By Jimmy Lynn
After a 604-day layoff, Iowa Cubs baseball returned to Des Moines last week, thanks to the leadership of majority owner and chairman Michael Gartner and the Iowa Cubs front office.
“We work off of a simple business concept: safe, clean and fun,” Iowa Cubs President and general manager Sam Bernabe said. “If it’s not safe and it’s not clean, then we don’t have to worry about fun because no one’s coming anyway.”
The May 4 season opener represented a culmination of the Cubs staff’s efforts this offseason to ensure a safe return to the stadium for fans. To adhere to Major League Baseball’s COVID-19 protocols, Bernabe and his co-workers zip-tied seats to limit capacity, spread out lockers in locker rooms and implemented more outdoor dining areas, buffer zones and quarantine rooms in Principal Park.
Preparing the stadium for Cubs baseball was difficult, but support from the top of the organization helped make it possible. When the Pacific Coast League announced the cancellation of the 2020 season last June, Gartner’s loyalty to his full-time staff was never in doubt.
“We kept everybody on full pay and benefits the whole time. We lost $4 million, but they needed the money more than I did,” Gartner said. “To get ready for (opening day), I didn’t really have to do anything. I’ve got all these great people who work here.”
Many minor league baseball organizations, such as the Charlotte Knights (Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox), the Memphis Redbirds (Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals) and the Nashville Sounds (Triple-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers), furloughed or laid off full-time staff members in 2020 due to pandemic-related financial struggles. But Gartner, 82, tried to keep things in perspective and look to the future. These qualities can be rare among professional sports owners in an era where short-term results and bottom-line considerations dominate.
“Michael takes a long-term look at everything,” Iowa Vice President and assistant general manager Randy Wehofer said. “That’s why we can think about not only tomorrow, but next year too. We can even look beyond the pandemic. He sets the tone for that.”
Gartner’s commitment to his workers last year may have hurt the franchise’s finances at the time, but the decision paid off when the 2021 season rolled around. While other minor league organizations scrambled to rehire and find new workers, the Cubs were fully staffed and ready to take on the challenges associated with preparing for a season amid a continuing pandemic.
“I can’t imagine what the last two weeks would have been like if we had been like every other minor league team or ownership that furloughed or laid off half, if not most, of the staff,” Wehofer said.
The diligence and loyalty of the Iowa organization allowed for local fans to experience something they had been missing for 20 months: watching a ballgame at Principal Park.
“I’m a big baseball fan, and it’s not the same sitting at home all the time watching on TV with cardboard people in the stands,” Iowa Cubs 10 Millionth Fan and Society for American Baseball Research member Steve Elsberry said.
Passionate regulars like Elsberry are the reason for the Iowa Cubs’ dedication to the fan experience. During games at Principal Park, front office members such as Gartner, Bernabe and Wehofer can often be spotted walking around the concourse and interacting with fans.
“The most gratifying part of my job is watching the smiling faces of families as they come into the ballpark,” Bernabe said. “This year, everybody wants to talk, and they say, ‘Thanks for getting the park open.’ And it shouldn’t be them thanking me — it should be me thanking them for remembering where the hell the ballpark is.”
They may be socially distanced from other fans and masked when out of their seats, but experiencing Cubs baseball at Principal Park again represents an important step in returning to a more normal life for fans.
“They missed it, and they’re just happy to be back,” Gartner said. “A piece of their life has come back.”
Jimmy Lynn is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @jimmylynn33.