River Bandits first-year manager Luis Aguayo smiles as he thinks back on his first season in the Quad Cities. Still, the Puerto Rico-born baseball veteran is quick to say that the Midwest isn’t quite like home.
Aguayo chuckled as he explained that people had warned him about the possibility of tornadoes, and, perhaps more likely, floods, as Modern Woodmen Park sits on the banks of the Mississippi River. He’s also quick, however, to say that the experience in the Midwest – the farming culture, the friendly people – has been a positive one.
“I think overall it’s been a great summer,” he said. “It’s been a great first experience … it’s been fun.”
One experience, familiar from what seems like a lifetime ago, he hadn’t exactly missed. Aguayo spent 10 years in the Major Leagues – 10 years away from the bus rides and commuters that drive Minor Leaguers batty. Now, 20 years later, those bus rides are the least welcoming of the summer’s encounters. And he’s not alone.
“The one thing that we have really struggled with – everybody – is the commuters,” Aguayo said. “It feels like we spend more time riding buses than playing the game.”
Some days, the game suffers from that. But bus ride or no, Aguayo had his hands full all season with a wealth of young talent, many getting their first taste of professional ball.
“When we broke camp, we knew we’re going to have a lot of first year players, a lot of second year players, first time in a full season,” Aguayo said. “We knew it was going to be an uphill road to professionalize them, to establish their routines.”
With so many players just cutting their teeth – both in pro ball, and at new positions – on-field performance lacked consistency. But, Aguayo said, that wasn’t unexpected either.
“We have a young team with probably …” he paused, counting out loud, “one… two… three positions … three out of the nine positions, maybe four, were kids that need to get better at those positions and this was the first time playing at those positions,” he said. “So, basically our defense struggled in probably six positions where it shouldn’t be like that.”
But, of course, the purpose of a Low-A club is to improve the skill sets needed to move up. That is the challenge Aguayo and his coaching staff faced every day.
“We worked with them, we got them better,” he said. “They put in the effort, but still need more. We need to grind more, they need more work.”
That “grind” comes in the form of early work; work on defense, base running, hitting – all of the above, every day.
“The game is about performance,” Aguayo explained. “When the game starts, they have to execute. So, that’s why you have early work.”
In theory, at least.
Sometimes, the realities of Minor League baseball get in the way.
“A lot of times we couldn’t do it; rain, schedule, just got off the bus at three, four o’clock in the morning, get on the bus the next day at 10:00, you know? It’s a struggle,” he said.
The struggle, though, is not simply to create good ball players, but good people: kids who learn to play the game right, to play the “Cardinal Way.” That philosophy, that understanding of expectations, begins here.
“First, [we teach] respect,” Aguayo said of the coaching process. “You know, we joke around, but first is respect. If I give them respect, I expect that back. And I think we have done that all year. Then, respect for the game is the second one.”
He went on to say,
“[We] establish good young men, establish good ball players, and establish players that will represent the Cardinals wherever they go and wherever they are, on the field and off the field. So, the Cardinal Way? I believe it to be that: play the game the right way, and respect the game, and take care of your teammates.”
A 140-game season provides plenty of opportunities for teaching moments. It becomes critical, then, (especially with a team in search of stability) for the field staff to prepare the players for success, day in and day out.
“We have to come here every day like it’s a new day,” Aguayo said. “Whatever happened yesterday, good or not so good, it’s over. You prepare them to go and have success. You don’t prepare kids to go and fail. It’s part of the game, yeah, but we do prepare to have success.”
Success came in bunches – like a six-game winning streak in mid-June. But, struggles often came the same way. After starting the second half strong, the team muddled through a six-game losing streak in mid-July.
With very few returnees from the 2011 Midwest League Championship team, and another handful of players called up during the season, making the playoffs was a tall order. And yet, they almost pulled it off.
Aguayo’s Bandits did their best to reenact the playoff push of the 2011 Cardinals, taking the race all the way down to the wire.
On the brink of elimination, the Bandits swept the final home series against the Kane County Cougars. Meanwhile, the Clinton Lumberkings kept the Bandits in the race by sweeping the Burlington Bees – the team that, with one win, could knock the Bandits out of the race.
With the elimination number precariously hanging at one, the Bandits had to go on the road and win out the final three games for a chance. Once again, they played along with the 2011 World Series narrative, trailing 6-1 before mounting a ninth inning comeback in the opening game of the series with the Beloit Snappers. But despite the efforts, they fell just short. Par for the course for this year’s club, it seems.
Still, players like Colin Walsh (who led the team in most offensive categories until suffering an arm injury late in the season), Tyler Rahmatulla (who played 49 games in the Quad Cities before moving up to High-A Palm Beach), and Anthony Garcia (who led the team with 24 doubles, 19 home runs, and 74 RBI) made lasting impressions, as well as significant strides towards next year.
“This year has been all about that – preparing them for 140 games, Aguayo said. “The guys who are going to the next level next year, they need to keep pushing, and the guys who are coming back here, now they have an idea what to do and it will be easier for them – I hope it will be easier for them – next year.”
Now, though? It’s time for a rest.
“I’m going to go into hibernation,” Aguayo teased. “My phone will be off; anyone who wants to contact me will have to go by email at night, maybe. I’m shutting down.”
For a few months, anyway. Then, it’s back to the grind.
Tara is a St. Louis Cardinals reporter for Aaron Miles’ Fastball and a contributor to Around the Horn. Follow her on Twitter @tarawellman.