In 2019, Marlins minor leaguers at the A level will be crowned kings. Clinton LumberKings, to be exact. After spending over a decade affiliated with the Greensboro Grasshoppers, the Miami organization will make a westward expansion, partnering with the franchise hailing out of Clinton, Iowa.
Clinton is a township which has known baseball for a very long time. After originally beginning play in 1895, the Clinton baseball club endured through the Great Depression and two World Wars. Upon the completion of a new stadium, Ashford University Ballpark in 1937, the Clinton baseball franchise earned their professional baseball partnership, teaming up with Dodgers. On May 9, 1937, the Clinton Owls opened their new stadium and made their MLB-affiliated debut against their peers and elders from Brooklyn in an exhibition game. Appearances by future Hall of Famer Heine Manush and five-time All-Star Van Mugno highlighted the occasion. Career 4.6 WAR IF/OF Bert Haas suited up for Clinton.
Fast forward 61 years. In 1998, after Clinton spent time with many different MLB organizations including the Cubs, White Sox, Dodgers, Pirates (twice) and Giants and after it played innkeeper to the likes of Jim Leyland, Mike Scioscia, Orel Hershiser, Matt Williams, John Burkett, Royce Clayton and a host of other future stars, the team welcomed a new general manager to town: Ted Tornow. A longtime baseball man most recently known for the success he earned with the 1996 Butte Copper Kings, a season in which his team went 37-35, marking their first winning record in five years, and a year in which the club set a franchise record in total attendance, Tornow arrived in eastern Iowa to find the long-storied club in debt and their park which was built in 1937 and will become the oldest Pioneer League park this coming season, in rough shape.
“When I got here, it wasn’t good. We were given the death sentence by Minor League and Midwest League baseball,” Tornow said. “That’s when the whole concept of integrating Vision Iowa started.”
Vision Iowa (or SF 2447) was an Act passed by the Iowa General Assembly in 2000 with the purpose of providing State financial assistance, paid for by gambling receipts, to community attract and tourist (CAT) facilities. The Act created a 13-member panel which was charged with the duty of, among other things, reviewing applications and approving grant recipients based on a list of required criteria. After a few years worth of attempts, Tornow, the LumberKings and Ashford University Stadium were eventually selected to receive Vision Iowa funding of upwards of $3 million.
“It took a while but we finally got it done,” Tornow said regarding receiving government funding. “It turned out being in the $3.3 (million) range. The whole project really revitalized not only us but the entire area.”
With the gubernatorial backing plus $1.5 million of the franchise’s own, Tornow began to formulate a plan that would completely facelift Ashford University Stadium. The first thing Tornow did was enlist the assistance of HOK/Populous, a firm very well versed and world-renowned for its sports venue architectural success. HOK/Populous is the same company that crafted Joe Robbie Stadium, the original home of the Florida Marlins, in 1987 as well as Marlins Park, the current home of your Miami Marlins in 2012 They are also responsible for many other current MLB parks such as Coors Field, Minute Maid Park, Citi Field, new Yankee Stadium and SunTrust Park to name a few. Upon their arrival in Clinton, Tornow instructed HOK/Populous to proceed in a fashion that not only procured the longevity of LumberKings baseball but also promoted potential movement up the minor league ladder.
“When they came in, I told them to build it to AA standards,” Tornow said. “We didn’t know the next time the commissioner or PBA audit was going to come so we wanted to be well prepared.”
With the blueprint in place, Tornow and HOK/Populous began to work from the ground up — literally.
“The new playing surface is sand-based and it drains,” Tornow said. “We can take an inch of rain and be ready to play in an hour. It’s absolutely perfect.”
Accordingly, Tornow and HOK/Populus didn’t stop at the field surface. From there, they set their sights on getting the rest of Clinton’s facility completely in compliance with the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA), the statute which binds minor and Major League Baseball together. The pair’s next venture became creating a better home clubhouse. To do so, Tornow and HOK/Populous chose to get creative and fashion what would become the LumberKings clubhouse out of what was originally created for the out-of-town squad.
“When I got here, we knew our limitations. The new home clubhouse is underneath where the visitors dressed and showered way back in 1937,” Tornow said. “But is is now palatial. And the visitors’ clubhouse, which was our home one, is still above PBA standards.”
Switching sides allowed Tornow and his constructionists to add a home batting cage which comes in handy during seasonal Iowa afternoons and evenings.
“The batting tunnel is 50×100; it’s lit, ventilated and heated,” Tornow said. “It’s a great clubhouse. Absolutely great.”
In their inaugural season with the Marlins in 2019, Tornow and the LumberKings will welcome many players who spent last season in Batavia, New York. Even though the Muckdogs’ original stadium, which was built in 1937 (the same year as Ashford University Stadium) was demolished and rebuilt in 1996, players have recently spoken of the horrors of the park belonging to a team that lacks an actual owner and is instead being run by the league itself. Some of those players have gone as far as to deem Dwyer Stadium unfit for professional play. It is Tornow’s ambition that those same players as well as the rest of the future Marlins he and his staff field this coming season and beyond will come to Iowa and promptly pose the question, “Is this heaven?”
“Gosh, I hope they’re gonna be happier than a pig in slop. I hope they come in here and go, “holy cow!”” Tornow said. “We’ve got a great host family situation. Believe it or not, in Clinton, Iowa, we have a great Latino connection. We’ve got great clubhouse facilities and great player amenities. We might be small but we have first class facilities.”
Those facilities are the product of what Tornow demanded from decision makers when he arrived in Clinton in 1995.
“I told my mayor and my city admin way back then that if you want to ensure the longevity of baseball here in Clinton, Iowa, we cannot skimp on it. We have to do this,” Tornow said. “And we made it happen.”
As much as the reconstruction of Ashford University Stadium helped Tornow and the LumberKings, it wouldn’t have been possible if not for the work turned in by Tornow in his earliest years in Clinton. During those first few seasons, Tornow got the team out of the red and began turning a profit for he and his partners despite battling a very crowded market.
“The renovation definitely helped but it was the success prior to that,” Tornow said. “We lost a little money in ‘99 but we made money in 2000, we made money in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005. That’s what really helped us.”
Tornow says that, in a baseball sense, he didn’t do many things differently than he believes peers around Minor League Baseball, including in nearby Cedar Rapids, Burlington, Kane County and Quad Cities, would have done. Alternatively, Tornow believes the biggest catalyst for his success in rebuilding the LumberKings was his adherence to a concept taught to every grade school child.
“Treat people the way you want to be treated and deal with them fairly and honestly,” Tornow said.
With the arrival of the Fish in Clinton, Tornow plans to honor Marlins history as well as their future on a weekly basis. His first blueprint for bringing a taste of Miami to northwest Iowa will involve a sneak peak at what Marlins prospects at the single A level could look like in a Miami uniform someday. In accordance, Tornow also wants to bring some of Clinton to South Florida at the end of the Minor League season.
“We want to do a “Marlins Monday” where we brand ourselves, maybe bring in some of your old jerseys and spring training stuff, maybe develop a new hat,” Tornow said. “Also, every Monday we want to run a progressive drawing where we draw a winner and during the final two weeks of the MLB season, take those fans that won and take them down to Miami to catch a game.”
Affiliation change aside, above all, Tornow, a longtime baseball man who was working in the park when Bo Jackson made his professional baseball debut, was present for the return of Jim Eisenriech and who housed the likes of Neftali Feliz, Gary Matthews, Jr., Jason Bay, Ian Kinsler, Grady Sizemore and most recently, Pablo Lopez and Nick Neidert, is dedicated to preserving the spirit and purity of the game of baseball in eastern Iowa.
“We play baseball. We have the game, we have a clean stadium, we treat people how we want to be treated,” Tornow said. “We have good food, cold beer, hot hot dogs and great customer service. Our advantage over other teams in the market is that we are just laid back and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Tornow says that although preparations and upgrades have been made to make their players and guests comfortable and informed in the 21st century, it has deliberately been kept in moderation in order for the LumberKings to maintain the same atmosphere and aura they have been known for for over eight decades.
“We got fancy this year and got a ribbon board six feet high by 60 feet long. Out in right field we got some monitors up and WiFi throughout the stadium,” Tornow said. “But what people don’t realize that between the four jumbotrons and the interactive games that everyone has on their cellphones, iPads and everything else is that it’s still a game. Another team in the area has a fair and rides. It’s literally a circus next to a baseball game. It works for them so more power to them. But we just play baseball. That’s what works for us.”
Looking towards the immediate future and the start of their relationship with the Marlins, Tornow says an advantageous beginning to their partnership can be achieved if and when the Fish become proactive in the Clinton community.
“Seattle was big on community. It didn’t matter if you were he number 1 or 328 pick; they made you go to community events. Jimmy VanOstrand, former player, helps handle [the Mariners’] community events. He was constantly in touch with our radio guy saying these guys need to do more community work and to get them out there. Seattle was used to that so if the Marlins are anywhere close, we’ve already got a good start.”
So starting in 2019, come to Iowa. Walk out to the bleachers and sit in the shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon where you’ll sit and cheer future Marlins’ heroes. And watch the game. Ted Tornow, his staff and his park are sure not to disappoint.