It’s a big week for the folks in Davenport, IA, as the Quad Cities River Bandits (Low A; Midwest League) have special reason to enjoy the World Series this year. Eight Houston Astros players have suited up for the River Bandits– some for a season like Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers; others for a cameo like George Springer and Alex Bregman.
But the connection between Quad Cities and Houston runs much deeper than the diamond. When Houston was devastated by flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Davenport felt its pain. The Quad Cities endured its own catastrophic flooding in 2013. So, when the River Bandits put out the call to aid those in need, fans of the River Bandits stepped up to the plate. The team acquired a tractor trailer and fans filled it with canned goods, clean clothes and bottled water. The also filled a bucket passed around the ballpark for a week and raised $25,000 for relief efforts.
“In Quad Cities, we’ve had our own issues with flooding,” River Bandits owner Dave Heller said. “We’re not unfamiliar with the damage it can do. We’re very empathetic to the people of Houston. As an Astros affiliate, we feel like we’re part of the Houston family. It was really an important to us to say to our fellow family members, ‘We’re there for you.’”
That mantra is woven deeply into the fabric of the River Bandits franchise. Whether it’s hurricane relief, supporting charities in the Quad Cities community or awarding college scholarships to Quad Cities students, the River Bandits are every bit the champions as their parent club.
For their continued excellence for community work in the Davenport area, the River Bandits are Ballpark Digest’s choice for Best Charity Program in 2017. This is the second time the team has captured the award, as it previously claimed the prize in 2015.
In 2017, the Quad Cities River Bandits charitable contributions reached a franchise record of nearly $600,000. Between their scholarship program, believed to be the largest in the minor leagues, valued at nearly $80,000 annually, a $100,000 donation to Genesis Health Systems, and more than $400,000 in cash and merchandise donations to various organizations and causes throughout the Quad Cities, the River Bandits set records in giving this season. In addition to financial donations, the Bandits staff also donated over 1,250 hours of their time in volunteer work.
“You can put out the call, but it doesn’t mean anything if the people don’t respond,” Heller said. “The people in the Quad Cities, they are the best people that you’ll find anywhere in the country. They are caring, they are passionate, and they are compassionate. Having been through so much flooding themselves, we know the impact it can have on a community, so we were quick to step up.”
The River Bandits definitely put the “fun” in charitable funding in 2017, adding new amusement park rides to the ballpark experience, with the profits from four of those rides, including the only double-decker carousel between Chicago and Overland, Kansas, going to the newly-created Carousel Corporation, which donates to charities throughout the Quad Cities.
A fifth ride, a spinning roller coaster called the Genesis Kids Coaster, generated $100,000 alone for the Genesis Health Services Foundation. The money helps supply free flu shots for every child in the Quad Cities, funds Camp Genesis, which supports families dealing with issues related to cancer treatment, and the only neo-natal intensive care unit in the Quad Cities.
Naturally, the carousel is the crown jewel of the new rides at Modern Woodmen Park, which turns the ballpark into the only large-scale amusement park within hundreds of miles of the Quad Cities. Heller, who has previously installed a Ferris wheel and other amusements at the park, purchased the carousel from San Francisco before the 2017 season, had the enormous ride completely refurbished – even bringing in one the nation’s top carousel restorers to paint and repair all the horses – and making it the centerpiece of the new collection.
The result was two of the largest attendance months in the history of the 86-year-old ballpark in June and August.
“We both wanted to do something big and grand,” Heller said. “People clearly responded to these rides and they loved them. All the money from those rides goes into the Trust.”
But arguably the signature charitable program for the franchise is the $80,000 annual Bandits Scholarship Program, which currently awards scholarships to juniors at three colleges in the Quad Cities: Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, St. Ambrose University in Davenport and Eastern Iowa University in Bettendorf, IA. A fourth university is expected to be added to the program in 2018.
The scholarship program began in 2009 after the untimely death of the team’s assistant general manager, Keith Lucier, from a brain aneurysm. Lucier was 35, had been recently married and was a beloved, lifelong Quad Cities resident.
“It was just so sad. He was such a fun, happy, fun-loving guy who loved the Quad Cities,” Heller said. “We’d tease him about it, because he never left. His wife had never been out of the Quad Cities and that was home and it was perfect for them. And so, when he passed, I wanted to do something in his honor.”
The original scholarship was awarded to a high school senior set to attend Lucien’s alma mater, the University of Iowa. But as the program evolved and grew, the team re-directed the scholarships to the schools within the Quad Cities.
Scholarships are awarded on the basic of four prerequisites: Academic excellence, athletic involvement, charitable works/volunteerism and a desire to make a future in the Quad Cities.
“It evolved and grew because we have these four schools in the Quad Cities and they all do such wonderful important work in our community and I didn’t want any of them to be excluded. It’s grown pretty nicely. It started pretty small and now the applications are in the hundreds, and that’s nice.”
Multiple clubs stepped forward with strong charity efforts this year, and we are recognizing some of those teams with honorable mentions.
The Reading Fightin Phils (Class AA; Eastern League) and Baseballtown Charities have worked for years to help grow youth baseball in the community. Baseballtown Charities was originally established in 2002, but took one of its biggest steps in 2017 by breaking ground on the Savage 61 Dream Field at the Relevant Sports Complex. “As President of Baseballtown Charities I thank Ballpark Digest for this recognition on behalf of the Charity’s Board of Directors and the great front office of the Reading Fightins for all the hard work, dedication and volunteerism that they exhibit throughout the year to raise funds and support the many initiatives that the Charity undertakes,” said Chuck Domino.
The Williamport Crosscutters (Short Season A; NY-Penn League) have maintained several charitable initiatives over the years, with perhaps the most prominent being the Dominican Plate Dinner. An annual event, the Dominican Plate Dinner is organized to celebrate the heritage and culture of Latin players and community members, with proceeds benefiting A.C.E.S North America. “We are honored to be included as an Honorable Mention in this year’s Ballpark Digest Awards,” said Gabe Sinicropi, Jr., the Crosscutters vice president of marketing & public relations. “Our Dominican Plate Dinner is a unique event on the Minor League Baseball landscape that involves our Latino players who are sometimes reluctant to do community service, due to the language barrier. While most of our charity work benefits organizations in our local area, the Dominican Plate gives us a chance to help those in need in the Dominican Republic via a home-grown Williamsport charity.”
2017 Ballpark Digest Award Winners
Editor’s Choice Award: National Eclipse Games
Best New Food Item: Beercheese Poutine
Best New Concessions Experience: Miller Park
Best Ballpark Improvement (Over $1M): Great Dane Duck Blind
Executive of the Year: Ryan Keur
Best New Logo/Branding: Down East Wood Ducks
Best Ballpark Renovation (MiLB): Fluor Field, Greenville Drive
Broadcasters: Howard Kellman and Mick Gillespie
Ballpark of the Year: SunTrust Park, Atlanta Braves