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Baseball in Waterloo, Iowa

It’s not heaven but it’s close

Since there is not going to be minor league baseball this summer and at this point there is no guarantee that the proposed 60-game major league schedule will go off without a hitch, my wife and I decided that if we wanted to see some baseball this summer, we’d best start going to what was available. Our local team is the Waterloo Bucks of the summer collegiate Northwoods League. Right now, if I’m not mistaken, the Northwoods league may be the only league in the United States playing baseball. Waterloo is a small city of about 70,000 and was the birthplace and home of Lou Henry Hoover, former First Lady and Renaissance woman and the Five Sullivan Brothers, whose story inspired the movie, Saving Private Ryan. It is also home to Dan Gable, the Babe Ruth of wrestling.

The Bucks have been playing in the Northwoods League since 1995 at venerable Riverfront Stadium. Riverfront was built in 1946 and was originally known as Municipal Stadium. It’s a quaint, old fashioned stadium with non-Covid seating capacity listed at 5,000. The stadium has a covered, single level grandstand that extends almost to first and third base. It has ample general admission seating that extends almost to the foul poles on both the right and left field lines, plus the obligatory party decks in the right and left field corner. The dimensions are reasonable: 335 to left, 375 to center and 335 to right. A 16 foot fence, covered with billboards of local businesses, circles most of the outfield and makes hitting home runs more challenging. Left field has an odd quirk in that the field rises ever so slightly before getting to the warning track and wall. The ballpark has a nice scoreboard situated above the fence in the right-center gap. Food and drink prices are reasonable, there’s no cost to park and kids can still chase down foul balls inside and outside the stadium.

The season is four games old and we’ve been to two games so far. Both were enjoyable and entertaining. The Bucks lost to the Willmar (MN) Stingers 7-6 on Friday night but recovered to beat the Mankato (MN) MoonDogs on Saturday by a score of 6-5 behind a two-run home run from University of Kentucky product, Oraj Anu. The crowd, much appreciative of the power display, gave the kid a one-minute standing ovation. All three teams we’ve seen have had pitchers that throw in the low 90s and some have decent command of their off-speed stuff. Remember, these are just 18 to 21-year-old college kids from all over the United States, living in and playing in a new part of the country after not having played this spring.

Sometimes you see something you haven’t seen before. On the Friday game, as the sunset cast a beautiful glow behind the third base stands, we witnessed a Willmar player score from second on a wild pitch. As with most plays like this (think Eric Hosmer’s mad dash from third) there is a combination of bad luck and bad play. This was no different. The player on second had a nice lead and once the ball got by the Waterloo catcher, he was off. The catcher took his time going after the ball (the baseball manager in my ID was screaming at him), figuring the runner would stop at second. Not this kid. He didn’t even break stride. Ballsy move. Upon seeing the runner steaming home, the now panicked catcher grabbed for the ball, missed it, then had to look down to find it. Precious seconds ticked away. He came up throwing and Duda’d the throw high and wide to the pitcher as the runner easily slid under the tag.

My wife, who likes baseball, didn’t grasp the significance of the play. She’s a bit of a musical genius. She can write her own lyrics and words, has a beautiful singing voice and plays multiple instruments, but breaking down a baseball play or a blocking scheme in football is not her forte. I racked my brain over the thousands of games I’ve seen trying to think of the last time I had seen this play. Little league maybe? I finally came to the conclusion that this was the first time I’ve seen a player score from second on a wild pitch. I loved everything about the way the runner made this play, even though he was from Willmar. Did I mention that Waterloo lost this game by a run?

Another great thing about this league is the team nicknames. How can you not like the Bismarck Bull Moose? Or the Fond du Lac Dock Spiders? The Kalamazoo Mac Daddies? The Traverse City Pit Spitters? I’ve got to get some of these T-shirts. Plus, there were fireworks after the Saturday game. In fact, I believe there are fireworks after every Saturday home game. How great is that!!! While we were enjoying the fireworks, my mind kept replaying the David Spade monologue on fireworks from Joe Dirt. I’m sure you’ve seen it, Spade: “So you’re gonna tell me that you don’t have no black cats, no roman candles or screaming mimi’s? Oh, come on man! You got no lady fingers, fuzz buttles, snicker bombs, church burners, finger blasters, gut busters, zippity do dah’s or crap flappers? No whistling bungholes, no spleen splitters or whisker biscuits, honkey lighters, hoosker doos, hoosker don’ts, cherry bombs, nipsy daisers, with or without the scooter stick, or one single whistling kitty chaser?”

I’m fairly certain the Waterloo show had some fuzz buttles and spleen splitters and there were a few that might have been whistling bungholes. It was a righteous display.

All I can say is this, if you’re in the upper Midwest this summer, you should check out a game. It’s unlikely that any of these kids will make it to the Majors, but you can never tell. They play hard and they’re easy to root for. Waterloo has had a few kids advance to the majors, 17 by my count, including Wes Obermueller, Eric Stout and Ryan Goins, who all saw time with the Royals. The biggest star to come out of the Bucks organization would have been Clint Barmes who played here in 1999 and 2000 and had a 13-year career, primarily with the Colorado Rockies.

Back in the day, Waterloo served as the home to several Class A teams. The Chicago White Sox had their Class A team here from 1946 to 1956, known as the Waterloo White Hawks. Luis Aparicio played 94 games here in 1954 before making his debut with the Sox in 1956. He ended up with 2,677 hits over an 18-year career that culminated in election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984.

The Boston Red Sox moved in for the 1958 season and stayed through the end of the 1968 season. Wilbur Wood played here as an 18-year-old in 1960. Other notables who graced Riverfront for the Red Sox were Glenn Beckert, Reggie Smith, Billy Conigliaro, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Roger Moret, Tony Muser and a young Carlton Fisk. Fisk hit .338 in his 62-game stint during the summer of 1968.

In 1969, the team’s affiliation flipped to an expansion team, The Kansas City Royals. Talent was thin that first few years as the Royals worked to build up their farm system. Doug Bird came through in 1970, finishing with an 11-9 record and even hit .273 in 55 at bats. The team changed their name to the Waterloo Royals in 1970. By 1971, the talent level was starting to pick up. Al Cowens, Greg Minton, Tom Poquette and John Wathan played on the 1971 team. The 1972 Waterloo team posted their first winning record at 72-53. That team was led by future big leaguers Cowens, Ron Washington, Tom Bruno, Mark “Country” Littell and Dennis Leonard. The 1973 team finished at 64-56. The only player from that team to have any impact in Kansas City was Joe Zdeb.

The team that locals still talk about was the 1975 Waterloo Royals. That team went 93-35 and had eight players who eventually saw time in the big leagues. There were two big names on that squad: 19 year old Willie Wilson, who only hit .272 but stole 76 bases and scored 92 runs in 127 games and a 22 year old pitcher named Dan Quisenberry, who at that time was still throwing overhand. Quiz appeared in 20 games and posted a 3 and 2 record. At age 22 his career appeared to be going nowhere.

The 1976 Waterloo Royals had another solid team, finishing at 78-52. This team also had some future big-league talent. An 18-year-old Clint Hurdle made his debut, playing in 127 games. Hurdle only hit .235 but he did blast 19 home runs into the trees beyond the right field wall. Rich Gale appeared in 23 games, finishing with a promising 11 and 6 record. Dan Quisenberry repeated Class A, appearing in 34 games and posting a microscopic 0.64 ERA.

Unfortunately, this was the final season of affiliation with the Royals and the City of Waterloo. In 1977, the Cleveland Indians took over. Those Indian teams had a lot of success, posting winning records in ten of their twelve seasons in town. Several stars also made their Class A debuts in Waterloo, including Von Hayes, Kelly Gruber, Greg Swindell, Albert Belle and future Royals manager Trey Hillman. Old timers still talk about the home runs that Hayes would send screaming over the trees and the railroad tracks that run behind the left-center wall.

We moved to the area in 1989 just as the team was going through a transition. That year was a mash up roster as the Indians and the San Diego Padres shared the team, now known as the Diamonds.

The Diamonds went entirely to the Padres in 1990 and stayed that way through their final season in 1993.

In 1994, Major League Baseball set new standards for minor league ballparks. The city of Waterloo, strapped for cash, was unable to meet the requirements, and thus minor league baseball was lost to the citizens, probably forever. The Diamonds left town and became the Springfield (IL) Sultans and eventually morphed into the Lansing Lug Nuts, who are now affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays.

If you find yourself in Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, or Wisconsin this summer, try to check out a game or three. There are 23 teams in the league. Who knows, the next Mike Trout may be playing in the league this summer.