinerary specifically to accommodate the team (as there hadn't been enough tickets available on previously scheduled flights to El Paso).

"When we got to the airport, our plane was pushed back to 11," said Wehofer. "Then the plane arrived and we didn't have enough of a crew so we were delayed a little longer. We finally got in the air about 11:30 and landed in El Paso at 12:30 Mountain Time -- about 21 hours after we left Principal Park to head to the airport in Des Moines on Thursday. Buses left the El Paso hotel for the ballpark at 4:30."

For the I-Cubs, that evening's game was as miserable as the travel that had preceded it. Dallas Beeler allowed nine runs over 2 1/3 innings of work, while the offense failed to collect a single extra-base hit and managed just one hit with runners in scoring position. The result was a 14-2 shellacking.

Wehofer didn't make excuses for the Cubs' poor play, and it's certainly possible that the team would have lost just as badly even if their travel to El Paso had gone smoothly. But fans would do well to keep this tale in mind, the next time they are unfortunate enough to witness an uninspired Pacific Coast League contest.

Sometimes the friendly skies are anything but.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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