Baseball Fever

Twenty-one games into the triple-A baseball season, I couldn’t resist. I had to get down to Principal Park in Des Moines to see the Iowa Cubs play the Louisville Bats on a sunny spring Sunday.

Of course, after spending five hours at the Ankeny Authors Fair inside the Ankeny Kirkendall Public Library on Saturday, I was looking for any excuse to spend Sunday afternoon outside. Except for a couple of gusts, the wind was manageable Sunday unlike most of the previous days in April. I got a reserved grandstand seat behind the visitors’ dugout in the sun to stay relatively warm. By the way, you cannot beat those $10 senior citizen ticket prices for reserved grandstand seats at Principal Park.

I’ve been enamored with baseball and baseball parks since my dad took me to Wrigley Field in Chicago in the 1950s. Those scorecards were more than just artifacts from a professional baseball game; they were works of art in that the designer of the covers was a well-known artist for the Wrigley Gum Company led by Phil Wrigley, who owned the Cubs at the time.

In a sense, a professional baseball park is almost like a cathedral to me. I am able to put aside whatever is bothering me for however long the game lasts. The green grass, dirt infield and ivy on the outfield wall in Wrigley Field’s case inspire me. It’s even better if the sun is out and there is no chance of rain. (I’ve been at ballparks during thunderstorms and it’s no fun.) You’ll see advertisements on the outfield walls at minor-league parks. I caught myself Sunday comparing this season’s signs to last year’s so I could determine if the ballclub landed some new advertisers this year.

As for the game itself, I went home even happier because the I-Cubs, the triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, won 11-3 thanks to an eight-run third inning. Twelve I-Cubs batted in the inning, which featured a two-run home run by Jake Slaughter and doubles by Miles Mastrobuoni, Owen Caissie and Darius Hill.

First baseman Matt “Mash” Mervis started the scoring with a line-drive homer over the right-field fence in the first inning. Mervis, Chicago’s 13th-rated prospect, appears to be stuck in Des Moines. After having a less than memorable start to his major-league career last year, the Cubs obtained first baseman Michael Busch from the Los Angeles Dodgers over the offseason. Busch, the Pacific Coast League’s player of the year in 2023, was blocked by all-star Freddie Freeman in L.A. I love watching Mervis play for the I-Cubs, but I hope he gets another shot with the Cubs or some other major-league team before the season ends.

The I-Cubs should be fun to watch this season because they have some of the best prospects in the team’s farm system, which is rated one of the top two or three in major-league baseball. In addition to Mervis, you’ll see Pete Crow-Armstrong (the No. 1-rated prospect) and Caissie (rated No. 3) in the outfield; B.J. Murray (rated No. 15) at third base; and Luis Vazquez (rated No. 17) at shortstop. The I-Cubs’ pitching staff includes the 26th-rated prospect, Porter Hodge, who pitched a scoreless eighth inning Sunday. This is the most loaded I-Cubs roster since Albert Almora, Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber to name a few were impressing local fans before Chicago won the World Series in 2016.

And more prospective stars could be on the way. The double-A Tennessee Smokies’ roster includes pitcher Cade Horton, the No. 2 prospect; third baseman Matt Shaw, the No. 4 prospect; outfielder Kevin Alcantara, the No. 5 prospect; second baseman James Triantos, the No. 6 prospect; and catcher Moises Ballesteros, the No. 7 prospect. Horton and Shaw could even reach the majors this season, some baseball pundits believe.

Hitting triple-A and major-league pitching in April is never easy, and some of the I-Cubs’ batting averages reflect that. Coming into Sunday’s game, Crow-Armstrong was hitting only .203 from the leadoff position mostly. Crow-Armstrong has hit at every level of the minor leagues, including a brief stint with Iowa late last season. He already has major-league Gold Glove potential; if he can hit at least .250 or .260 in the big leagues, he should be Chicago’s center fielder for years to come.

Baseball fever

Whether you’re a die-hard fan or a casual observer, there’s no denying the thrill of America’s favorite pastime as players slide into home, pitchers deliver strikeouts, and outfielders make diving catches.

Caissie, a 21-year-old Canadian native, was hitting .269 entering Sunday’s action. He has a quick, short batting stroke and already has some of the highest exit velocity of any player. You don’t see many players his age hitting cleanup for a triple-A team. Murray was batting .206 going into Sunday’s game. The switch-hitter has hit at the lower levels of the minor leagues so I’m not too concerned about him yet. He started a nifty 5-4-3 double play Sunday so it looks like his glove will play in the majors.

It’s interesting to see reliever Carl Edwards Jr. back in an I-Cub uniform. Since he was signed by the Chicago Cubs in April for the third time in his career, Edwards has pitched five games in relief for Iowa. He converted his last two save opportunities. The MLB veteran was a member of Chicago’s 2016 world champions, so he’s pitched in many high-leverage situations.

On the other hand, two former I-Cubs, catcher/first baseman P.J. Higgins and infielder Levi Jordan, are playing for Louisville this year. In the six-game series against the I-Cubs, Higgins went 9-for-20 with one home run and three runs-batted-in. One of the more popular I-Cub players last season, I had to root against him on Sunday. Jordan went 5-for-10 against his old team before he was placed on the injured list Friday.

The I-Cubs head to Buffalo for a six-game series starting Tuesday. They return to Principal Park on Tuesday, April 30, for a six-game series against Omaha and a six-game series against Columbus.

Top photo: Steve Dunn displays his latest book, Pug,’ ‘Fireball,’ and Company: 116 Years of Professional Baseball in Des Moines, Iowa, before a game between the Iowa Cubs and Louisville Bats on Sunday at Principal Park in Des Moines.

Steve Dunn has published two books about professional baseball in Des Moines. To find out more about his latest book or to order a copy, go to pugfireballandcompany.com. He also has written 12 bios and 12 game stories for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). He has been a member of the Field of Dreams chapter of SABR since the fall of 2014.

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