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Welcome, citizens: I-Cubs tradition carries on

Des Moines club hosts annual on-field naturalization ceremony
The Iowa Cubs hosted an on-field naturalization ceremony on Sept. 17, welcoming 69 new citizens from 32 countries.
@BensBiz
September 22, 2020

A pandemic, social upheaval and myriad natural disasters during a tumultuous presidential election cycle may obscure the point, but nonetheless: The United States of America is a desirable place to live. Every year, the Triple-A Iowa Cubs stage a unique ballpark event that makes this sentiment abundantly clear. Since 2009,

A pandemic, social upheaval and myriad natural disasters during a tumultuous presidential election cycle may obscure the point, but nonetheless: The United States of America is a desirable place to live. Every year, the Triple-A Iowa Cubs stage a unique ballpark event that makes this sentiment abundantly clear.

Since 2009, the I-Cubs have hosted a naturalization ceremony at their home of Principal Park in downtown Des Moines. Over this event's first 11 years (2009-19), 327 new citizens were welcomed at the ballpark. These ceremonies are joyous and often profoundly emotional occasions, as they mark the final step for those becoming United States citizens. After taking the Oath of Allegiance, participants receive a Certificate of Naturalization, with said document serving as official proof of U.S. citizenship.

The Iowa Cubs' ballpark ceremony is presided over by the Honorable Robert W. Pratt, a United States District Court Judge from the Southern District of Iowa. Pratt, an Iowa Cubs season ticket holder, is friends with team owner and chairman Michael Gartner. In 2009, the judge came up with the idea of staging the ceremony, usually conducted in a courtroom, at the ballpark. Gartner was immediately on board.

"We did it in August, and as I was walking off the field I thought, “Next year, we do this on the the Fourth of July,'" recalled Gartner. "And up until this year, we did it every year on the Fourth of July. Judge Pratt, he gives an unbelievable speech. There’s not a dry eye in the house. It’s the only game of the year where I allow the start to be delayed. People come down just to see it. It’s just an incredibly moving ceremony, one of the great days of the year. It combines baseball and citizenship and fireworks, everything American but Mom and the apple pie."

From 2009 through 2019, the I-Cubs' naturalization ceremony took place on the field prior to a July 4 game.

There were no games this season, of course, on July 4 or otherwise. But even amid a pandemic, the I-Cubs remained dedicated to hosting naturalization ceremonies.

"A big outdoor space is perfect for social distancing. Keeping people safe and getting as many new citizens registered as we can," said Scott Sailor, who has worked for the I-Cubs in a variety of roles over the past two decades. "In June, we did a week of drive-thru citizenship ceremonies in our parking lot, where they could pick up their paperwork and do the Oath of Allegiance, all while they were in their car. We did about 500 that week."

"A drive-thru window for citizenship. It was really bizarre," added Gartner. "'I’ll have two hamburgers, a Coke and my certificate of citizenship.' It was weird, but it was nice. Anyway it can get done, that we can help do it, is nice. But on the field is particularly nice. It’s just beautiful."

This past Thursday, Sept. 17, the I-Cubs' naturalization ceremony returned to the field. Sixty-nine individuals took part, representing 32 countries and five continents, a global diaspora spread out across a baseball diamond in America's heartland.

Since 2009, Judge Robert W. Pratt has presided over the annual on-field naturalization ceremonies.

"Usually we limit it to about 30 people, who stand on the baseline between home and third," said Gartner. "This year, the immigration courts are dealing with a shortage of people who can be sworn in. They asked if we could do more. So this year, we had 69 in the outfield and the judge was in fine form as usual."

The outfield-based ceremony was conducted while a smattering of friends and family observed from the stands. As each new citizen's name was called, their name and country of origin was displayed on the outfield ribbon board. Judge Pratt's speech was again a central component, as he congratulated the citizens on their accomplishments while emphasizing their new country's commitment to intellectual and cultural diversity.

"Simply stated, there is no single American way to think or believe," said the Judge, in one representative passage. "Indeed, conformity of thought and belief would be contrary to the underlying principles of this great nation."

"People come from all over the world to be Americans," added Sailor. "They work hard. They make sacrifices so that they and their families can have better lives. It’s neat to see that, to see 32 countries represented. To see the people come in. They’re nervous at first, it’s probably the first time they’re seeing the ballpark. They don’t know what to expect. But once it’s over, it’s all smiles, seeing them reunite with their families and friends after the ceremony."

The I-Cubs, like all Minor League teams, don't quite know what the 2021 season will bring. But the venerable Pacific Coast League entity is hoping that, come next July 4, they'll be welcoming a new group of citizens on the field before a ballgame.

"This probably is the best thing we do all season," said Sailor. "In a lot of ways, it reminds everyone in the ballpark that, ‘Hey, this is America, the greatest place on Earth.’ And it makes you appreciate that. It’s not easy to become a U.S. citizen, to get here and go through the work it takes to become one. We’re appreciative of that and recognize and appreciate that we can play a small role in the process."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.