Springfield, Mo., is more than 200 miles southwest of St. Louis, a drive of nearly four hours on Interstate 44, but the distance between the two cities has absolutely no effect on Springfield's passion for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Springfield is Cardinals country through and through, and for incontrovertible proof of the area's undying loyalty to St. Louis, one only needs to visit the local Minor League Baseball stadium. That would be Hammons Field, a seven-year-old facility that hosts, yes, the Springfield Cardinals. This Texas League club is owned outright by the St. Louis organization, insuring that the symbiotic relationship between the Major League club and the so-called "Baby Birds" is one that will endure for many years to come.
I had never been to Springfield prior to attending Sunday evening's ballgame at Hammons Field, and going into the experience I had little idea what to expect. This is now the seventh season in which I've been writing about Minor League promotions and game operations, but in that time Springfield is not a team that has provided me with much content to work with. The team maintains a very low-key social media presence, for starters, and attempts to make a name for itself on a national level have been virtually nonexistent. There haven't been any name-the-team contests, new logos, crazy pop culture theme nights, concession stand gut-busters, secondary mascots or any other of the attention-grabbing promotional stunts that have become the bread and butter of an industry that is always finding ways to remain in the public eye.
That's because Springfield already has the attention, simply by virtue of their gleaming facility and Major League association. On Sunday, I arrived at the ballpark 90 minutes before game time and was stunned to see an ocean of red-clad fans queued up hundreds deep in front of each and every ballpark entrance. They were there for the evening's bobblehead giveaway, of Springfield slugger-turned-St. Louis Cardinal Matt Adams.
After parting this red sea in order to pick up a media pass at the will-call window, I was greeted outside of the team's front office by broadcaster Jeff Levering. He explained that the enthusiastic response to the evening's giveaway was a mere prelude to the fervor that was sure to greet the following week's David Freese bobblehead giveaway. And that, furthermore, the bobbleheads weren't nearly as popular as the team's series of St. Louis Cardinals 2011 World Series replica ring giveaways (there are four on this year's promo schedule, with 2,000 given away each time).
At this, he pulled out his cell phone and proudly displayed a photo taken from the stadium's second level during the last replica ring giveaway. It showed a sea of fans, some of them camped out in lawn chairs, fanning outward from Hammons Field's main gate.
In the St. Louis farm system, Springfield is a world unto itself. Sure, there are Cardinals fans in the vicinity of Class A Quad Cities (based in Davenport, Iowa) and Triple-A Memphis, but neither can hold a candle to the intensity of the Springfield faithful.
Those fans had plenty to cheer for on Sunday, as Springfield romped to a 20-3 victory over the Arkansas Travelers. The team rapped out a franchise record 24 hits, with all 11 players who recorded an at-bat hitting safely. Though there was still plenty of time for Minor League hi-jinx such as a wing-eating contest and an on-field game of Angry Birds, this evening was, first and foremost, about the action on the field.
"Springfield has been the best place my home park's been at and the best place I've played at, overall, in the Minor Leagues," said outfielder Adam Melker, who homered and hit two doubles on Sunday. "As far as fans, the facility, staff, everything overall is top notch. It's like the mini-big leagues because we have such a great stadium and thousands of fans."
Outfielder Jake Shaffer, who signed with St. Louis at the end of Spring Training after getting released by the Seattle organization, concurred.
"I've never played in front of better fans," he said. "They love their baseball and genuinely enjoy it, so it's been just great to play in front of them every night. Especially being so close to St. Louis, there's always a sense that winning here is very important. It's a step up from most Double-A affiliates."