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For Springfield Cardinals General Manager Dan Reiter, 2023 was already a terrific year well before the team began its mad dash into Texas League playoff contention.
Consider how the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 season, along with darkening clouds of uncertainty over the ownership of Hammons Field and jacked-up parking prices in 2021 and ’22.
Things took a drastic turn for the better when the City of Springfield announced its intention to purchase the stadium in February and a new extended agreement was signed with the St. Louis Cardinals to keep the team here until at least 2038. Stadium upgrades began, including new LED lights by midseason.
And how about that on-field product? It looks good under the bright lights.
Following Thursday night’s 10-2 victory at San Antonio, Springfield has won 13 of its last 16 and the Cardinals lead Wichita by two games with three to play for the second-half North Division title. The Cardinals are selling tickets (starting at $5) for a possible Game One of the division series on Tuesday night.
“…we went from survival mode to thriving mode”
I caught up with Reiter on Thursday to put the season in perspective, all things considered, going back to 2020. On a scale of 1-to-10, how much fun has it been for him?
“Ten,” Reiter said without hesitation.
And you get the idea he would like to have given it an 11.
Noting the stadium ownership change was instant energy for all, Reiter said it’s been a season of momentum without the stress of the last three.
“I explained to someone that we went from survival mode to thriving mode. That change has been uplifting,” Reiter said. “The fear of, ‘Will the stadium be here? Will the team need to go someplace else?’ That fear is gone and now it’s about working on the improvements and growth.
“It got rid of the bad and brought in the good immediately whenever that happened. This year … I’d have to rank it as a 10 just because of how uplifting it’s been.”
The team putting a positive exclamation point on the season is like adding a tasty dessert to the meal. It’s the best baseball we’ve seen out of the Springbirds since their last playoff appearance, in 2016. While it’s more about player development than winning championships, there’s nothing like success to turn on the fans.
Final homestand of the year drew season’s biggest crowds
The Cardinals swept their six-game series with Tulsa to cap the regular season last week, playing before the season’s largest (7,942) and second-largest (6,521) crowds of the season. They averaged 4,751 on the homestand.
“I think we saw it the last week of games, when the stadium has fans, the guys play better,” Reiter said. “I absolutely believe winning those last six games at home, and those large crowds, I believe was a part of it. We want to put as many people as we can in here for the playoffs.”
Which is why Reiter wants to make tickets as affordable as possible for the possible playoff game. There’s no season-ticket base to begin with and school is back in session, so having a large crowd could be difficult.
On the verge of ending a six-year playoff drought
Springfield last made the Texas League playoffs in 2016 with future major leaguers Paul DeJong, Luke Voit, Harrison Bader and Carson Kelly in the lineup. Luke Weaver, John Brebbia, Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon led the pitching staff. Voit, a former Missouri State Bear, hit .297 with 19 home runs and DeJong had 22 home runs that season, with Ponce de Leon’s nine wins leading the staff.
This season’s Springfield club has been outstanding offensively, especially after speedy center fielder Victor Scott II was promoted for the second half and the Cardinals acquired infielder Thomas Saggese at the trade deadline. Saggese was recently promoted to Triple-A Memphis after collecting 20 extra-base hits in 33 games with Springfield.
Chandler Redmond has a league-leading 30 home runs. Mike Antico is a stolen base and power threat, Pedro Pages has blossomed as a hitting catcher and the lineup has been solid one through nine, even without Saggese. The Cardinals’ .264 batting average is second in the league and they also rank in the top half of the circuit in runs, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases.
The team has excelled at home, going 41-28, and is 25-18 in one-run games. The Cardinals are 65-30 when scoring three or more runs. The pitching has shown improvement in the second half, with Wilfredo Pereira the top winner with 10 and Matt Svanson, acquired from Toronto for DeJong at the trade deadline, earning five saves down the stretch.
Manager Jose Leger said during the last homestand that he’s been impressed with the attitude his team plays with.
“We have played a lot of close games and had a lot of come-from-behind wins. These guys compete,” Leger said. “Any given night, it doesn’t matter what the score is, they can come back because they don’t surrender.
“They are fun to watch. The mix of guys, we have some prospects and we have some guys who are kind of under the radar and guys that are grinders. Overall, it’s been a fun year and I’m proud of these guys.”
This fun season might stretch into late September
It’s a year that’s been fun with perhaps more fun to come. The winner of the best-of-three division series (Game 2 and a possible Game 3 would be at first-half North winner Arkansas next Thursday and Friday) advances to the best-of-three championship series. Should the Cardinals advance that far, they would play host to Game 1 on Sunday, Sept. 24, at Hammons Field.
Winning will never be the top priority in minor-league baseball. If it was, Saggese would have remained on the roster another couple of weeks.
“It’s important for fans to remember that every move that happens here is predicated by what’s good for the St. Louis Cardinals, both now and in the future,” Reiter said. “When you have a guy like Saggese, you move him up for what’s best for the organization as a whole, not just what’s good for the Springfield Cardinals’ playoff chances.”
At the same time, winning beats the heck out of the alternative.
“It’s fun,” Reiter said. “It’s very simple. We don’t want to market winning, we don’t want to market the success of the organization on if we win or lose. But to be blunt, it’s just fun when we win. You gain the walk-off wins and the excitement of the (possible) playoffs that we haven’t had since 2016 and it’s a fun environment to be around.”
Playoff tickets on sale now
Ticket sales have not been brisk so far. Reiter is hopeful that will change, if and when the team cliches.
“I know there are people who are a bit reserved, saying ‘Let’s wait and see if they make it or not.’ Our hope is we can clinch and it becomes a certainty and people are ready to roll,” Reiter said.
Springfield Cardinals playoff ticket info
Call (417) 863-2143 or purchase tickets online. Ticket prices start at $5