I'm getting ahead of myself, though.
In April we welcomed a band of brothers to the banks of the Mississippi River. A few of them had been here late last summer for a handful of games, but for the most part, this was a new team. The buzz was about a young pitcher, 2009's first round pick Shelby Miller (pictured). We all jockeyed for position to get to talk to him at the first media day because we were sure that he wouldn't be here very long. He was destined for greatness. He still is, but his star didn't end up rising quite as quickly as we thought it would. I was less excited about him than others thought I should be. I wanted to see more than he was showing us. I knew he could. As the season turned out, he threw a lot better on the road than he did at home. I suspect that he put more personal pressure on himself at home and he relaxed on the road. The thing that disappointed me the most was that his "breakout" game came on the road—the last time he started this summer. I truly doubt that we will ever see him here again unless he shows up at a Cardinals' Caravan in January.
Niko Vasquez was back briefly and then moved on to Palm Beach. He may never make it to an MLB All-Star Game, but he has the potential to be a great contributor to any roster. Sometimes I think that the guys who are just outside the spotlight have a better chance to shine. Niko is one of those.
My readers know that I often say that good baseball skills will get you to the game but you have to be a good person to stay in the game. There are a few guys who I hope will prove me right with long careers in the Majors. They are guys like D'Marcus Ingram, Ryde Rodriguez, Scott Schneider, Jesse Simpson, and Ryan Jackson. Honestly, if I were to list all of the good men who played here this summer, I think I'd have to list them all.
The ones who were just barely here before they moved on made as much of an impact on me this year as the ones who were here all summer. Kyle Conley and Jonathan Rodriguez are giants among men. I truly hope to see them both here when April arrives again. Roberto Espinoza would get the award for the most frequent flyer miles. I lost track of how many times he was added and removed from the roster, moving up and down, jumping from league to league playing wherever he could play.
I've said for several years that I want to learn to speak Spanish so I can make our Hispanic players feel more at home. I suspect that they speak more English than they pretend but I understand how reluctant I would be to go to Mexico and try to engage in a conversation in Spanish. Luis Mateo and Frederick Parejo could each light up a room with a smile - they lit up the field with their playing skills - but I missed an opportunity to get to know them well because of that language barrier. I'm old enough now; maybe next summer I'll just adopt a few of them!
In a season recap like this, it's easy to point to the stars for highlights but this team didn't really have those 'stars' this year. The guys who weren't expected to be great turned out to be great. Watching Mike Blazek transform himself from a rather mediocre mid-reliever to a pretty amazing starter was an honor. Seeing Joe Kelly begin as a starter and then realize that his real skill is in closing - and taking that role to help the team win - inspired me. To watch the mastery of Scott Schneider (pictured) as he threw strike after strike after strike gave me goosebumps. Thinking about those games now brings them back. Sitting with D'Marcus Ingram a few days before his promotion and hearing the excitement in his voice as he told me how God and his parents had helped him reach his goal of professional baseball changed my outlook on life. I hope he is reading this because I didn't get to tell him personally but Deryk Hooker's humble attitude as he described his past mistakes and as he apologized to me for risking his career restored my faith.
People ask me why I love baseball the way I do. Sometimes I wonder the same thing. There is no other sport where I can sit on the banks of one of the world's great rivers enjoying the sunshine and a gentle breeze, watching 25 friends chase their dreams. There is no other game I have ever followed that gives you an opportunity to get to know players the way you can with baseball players. I can watch each guy and see the way he approaches the game and learn a lot about the way he approaches life. When I started attending games here in 1985 I was young enough to be a brother to these players. This year, there wasn't a single player on the team who had been born before I became a fan in this stadium. I've accepted the idea of being a "team dad."
In an article like this I think I should cover a lot of statistics but people who read my work know that I take a different approach to baseball. There are many sources for those with minimal computer skills to find individual and team stats. Sometimes I look at them but this is a game of real life. I have never seen a stat sheet that shows how a kid feels when his dad is in the stadium watching him in his first professional start at short stop. The statistics don't show how tired the team is when they have to dig deep to find the stamina to give their best game at 7 pm when the bus didn't get them back to Iowa until 7 am, and they haven't had a chance for any real sleep. The statistics won't tell you that a young pitcher just rejoined the team after flying home to lay his grandpa to rest. Yes, the statistics are important, but they just don't tell the story. I hope that I help remind fans everywhere that these are young boys who are here, wavering between adolescence and adulthood, trying with everything they have to give to turn their dreams into a career.
So, when the post season ended with a loss at home to the Kane County Cougars, my heart broke. It didn't just break for me. I admit that I was personally disappointed but I was sad for the guys. I had heard them talking about getting to Spring Training in February and getting to stand in front of the entire organization to get their rings. It just wasn't to happen this time. These are guys who are now at home - some trying to work for a few months in hopes that they can afford to come back and try baseball again next Spring - some just crashing and trying to recover from what was the longest baseball season they will ever play.
In a recent article published here on Scout.com the Cardinals discussed their thoughts on why they were not holding fall instructs. They sited the long season and the fatigue of players who were involved. I concur. Watching this team play at the end of the season, I couldn't help but think that they were all completely used up - simply worn out and anxious to get home to mom's cooking and their girlfriend's touch. Seeing that did not diminish my disappointment that they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. It has been 16 years since a Quad Cities team has appeared in a second round playoff game and this fan truly believed that this was going to be the year we went all the way.
What will change in the next five months? Will Robert Stock (pictured) be back as a catcher? Will Zach Cox play here or will he skip over Class A ball completely? Will Jon Edwards bring his big bat back to put some homers into the river? Will it be consistent enough to carry him on to Busch? Will we FINALLY make it past the first round of the playoffs?
There are a few things that we know. When the River Bandits return to Modern Woodmen Park there will be a new flood wall surrounding the stadium to protect it from the rising river. We know that the Bandits will host the All-Star game in the 80th year that baseball has been played in this park. We know that we'll fall in love again with this game and with its players. We know that this game will give us more than we can ever offer to it. We know that it will give us its very best again.
As you know, I hate this time of the year but I want to remind you all that I'm grateful and honored to be entrusted with the chance to write for you. If you hear an occasional deep sigh this winter, you can guess that it's me. I'll be looking out the window at the empty stadium across the street, counting down the days until April 7. It can't get here soon enough.
Thanks for reading! I'll see you soon!
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