2nd of Jun | Story

Power player


DAVENPORT, Iowa | On television, where the bulk of his empire lives, Dave Heller talks fast and moves fast and makes eyes jump from one cut to the next. All this is clear in every one of the hundreds of commercials he has engineered over the last two decades for a parade of politicians. Clear, too, in a local spot that he filmed before last season for one of his minor league baseball teams.

The commercial starts with Heller dressed in a gray suit and a bright tie that makes him look like a business power. “I’m Dave Heller, owner of the River Bandits!” he shouts from the other side of the camera. “And I am so excited about this season!” The shot switches to Heller somewhere else inside Modern Woodmen Park, home of his Quad Cities River Bandits. Always cut the shot. Keep the viewer involved. Keep the eyes active. “We’ve got new promotions, great entertainment and more bobbleheads than ever to give away!” He holds up a bobblehead doll. Graphics flash bright on the screen. Hard to look away. “We have these World Series championship replica rings! We’re giving away a free wedding! Two free college scholarships! And we’re throwing candy from a helicopter!”

The camera cuts to Heller locked inside a dunk tank, perched on a seat triggered to drop with any good fastball. “But the best thing about being at a River Bandits game,” he shouts, “is you never know what’s going to happen next!” And here, right at the end of the spot, the knock of a pitch on a slab of wood echoes and Heller drops, his suit soaked, his perfect hair pasted to his forehead. The camera cuts close to his face, wet and ebullient and in love with every second of this.

“See what I mean?”


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Heller is more a political consultant and media strategist than he is a minor league baseball team owner. He splits the bulk of his time between Florida and Washington, D.C., the president of Main Street Communications, considered one of the top choices for Democrats who need to develop campaign commercials and a media message. He also owns the River Bandits and the High Desert Mavericks, and travels often to Iowa and California. He knows what works for politicians and what works for baseball teams.

A lot of times, the same things work for both.

“You have to understand your electorate,” he says. “Our electorate here votes with their feet, and you have to give them what they want. The first rule of politics, I tell my clients, you honor the voters by talking about what they care about, not what you care about. I don’t care about where you went to school. I care about what you’re going to do for me. How are you going to make my life better? I don’t want to hear about you. I want to hear about me. 

“So we’ve tried, the River Bandits, to make it about the fans.”

“You have to understand your electorate. Our electorate here votes with their feet, and you have to give them what they want. The first rule of politics, I tell my clients, you honor the voters by talking about what they care about, not what you care about. I don’t care about where you went to school. I care about what you’re going to do for me. How are you going to make my life better? I don’t want to hear about you. I want to hear about me. So we’ve tried, the River Bandits, to make it about the fans.” — Quad Cities River Bandits owner Dave Heller

Now in his fifth season of ownership with his business partner, Bob Herrfeldt, Heller wants to make everything about the fans. He renovates the stadium every couple seasons with tiki bars and tiki beds and umbrellas and ribbon boards and a hall perfect for weddings. He wants another ribbon board. And a yellow corkscrew slide 36 feet tall with burlap sacks on hand so kids can scream down it “like a frickin’ luge.” And paint everywhere. “My favorite color,” he says, “is the rainbow. The more, the better.” One of the first innovations Heller unleashed on a previously unwitting fan base was a field of corn near leftfield. The patch used to be a gravel pit with a generator humming along in sight of the seats every night. Heller wanted to grow corn. Only makes sense in Iowa. Now, before games during the last five or six weeks every season, players walk right out of the corn onto the field.

Heller purchased his first team, the South Georgia Waves, more than a decade ago after his attorney encouraged him to invest in at least a share of a team. Because his attorney is Stan Brand, vice president of Minor League Baseball, he listened. “It is so much fun. Like, if this is your office and you work here,” Heller says, raising his arms and waving them across the stadium, “and you’re not happy, you ought to go to the Freud Institute. You need round-the-clock help. How do you not love this?”

Heller moved the Waves two hours north in Georgia from Albany to Columbus, then sold the team four seasons later. Not long after that, he toured Modern Woodmen Park, fell in love and purchased the River Bandits with Herrfeldt. “All the things you can’t change about a ballpark were perfect, and all the things you could change were wrong,” he says. “So we said, let’s change them. You have ballparks all across the country that are new ballparks that try to be retro. This ballpark was built in 1931. We don’t have to try to be retro. We are retro. We don’t have to fake it. And that gives you the freedom to do all these other cool things.” All those changes led to an attendance jump of more than 53 percent from 2007 to 2008. The average has held right around 3,500 fans every night ever since. 

Three years after that, Heller and Herrfeldt purchased the Mavericks out in Adelanto, California. Their latest investment makes sense. The Mavericks are considered misfits in the California League, a small front office in an outdated stadium without luxury suites, without amenities, with uncomfortable wind whipping across the outfield. Buy low, invest, then sell high. 

And bring the right message the whole time.

“Another parallel between politics and baseball is messaging,” he says. “When I bought this team, the attitude was, ‘Hey, I work for a baseball team, you own a small business, how would you like to buy an outfield sign?’ ‘What’s it going to do for me?’ ‘I don’t know, but there are a s—load of people who come to the ballpark and people will see the sign on the outfield.’ 

“No. That does nothing. I go to these minor league ballparks and I see signs stacked on top of each other all around the ballpark. Why? When you leave, what do you remember? Nothing.

“This is a little different approach.”

An approach that has worked in Washington for more than 20 years.

Can it work just as well in baseball?


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Not long after he purchased the River Bandits, Heller jumped right in with a handful of major sponsors. He wanted to leave the bulk of the local work with the folks who worked out of the office every day, but he wanted to be more than a figurehead owner. Why not arrange a meeting with one of the key movers in the Quad Cities?

“We have two big hospitals in Quad Cities, Genesis and Trinity,” he says. “When I came here, Genesis had a $30,000 sponsorship with the team. I went and pitched to Trinity. I’m talking to them, and I say, ‘Help me understand. I live in the Quad Cities, I get sick, I need to go to the hospital. Why do I go to Trinity instead of Genesis?’ He says to me, ‘Because at Trinity, you’re guaranteed to see a doctor in 30 minutes or less.’ I did some thinking, and I came back and I said, ‘I have an idea for you.’”

The Trinity Instant Win Sweepstakes unfolded over four summer nights. The team selected three families as finalists for an Orlando vacation. Just show up in flowered shirts and sundresses and swimsuits, the team said, everything appropriate for Florida in the summer, with luggage in hand. “They come down, stand on the dugout, we announce the winner and the family goes nuts,” Heller says. “The valet standing behind them picks up their luggage, escorts them up the stairs, out the gate, down into a waiting limousine. The valet drives off with the cameraman in tow. On the video board, we have a box of the footage of this family in the limo. We tell the fans, ‘If they check in and get their boarding passes in less than 30 minutes, everybody in the ballpark wins free pizza.’ We had a little counter. They check in and get their boarding passes in, like, 26 minutes, and the place goes nuts. The president of Trinity announces that everyone has won free pizza because these people have checked in and received their boarding passes in 30 minutes or less, the maximum time you will wait to see a doctor at Trinity. 

“The next year, the guy who runs Genesis says to me, ‘I want Trinity out. We want exclusivity.’ I said, ‘Great, $75,000.’ He said, ‘Done,’ and he said yes so fast, I said, ‘I should have asked for 85.’”


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Time for minor league trivia. In the long history of the Midwest League (playing games since 1947), a player has hit four or more home runs in a game just three times — including two times by Quad Cities players. Can you name them? (Keep reading for the answer.)

The River Bandits and the Burlington Bees played nine scoreless innings, then erupted, relatively speaking, as soon as the 10th inning started. Burlington leftfielder Rashun Dixon led off the top of the inning with a single, moved to second on a ground out, scooted to third on a wild pitch and scored on another single. Quad Cities rightfielder David Medina followed in the bottom of the inning with a leadoff double, then first baseman Roberto de la Cruz and shortstop Matt Williams loaded the bases thanks to an error and a walk. Catcher Casey Rasmus tied the game with a single to left and second baseman Luis Mateo followed with another single to left to win the game and snap a two-game skid.

Modern Woodmen Park is the beneficiary of an incredible Mississippi River backdrop — sit high enough in the bowl and you can actually see Illinois from your seat — and a view of the Rock Island Centennial Bridge, which crosses the states by way of U.S. 67. Perhaps no park in all the minors is closer to a bridge than Quad Cities and, to make the series of arches a little more beautiful, “it lights up like a Christmas tree,” Heller says.

The River Bandits enjoyed a rare double last season after Modern Woodmen Park served as the home to the Midwest League All-Star Game on July 21 and the last game of the league championship series on September 17. With Quad Cities ace Trevor Rosenthal on the mound for the first inning, the West pulled away late for an 8-3 all-star win over the East and, a little more important, the River Bandits beat the Lansing Lugnuts, 6-3, to sweep their way to their fifth league crown.

Want the answer? Michael Bishop homered four times for the Quad Cities Angels on June 24, 1978. He finished that season with 19 home runs in 80 games, and hit 132 in the minors over 897 games. Garrett Jones equaled the feat for the Quad Cities River Bandits on July 14, 2002, though he hit only 10 home runs all season in 63 games.

And in random statistical news. The game started two minutes later than scheduled, the first pitch was a strike and the first batter singled to center. Michelle Justus sang the national anthem in 1 minute and 48.9 seconds, a bit long. We ate some catered taco platters and tortillas up in the press box and smelled the rest of the culinary options down on the concourse. (Because when you have four-figure budget, you skip some of the stadium sugar.)

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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