2014: A baseball odyssey

How does a sports editor spend a vacation?
Watching eight minor league baseball games in an eight-day span.
Iowa isn’t necessarily the first place most people would want to spend their vacation. But for an all-inclusive baseball experience, that included watching tons of baseball and several chances to stir baseball’s historical waters, it was a trip of epic proportions.
One of the most memorable times of the trip was a visit with former major league pitcher Bill Fischer, who lives in Council Bluffs. Fischer holds two major distinctions in baseball history. In 1964, he set a record that still stands today, by throwing 84.1 straight innings without walking a batter. During that stretch, Fischer faced 350 batters without walking one of them.
Fischer, who was born in Wausau and grew up in Marathon, pitching in the major leagues from 1956 to 1964. He’s better known, however, for his work as a pitching coach.
Fischer retired as a player in 1968 and he was immediately hired as a scout. He’s worked as a pitching coach, scout and minor league coordinator and supervisor ever since. This year is the 67th year he’s spent in baseball.
Fischer served as a major league pitching coach with Cincinnati in 1979-83, Boston in 1985-91 and Tampa Bay 2000-01. He receives a great deal of credit from two of the greatest pitchers of the past 50 years, Tom Seaver and Roger Clemens, for being one of the strongest influences in their baseball careers. When Seaver was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he was sure to thank Fischer during his acceptance speech.
Talking with Fischer was like a whirlwind trip through baseball history. He told stories about Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. He spoke about the handling of pitchers and how he built upon pitchers’ strengths, while watching for flaws that might be limiting their effectiveness.
Fischer joked that he was a far better coach than he ever was a pitcher. One of the infamous moments of his career came when he faced Mantle. He gave up a homer to Mantle that nearly sailed out of old Yankee Stadium. A scientist studied the homer and estimated that it would have carried 620 feet if it hadn’t struck the facing of the Yankee Stadium roof.
A baseball trip to Iowa isn’t complete without a trip to the Field of Dreams, made famous in the movie of that name that starred Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones 25 years ago.
I wasn’t sure what to expect in the visit. When you drive up, it’s just a small ballfield surrounded by a field of corn, something you could find anywhere in the Midwest. Maybe it’s the power of suggestion, or maybe it’s the mystique created by the movie. But as I walked around the field, or sat on the wooden bleachers that were used in the movie, I couldn’t stop James Earl Jones’ booming voice from filling my thoughts.

“The one constant through all the years Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.”

It was like they were playing his baseball overture over a loudspeaker, but it was all between my ears. I had to sit on the right corner of the bench, where Mr. Jones began his speech. Groups can sign up for time slots to play on this historic field. It gave me butterflies, to watch as people with little baseball skill, but a ton of baseball love, took their turn batting on the hallowed field.
The third piece of the baseball history portion of the trip was a stop at the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter. Feller is one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Feller won 266 games, but he also gave up four seasons in the prime of his career to serve in World War II. Feller earned the nickname “Rapid Robert” by being one of the hardest throwers in baseball history. He has three no-hitters to his credit.
Feller’s museum was packed with photos of his baseball career and his military career. It’s a treat for any baseball junky to visit.
Feller was a great ambassador for baseball until his death in 2010. Sadly, interest in his museum has fallen off sharply since then. The museum manager said the museum will likely close this year. Most of the items will be sent to a museum in Cleveland, where Feller played his entire career.
The first three days of the trip were centered around watching Cedar Rapids Kernels games. The Kernels are a farm team of the Minnesota Twins. The games at Cedar Rapids are a fun experience. The ballpark is new and maintained well. The between inning promotions are fresh and entertaining.
The Kernels are managed by Joe Mauer’s brother, Jake. The biggest names on the roster are pitchers, like high draft choices Kohl Stewart, Nick Burdi and Ryan Eades. Lewis Thorpe, an 18-year-old Australian, is another prized prospect.
Burdi provided the most memorable moment of the three games. Burdi has the tools to be a major league closer. He was brought in to save the second game of the series, pitching the ninth inning. He struck out three straight batters, with his fastball registering 96-99 miles per hour. The opposing batters clearly were overmatched, unable to catch up to his blazing pitches.
The final five games were spent in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs, the top farm team of the Chicago Cubs. The I-Cubs were drawing huge crowds, including a packed house of more than 12,000 fans, on our final day at Principal Park. The big reason for the upturn in attendance? The Cubs have been stockpiling top prospects and several of them are now playing in Des Moines.
Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler are all considered to be among the top prospects in minor league baseball and are key figures in the Cubs’ future plans. The I-Cubs had them batting consecutively in the 3-4-5 spots in the lineup. It seemed that at least one of the three was making things happen each time through the lineup.
The most entertaining game of the visit was a July 22 battle between the I-Cubs and New Orleans. New Orleans started its prize pitching prospect, Andrew Heaney, and he was awesome. He had a perfect game going into the seventh inning, before the Cubs scored on a hit and an error. Iowa finished with two hits, but a 1-0 win in a tremendous pitching battle.
This was the first time I’d ever spent time in Iowa and I was surprised. Cedar Rapids and Des Moines were both much larger than I’d imagined. They were both clean, active cities with some interesting places to visit. And the reputation that Iowa has for being flat and covered in corn? That’s only if you follow I-35 through the state. Much of Iowa’s terrain is similar to northern Wisconsin, with many rolling hills and a nice variety of scenery.
My best friend, Tim, and I made this trip. During the 1990s we made a number of baseball trips, traveling mainly around Wisconsin to visit former ballplayers. With families taking a higher priority, we got away from doing making these journeys, with the plan that we’d start again some day. I’m hoping this is the first of many yearly adventures.