Baseball: Steedley sees flood up close
By Mike London
Spencer Steedley has pitched under pressure before, but his experience over the weekend in the Midwest League was unique.
Hurling in a surreal stadium, completely surrounded by the rising Mississippi River, was far scarier than throwing to South Carolina hitters for Charlotte in the Columbia Regional in 2007 or throwing to the Georgia state champs for Rowan County in the 2002 American Legion Southeast Regional.
Steedley, a 2003 East Rowan graduate and his Beloit Snappers teammates were rained out on Thursday at home in Wisconsin and arrived in Davenport, Iowa, Friday to face the Quad Cities River Bandits, a St. Louis Cardinals farm team that was known as the Swing of the Quad Cities when East’s Cal Hayes Jr. played there in 2005 and 2006.
“It was flooded all around the stadium, the parking lots, the streets, everywhere,” Steedley said.
Still, they played ball in Davenport, just as they have the last 129 years. The only difference was that Modern Woodman Park, which sits on the riverfront, was a grass and dirt island cut off from the rest of humanity by the continent’s mightiest and muddiest river.
The playing field stayed relatively dry. The original stadium was built in 1931, but a renovation in 2004 included a 9-foot high berm that provides both lawn seating and a floodwall that protects the entire facility.
An overflow crowd of 4,724 watched the River Bandits beat the Snappers 5-4 in Friday’s eerie series opener. Steedley didn’t pitch.
Another 4,073 hardy fans showed up for Saturday’s contest, accessing the stadium via a temporary, 300-foot elevated walkway.
Steedley was called out of the bullpen after the first two Quad Cities reached base in the ninth inning. He allowed a hit and a walk while recording one out, but you couldn’t blame him for looking over his shoulder at the surging river.
It worked out for the Snappers. Steedley was relieved by Loek Van Mil, who saved an 8-6 victory.
Apparently nothing ordinary happens around Steedley, not even in the locker room. His teammates include the 7-foot-1 Van Mil, the tallest professional baseball player, and 5-3 shortstop Chris Cates, the shortest pro.
Sunday’s scheduled game in Davenport, the final one of the first half of the MWL season, didn’t happen. It was canceled, not due to rain or wet grounds, but because officials feared for the safety of fans trying to get in and out of the ballpark.
Steedley exited Davenport bound for Midland, Mich., as one of Beloit’s representatives in the Midwest League All-Star Game that took place on Tuesday.
Making the Midwest League All-Star team gives Steedley something in common with pitchers such as Greg Maddux, Johan Santana and Jake Peavy. Not bad company.
Steedley is having his second strong year in Minnesota’s farm system and may not have to wait long for a promotion to the high Class A team in Fort Myers, Fla.
Steedley was one of the top two-way players in Rowan Legion history, belting 23 homers (third all-time) and driving in 149 runs (fourth), while winning 17 games on the mound.
Surgery to repair a torn labrum kept him off the mound as a high school senior, but he was a rare, two-way marvel for the Charlotte 49ers. He was all-conference as a slugging outfielder as a junior; all-conference as an 8-2 pitcher as a senior. No 49er had ever done that.
Steedley showed he could hit with a wood bat in the Coastal Plain League and Northwoods League between college seasons, but the Twins liked him more as a pitcher. He was drafted in the 25th round last summer and shipped to Elizabethton, Tenn., in the Appalachian League.
With four D-I college seasons under his belt, he was expected to excel in rookie ball as a reliever, and he did.
His 2-3 record was no big deal, but his strikeout rate (52 in 38 innings) was exceptional and his control (12 walks) was fine.
He returned to school last fall, earned a geography degree and helped his brother, Ross, a catcher, get his career started at Charlotte.
This season, Steedley has almost duplicated last year’s Appy League stats against more polished hitters. He earned the all-star nod with his 2.34 ERA, 47 Ks in 342/3 innings and seven saves.
The Snappers gave him a shot at closing, and he responded with a stretch early this month in which he had three saves in four days.
“Closing is something new, but it’s exciting,” Steedley said. “Whether it’s right-handers or left-handers coming up, they’ve been putting me in there with a lead.”
The 6-foot-2, 194-pound Steedley has a diverse arsenal for a short reliever ó fastball, curveball, slider, changeup. His fastball is high-80s and doesn’t make hitters tremble, but he’s blessed with what scouts call “life.” Like a lot of lefties, his ball naturally runs.
He’s trouble for left-handed hittersó they bat .224 against him ó because his curve breaks away from them. But he’s been even tougher on right-handed batters. They check in at .217.
“My good fastball moves away from right-handed hitters,” Steedley explained. “A lot of times I’m able to locate the fastball away to get ahead, then come inside with a slider that breaks under their hands.”
Steedley stays in an apartment with teammates. There’s not much to do in Beloit beyond baseball and golf ó but he likes it.
He’s proud of Ross, who has followed him to the Wilson Tobs of the Coastal Plain League this summer as well as to Charlotte.
He misses hitting, but Beloit pitchers occasionally get batting practice swings.
“As a reward if we get a shutout,” Steedley said with a laugh. “Pitcher’s BP can be really, really ugly. I did hit a homer the other day, but I’m rusty. Most everything was off the end of the bat.”
On Father’s Day, Steedley called his dad, Derry, from flooded Davenport, where 350 volunteers produced 12,000 sandbags to reinforce a remaining dirt levee. It held, as the river crested and finally started to recede.
The Steedleys talked pitching, but mostly they talked about the flood.
Steedley will carry mental pictures of Woodman Stadium on the rest of his baseball journey.