DES MOINES, Iowa -- It hasn't been advertised as such, but Iowa's Principal Park has been the home of one of this season's best Minor League promotions. Each and every home game, fans can get an autograph from a Hall of Famer.
The Cooperstown enshrinee in question suits up for the club on a daily basis, wearing the iconic blue pinstripes he sported for many years as one of Wrigleyville's most famous residents: former Chicago second sacker and current I-Cubs manager Ryne Sandberg.
Sandberg, in his fourth season as a skipper and first in Iowa, signs autographs before every game. When the gates open at 5:30 p.m., fans rush to what has been dubbed "Sandberg Alley" (the aisle immediately to the left of the third-base dugout). At 6:15, the line at the "Alley" snaked up the aisle and down the walkway toward the left-field foul pole.
"It's a word of mouth type of thing," said Scott Sailor, the I-Cubs director of logistics. "Sandberg's been out signing before every game for at least 10 minutes, rain or shine. He's been great when it comes to public relations, everything we could ask for and more."
At the front of "Sandberg Alley" on Friday was Matt Numedahl of nearby Urbandale, who arrived at the ballpark at 4 o'clock. He was equipped with a greeting card and was thinking ahead.
"I just need a good Christmas gift for my brother," he explained.
Behind him was Des Moines native Robert Connair, a Sandberg Alley regular.
"I'm sure [Sandberg] recognizes me," he said. "Maybe I should cut my hair or put on some jewelry. But, really, as long as you say 'please' and 'thank you,' it's OK."
Sandberg has certainly served as a good incentive to come to the ballpark, but his time in Iowa might not last past this season (speculation is he may manage in Chicago in 2011). And, Hall of Famer or not, managers generally don't provide much excitement once the game starts.
Fortunately, Principal Park has plenty to offer, no matter who's making the decisions in the dugout.
For starters, there's the scenery. Sailor said that "we like to think we can offer the best view in Minor League Baseball."
While many clubs would happily challenge that assertion, the I-Cubs can certainly make a case. The Des Moines skyline sits beyond the third-base line, while the mammoth Iowa state capital gleams beyond the outfield wall. Toward right field, one can view the point where the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers intersect.
And there's Principal Park, itself, which opened in 1992 (it was erected on the same site as Sec Taylor Stadium, built in 1947 and torn down in 1991). The 11,500-seat facility features an unobstructed walkway between the lower and upper seating areas that provides easy access to the aforementioned Des Moines vantage points. And while an unassuming vibe prevails (this is the Midwest, after all), unique features can still be found.
Those craving a frosty beverage would do well to visit the "Beer Box," a walk-in cooler stocked with 20 varieties.
"On real humid days, people will take their time picking something out. Sometimes I might step in for a little while myself," said gameday employee Pat Neal, who mans the cash register just outside the Beer Box. "We've got some nice imported beers, but Pabst is the probably the most popular. People go for the good, old nostalgic beers."
While strolling the concourse, beer in hand, one comes across a truly unique wall hanging. Amid the usual array of team banners and advertisements is the First Amendment, printed in full. This elucidation of crucial American rights was commissioned by I-Cubs majority owner Michael Gartner, who enjoyed a distinguished journalism career before returning to his hometown and purchasing the I-Cubs.
"If people can yell, 'Kill the umpire,' then I figure they should know why they can say it," said Gartner, who on Friday night was keeping score in the press box. "I see dads explaining what it means to their kids, and that makes me feel good."
In the midst of the conversation, the I-Cubs closed out a taut 4-2 victory over division rival Memphis to open a one-game lead in the Pacific Coast League's American North Division with three to play. The fans, more than 9,000 strong, had been vocal throughout the final inning, helping create a tense atmosphere not usually witnessed in the entertainment-first, sports-second world of Minor League Baseball.
"I bought this team [in 1999] because it would have been devastating to the community if they had left," Gartner said. "It turned out to be a good business decision as well as the right thing to do."