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River Bandits rising above flood challenges

Raised railroad bridge, water levels set backup plans into motion
Modern Woodmen Park was ready for baseball but inaccessible throughout most of the season's first month. (Quad Cities River Bandits)
May 6, 2019

They were ready for high floodwaters. An abruptly rising railroad track? A washed out downtown? Those were other issues entirely.Through the spring, the Mississippi River has surged over its banks in Davenport, Iowa, and surrounded the Quad Cities River Bandits' Modern Woodmen Park -- one of Minor League Baseball's most

They were ready for high floodwaters. An abruptly rising railroad track? A washed out downtown? Those were other issues entirely.
Through the spring, the Mississippi River has surged over its banks in Davenport, Iowa, and surrounded the Quad Cities River Bandits' Modern Woodmen Park -- one of Minor League Baseball's most iconic and picturesque stadiums -- but the Class A affiliate of the Astros would have been ready to play their home opener had it not been for a surprise change in infrastructure they had no control over. As things turned out, the River Bandits were forced out of town until April 26 -- 22 days after their scheduled Opening Night.
The next day, they lost yet another opening, this one to rain. On April 30, a levee failed at River Drive and Pershing Avenue -- less than a mile from Modern Woodmen Park -- filling Second Street with several feet of water, which continued to rise over the next day. The stadium remained dry, its playing surface ready, but the already-inundated downtown it calls home became even more difficult to navigate, its thoroughfares impassable.
On Friday, the water was well over 22 1/2 feet and the flood was named the highest and longest in the recorded history of Rock Island, Illinois.

"It doesn't seem like we can catch a break," said Jacqueline Holm, who is in her first season as the Quad Cities general manager, fourth with the club. "It's going to take us a while to recover from this."
From Monday-Wednesday, the team is hosting a "home" series against Lansing at the University of Iowa's Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa. Conditions permitting, they'll return to Modern Woodmen on Thursday for a three-game set against the Great Lakes Loons. 

In previous years, a footbridge has enabled the River Bandits to play through floods.
The River Bandits are not rookies when it comes to coping with floods. In fact, the springtime swelling of the Upper Mississippi -- which can sometimes carry into mid-summer -- is practically an annual tradition and very much a part of the 88-year-old ballpark's history. But as floods have become more dramatic over the last couple decades, the team has taken a number of measures to be able to play through almost any rise in water. In 2004, they added a nine-foot berm in the outfield. In 2011, they worked with the city of Davenport to establish a removable flood wall around the perimeter of the park. A footbridge can be put up to provide access to the stadium by giving people a walkway that goes over the flood wall.
With this system in mind, Holm and her staff were confident the club could open on April 4 up until about a week beforehand, when a challenge popped up on the opposite side of the ballpark from the river. On March 28, Canadian Pacific Railway began raising its tracks in Davenport by as much as 20 inches in some places, unbeknownst to the River Bandits or the city. In previous years, trains had been rerouted during times of flood, but the change to infrastructure has allowed them to plow through the water. It also rendered Quad Cities' walkway to the ballpark unusable, creating an obstruction that left the team with no way to get fans, players, staff or equipment into or out of the ballpark.

Modern Woodmen Park has become a virtually unreachable island. (Quad Cities River Bandits)
"When they raised up the track, it made the bridge to get into our ballpark a nonviable solution," Holm said. "Suddenly, in a matter of hours, we had to get out of the building. We moved all our stuff out -- or as much of it as we could. We had an hour's notice to get out as much as we can."
Working out of the Downtown Davenport YMCA, the River Bandits staff labored to get the club -- and its fans -- into Modern Woodmen. There was nothing they could do, though, to salvage their opening series. Three days before it was scheduled to start, the club announced they'd begin their season as the home team in the enemy territory of Burlington. Their next homestand was scheduled for April 15-20, but the River Bandits had to play that homestand's first series (against the Kernels) in Cedar Rapids and its second series (against the Kane County Cougars) at Peoria's Dozer Park, which was empty while the Chiefs were on the road.
"I was with my nephew and we were the only ones in the ballpark," said Lori McFate, who volunteers as the team's host family coordinator. "It's defeating having a home game in a different stadium. Plus, they've had to deal with the extra commute time on away games, and they've been in and out of hotels. We've had a rough first month."
Tweet from @QCRiverBandits: Some of our staff is pitching in and helping downtown businesses in their fight against the flood. Stay strong, Davenport and all of the QC. #OneRiverOneFamily #BandTogether
Incredibly, the River Bandits' record doesn't reflect that reality. Through their first 25 games -- only three of which were played at home -- they went a Midwest League-best 15-10. Even the games that took place at Modern Woodmen Park (on April 26 and 28, after the construction of a new elevated walkway over the railroad tracks but before the downtown levee failure) felt like new environs.
"Truthfully, some of the players had never been in the ballpark," Holm said. "Some of them haven't been in the building, and they didn't have a single practice at the field. It's kind of crazy that they hadn't touched their own playing surface until the first game."
McFate, who by the end of April had landed 20 of 30 Quad Cities players with host families (four live in her house; eight are in apartments; two are in a hotel), has worked tirelessly with other host families to try to shelter the players from the effects of the flood and the team's dislocation. On April 28, as the team played its first doubleheader at Modern Woodmen (and its second and third games there overall), McFate was keeping a watchful eye on the players' property.
"I thought some of their cars were going to float away," she said. "While they were playing, the water was creeping higher and higher, so I went out there and moved some cars."
But McFate and River Bandits staff can only do so much to make the start of this year a normal Minor League experience for their players. Even on regularly scheduled road trips, the team bus is overcrowded with equipment -- from bats to exercise bikes -- that would otherwise be at Modern Woodmen. Roving instructors from the Astros have had to cancel or abruptly reschedule trips because it's difficult to know where the team will be during any given stretch, which deprives players -- the bulk of them being in their first full seasons -- of one-on-one attention that might be taken for granted in other years.
When the team does move permanently back into Modern Woodmen, players still may have to be patient about getting access to every part of the facility. Before the April 30 levee breach, Holm surveyed some areas of the park only to discover a pair of beavers in the batting cages.
"The way our ballpark works is, under our grandstands we have an indoor/outdoor storage area and that goes back up to batting cages, so if you set up a ladder you can see into it," the GM explained. "There was so much debris, and I said, 'Are those beavers?' Sure enough, they were. ... You don't even think of what it's going to look like when it's all over."

Modern Woodmen Park has a couple of new tenants. (Jacqueline Holm/Quad Cities River Bandits)
And one of the hardest parts is that there's no knowing when that will be.
"The last-minute decision making, the last-minute planning, the unknowns … it's hard," McFate said. "Something is always happening, and we always want to make sure we have the latest and greatest information and have the best idea we can about how to address the situation, and how to keep everybody safe."
Holm, in the meantime, has added a new skill set. 

"I've become a bit of a meteorologist, and meteorologists are only right 50 percent of the time,' she said. "And when they're wrong, the total opposite happens.
"This is some of the worst flooding this area's ever seen, and there are changes happening daily. The National Weather Service sends out updates at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and I just try to work off that, but it's not even my call, since [the railroad tracks and the streets around the ballpark are] not my infrastructure."
As enormous a challenge as the historic flood has been for River Bandits baseball, everybody connected with the team is mindful that there are many in the area who are dealing with situations worse than an inaccessible ballpark.
"The entire community is under water," said McFate, who called the flood the worst she's seen in the Quad Cities region. "That has a drastic impact, not just on business but on daily life, on family life, on quality of life. There are people who have to use a boat to get out of their houses."

Josh Jackson is a contributor to Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB.