Sam Bernabe’s desk sits about two hundred feet from home plate.
It is a polished, smooth brown, a shade or two lighter than the game-used, star-signed bats which adorn the wall behind him. While the desk is less than a routine fly ball’s distance from the field, it is within spitting distance of the souvenir store and a couple of beer stands, befitting of the man in charge of bringing as many people as possible to see the Iowa Cubs play baseball.
“If we’re winning and it looks like we’re going to make the playoffs, it means maybe five-to-ten percent better business,” Bernabe, the general manager and president of the Iowa Cubs, said hours before his 9-10 team opened its second home stand of the young season. “If we’re losing and getting our brains beat in, it means maybe five percent less in business.”
The “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose” mindset is not only applicable to Saturday morning little league games, but to the minor league baseball system as a whole. The Iowa Cubs are the Chicago Cubs’ Class AAA farm club in the Pacific Coast League —the highest level of professional baseball outside of Major League Baseball.
From Chicago’s perspective, the I-Cubs’ most important duty is to provide a home for younger players to develop their talents. For Bernabe, who has no control over the team’s roster, it’s just one more challenge at the helm of a minor league team.
“I don’t worry about who’s out there in uniform, I don’t worry about winning streaks or losing streaks,” Bernabe said. “It’s my staff’s challenge to get as many people into the ballpark and entertain them as best we can for the 72 dates we’re given, so we don’t worry about the ballplayers.”
There were many who did worry earlier in the year when the Chicago Cubs optioned third baseman and reigning Minor League Player of the Year Kris Bryant to Triple-A at the start of the season. Bryant, widely regarded as the best prospect in baseball, hit the most home runs —nine—and recorded one of the highest batting averages—.425—in spring training, but was sent down to prevent him from accruing a full year of service time.
By doing so, the team extended its control over his contract by an additional year. Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, and Tony Clark, Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, met the move with criticism.
It was strictly a business move, but one that did not amount to any additional revenue for the Iowa club, as Bryant was promoted to Chicago on April 17, the morning of the I-Cubs’ first home game. Bryant’s promotion didn’t result in lost revenue, either—the Des Moines club drew 12,699 to its first game, a franchise record for opening night attendance.
“We started pretty strong from a business standpoint, which is the main goal,” Bernabe said. “We didn’t expect Kris Bryant to be here with us … but we never count on the team. The way I market the ball club and the way my staff markets the ball club is designed not to worry about whatever happens on the field.”
The Chicago Cubs have not fielded a winning team since 2009. That year was also the last time their average attendance was near the stadium’s capacity, accentuating the inextricable link between performance and fan turnout.
Despite that, over their dismal past three seasons, in which they went a combined 200-286, Baseball Almanac’s attendance records indicate the Cubs managed to draw over 100,000 more fans than the National League average over the same time. Add into the mix the nation’s third largest television market, and Chicago’s North side squad appears able to withstand any attendance fluctuations associated with team performance.
Some 330 miles west, it’s a bit more difficult.
“Everybody wants to watch a winner and everybody wants to see the team win. But if I relied on what the team did in order to sell tickets, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Bernabe said. “The ball club wouldn’t be here, we couldn’t afford to do business in this town— it’s too small. We’re the smallest Triple-A market out of the 30 teams.”
Bernabe shifts the focus from wins and losses to the fan experience, separating on-field play from in-stands entertainment and in the process maintaining the Iowa Cubs’ position as a summer stalwart.
“I think we’ve got it figured out as to what our fans like and what they want and how they like being entertained,” said Bernabe, who in December was recognized as the 2014 Baseball America Minor League Executive of the Year. “It’s a pretty simple formula: safe, clean, fun. If it’s not safe or clean you don’t have to worry about it being fun because [the fans] are not coming anyway.”
That formula has remained tried and true over Bernabe’s 32 years with the team, including the last 16 as president, even if the factors have changed. From air cannons launching hot dogs and t-shirts at screaming fans to a multi-level play area for kids, Principal Park has seen its share of progression in fan interaction.
It hasn’t always been known as Principal Park, either. The stadium has existed on its current site since 1947, and until 1959 was named Pioneer Park before being renamed to Sec Taylor Stadium in honor of Des Moines Register and Tribune sports editor Garner W. (Sec) Taylor.
In 2004, Principal Financial Group bought the naming rights for the stadium, and also served as the impetus for a $6.8 million series of renovations including additional seating in the outfield, a fountain in right field and a new scoreboard and video board. In continuing the tradition of progression, the team upgraded the video board to a high definition display in time for this season.
While big renovations garner the oohs and ahs from fans, a massive and continuous undertaking of upkeep and maintenance provides the “safe and clean” for the fans’ “fun.”
A legion of workers sweeps and hoses off the concrete concourse hours before the game while teenagers clad in I-Cubs garb haul bags of cups and plastic silverware to each concession stand. Outside the stadium, subcontractors sweat over pop-up workbenches and tend to expansion joints on the stadium’s façade.
All of this is done daily to prepare for what Bernabe describes as a two-and-a-half hour event, even if they don’t experience the game themselves.
“I just moved here last May, so I haven’t had the chance to see a game,” said Zack Palmer, a baseball fan and subcontractor beginning his second season of work on the stadium.
“There’s been a Triple-A team here, either the Iowa Cubs or Iowa Oaks, since 1969 and there’s been professional baseball here since the late 1800s,” Bernabe said. “I would say [calling us] an institution is probably fair. We just try to do the right things to not only survive but also support the community and all the things that central Iowa either does and has to offer … we seem to be in the fabric of all of what happens.”
Aside from fireworks after every Friday night game and the venerable, affable Cubbie Bear mascot that walks around the stadium in a perpetual swarm of kids, one of the most prominent aspects of summer baseball at Principal Park doesn’t actually involve the Iowa Cubs.
Since 2005, the stadium has hosted the Iowa high school state baseball tournament, in which teams from each of the four classes meet in late July to play for championships in their respective classes.
“It was probably the most memorable sports moment of my life,” said Luke Tasler. Tasler, 21 of Des Moines, pitched for Des Moines’ Roosevelt High School in the 2011 class 4A state tournament. “It was the highest level of competition I’ve ever played against as well.”
Taking the field for Roosevelt wasn’t Tasler’s first experience at Principal Park, not by a hundred games. Or two.
“I would say I’ve been to a couple hundred games, because we had season tickets when I was younger,” said Tasler. “My family wanted me to get into baseball, so they figured helping me understand the game would be by taking me to it.”
The general premise Bernabe seeks to promote is the very culture that permeates each level of minor league baseball: entertainment.
Kids in hamburger costumes race along the outer lip of the infield in staccato-breathed hopes for a free quarter pounder. Adults, with courage found at the new craft beer stands, lean over the renovated right field fence to heckle opposing right fielders.
The entertainment is no different here than in Chattanooga. Chattanooga doesn’t differ much than Spokane. Or Kalamazoo. Or Toledo.
“What we provide in our community parallels what everybody tries to do in their communities. There’s no difference,” Bernabe said. “The baseball is the entity of the entertainment, but it’s all of the things the fans get to do while they’re here.”
At his desk, steps from the gift shop and many, many more from the emerald diamond on which his team of leather-palmed veterans and starry-eyed rookies do battle, Bernabe has no business trying to catch a foul ball. And why should he?
That’s for the fans.