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Quad Cities: Cardinals top minor league club has a long history

The direct family line of today’s Quad Cities River Bandits, the St. Louis Cardinals organization’s winningest affiliate over the last quarter century, can be traced back to 1982, when the Springfield (IL) Cardinals first joined the Single-A Midwest League.

First cousins of the Midwest League club preceded them, starting in 1977. That was the year St. Louis first placed the Gastonia, North Carolina Cardinals entry into the Class-A Western Carolinas League.

For 14 years, from 1982 through 1995, the Cardinals had two full-season Single-A clubs, one in the Midwest League and the other in the South Atlantic or Sally League. Since 1996, the organization has fielded a single club in the MWL.

Here is the log of the last ten years, 25 years, full franchise histories and combined results from both Class-A clubs. The Quad Cities-Springfield branch of the family is on top with the Savannah-Gastonia results below.

Cards Class-A Year Pct W L Division Playoffs Manager
Record all clubs 77-08 0.517 3300 3078 20
25 year all clubs 84-08 0.519 2654 2460 16
MWL record 82-08 0.528 1968 1758 14
25 year MWL 84-08 0.523 1805 1646 12
10 yr all/MWL 99-08 0.509 702 676 5
Quad Cities 2008 0.507 68 66 6 Steve Dillard
Quad Cities 2007 0.561 78 61 T2 L1 Keith Mitchell
Quad Cities 2006 0.555 76 61 2 L1 Keith Mitchell
Quad Cities 2005 0.518 72 67 2 L1 Joe Cunningham
Peoria 2004 0.540 75 64 2 L1 Joe Cunningham
Peoria 2003 0.471 65 73 6 Joe Cunningham
Peoria 2002 0.616 85 53 1 WC Danny Sheaffer
Peoria 2001 0.413 57 81 6 Joe Hall
Peoria 2000 0.460 63 74 5 Tom Lawless
Peoria 1999 0.453 63 76 4 Brian Rupp
Peoria 1998 0.514 72 68 2 Jeff Shireman
Peoria 1997 0.504 70 69 3 Joe Cunningham
Peoria 1996 0.581 79 57 1 L1 Roy Silver
Peoria 1995 0.463 62 72 4 Roy Silver
Madison 1994 0.475 66 73 4 Joe Cunningham
Springfield (IL) 1993 0.574 78 58 2 L1 Mike Ramsey
Springfield (IL) 1992 0.600 84 56 2 Rick Colbert
Springfield (IL) 1991 0.423 58 79 7 Mike Ramsey
Springfield (IL) 1990 0.453 63 76 5 Keith Champion
Springfield (IL) 1989 0.541 73 62 3 LC Dan Radison
Springfield (IL) 1988 0.583 81 58 2 L1 Mark DeJohn
Springfield (IL) 1987 0.671 94 46 1 LC Gaylen Pitts
Springfield (IL) 1986 0.621 87 53 1 L1 Gaylen Pitts
Springfield (IL) 1985 0.471 66 74 2 Lloyd Merritt
Springfield (IL) 1984 0.504 70 69 1 LC Joe Rigoli
Springfield (IL) 1983 0.576 80 59 1 LC Dave Bialas
Springfield (IL) 1982 0.610 83 53 1 L1 Dave Bialas
Cards Class-A Year Pct W L Division Playoffs Manager
WCL/Sally Record 77-95 0.502 1332 1320 6
Savannah 1995 0.403 56 83 6 Scott Melvin
Savannah 1994 0.599 82 55 2 WC Luis Melendez
Savannah 1993 0.662 94 48 1 WC Chris Maloney
Savannah 1992 0.462 67 78 4 Mike Ramsey
Savannah 1991 0.442 61 77 6 Larry Milbourne
Savannah 1990 0.518 73 68 3 LC Rick Colbert
Savannah 1989 0.496 69 70 4 Keith Champion
Savannah 1988 0.504 68 67 5 Keith Champion
Savannah 1987 0.500 69 69 4 Mark DeJohn
Savannah 1986 0.556 75 60 2 Mark DeJohn
Savannah 1985 0.422 57 78 5 Gaylen Pitts
Savannah 1984 0.561 78 61 2 L1 Lloyd Merritt
Macon 1983 0.493 71 73 3 Lloyd Merritt
Gastonia 1982 0.378 54 89 5 Lloyd Merritt
Gastonia 1981 0.472 68 76 4 Joe Rigoli
Gastonia 1980 0.529 74 66 2 L1 Nick Leyva
Gastonia 1979 0.468 65 74 5 Johnny Lewis
Gastonia 1978 0.493 69 71 5 Buzzy Keller
Gastonia 1977 0.590 82 57 1 WC Hal Lanier

WC = won championship

LC = lost in the finals

L1 = lost in first playoff round

The Sally line

The Cardinals first had a presence in Gastonia from 1938 through 1940, back in a time when the organization had over 30 minor league clubs. That Gastonia club was classified as “D” level and competed in the North Carolina State League and the Tar Heel League.

The Gastonia Cardinals celebrated their first year in the Western Carolinas League in 1977 by taking the championship under future Houston Astros skipper Hal Lanier. The WCL soon gave way to the brand new Sally League in 1980 as Gastonia remained affiliated with the Cardinals through the 1982 season. (Make sure you check out this gallery of photos from that era.) For 1983, the Cardinals moved to Macon, Georgia, former home of the Tigers, as the Expos took over in Gastonia.

The 1983 Macon Redbirds finished in the middle of the pack in the Sally’s South Division, but featured a youngster named Vince Coleman. The speedy outfielder took the batting title with a .350 average and set the organized baseball record with 145 stolen bases.

One season later, the franchise moved again, to Savannah, Georgia. These 1984 Cardinals won the second-half title in the South but lost in the first round of the playoffs. It what would be their best finish for the next six years.

The 1990 Savannah Cards won the second-half South crown and made it to the finals before being eliminated. Manager Rick Colbert’s big bat, the since-forgotten Cliff Brannon, led the league with 18 home runs.

In 1993, Chris Maloney took over and led Savannah to wins in the first and second halves and backed it up in the playoffs for the Cardinals’ first Sally League championship. Their 94-48 (.662) mark is the best for the Cardinals full-season A-ball level of play from 1977 to the present.

Future major leaguer Mike Busby went 12-2 as a 20-year-old and fan favorite Super Joe McEwing, also 20, drew 89 walks and scored 94 times, both team bests in 1993.

The 1994 season brought a new manager, Luis Melendez, but the same result, another league title. It represents the most recent back-to-back championships anywhere in the system. Catcher Eli Marrero, 21, smacked one home run for each year of his age that season.

1995 marked the final season of the organization’s 19-year participation in the Sally League as the Midwest League club was also packing its bags.

The Midwest League line

The Cardinals entered the MWL for the 1982 season with an organization-owned team in Springfield, IL. This club followed the Triple-A Springfield Redbirds (aka Cardinals) that competed in the American Association from 1978 through 1981.

In their first eight years of existence, the Springfield Cardinals made the playoffs seven times, a record that no other St. Louis affiliate has approached in at least the last 30 years. (Later, Peoria/Quad Cities reached the post-season four times in five years, from 2003 through 2007.)

Despite all the regular season success, Springfield couldn’t quite reach the top as they bowed out three times in the first round and four times in the finals from 1982 through 1989. Despite their impressive total of 14 MWL playoff appearances in their 27-year history in the league, the Cardinals have just one title. More on that in a moment.

Among the standout players during the 80’s run were outfielder Alan Hunsinger, who led the MWL with 102 runs batted in during the 1982 season, Curt Ford, who accomplished the same with 91 the next year and Todd Zeile with 106 RBI in 1987. A since-forgotten hurler, Jeff Oyster, paced the league with 17 wins in 1986.

A member of the 1982 Springfield staff, Danny Cox, just announced his return to the city and Lanphier Park as pitching coach of the Springfield Sliders of the independent Prospect League under manager and former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark.

The 1993 club made it back into the post-season, but fell in the first round in what would be their final year in Springfield. Future major leaguer T.J. Mathews tossed five complete games with a 2.72 ERA over 25 starts. Four players slammed 20 home runs or more each, but Mike Gulan was the only one who would reach the majors (15 career MLB at-bats).

By end of 1993, the organization was unhappy with Springfield’s facility and they sold the team. It moved to Madison, Wisconsin, but remained affiliated with St. Louis for one more season, then known as the Madison Hatters.

The Cards signed a new Player Development Contract taking over the Peoria (IL) Chiefs from the Chicago Cubs in 1995, and would remain there through the 2004 season.

In doing so, St. Louis returned to the city where they had a club from 1953 through 1956 in what was called the “Three-I League”. Former St. Louis third base star Whitey Kurowski was the skipper the first three seasons while coaching legend George Kissell took over for the final year.

The 1996 Chiefs had the best full-season record in the Midwest League, but exited the playoffs quickly. Pitcher Britt Reames was named the Prospect of the Year in the league with 15 wins and a 1.90 ERA, All-Star Kerry Robinson batted .359 and swiped 50 bases and Roy Silver was named Manager of the Year.

2002 would put to an end three straight losing seasons, bringing both a new stadium and the pennant for the Chiefs – the Cardinals’ only Midwest League championship to date. 19-year-old catcher Yadier Molina drove in 50 runs and left-handed starter Tyler Johnson went 15-3. In their last year in Peoria, 2004, the Cardinals prospects, including Brendan Ryan, who led the MWL batting .322, reached the first round of the playoffs before falling.

2005 brought a move by the Cardinals to the Quad Cities, where the team competed for the first three years under the name Swing of the Quad Cities. To some, the club’s light blue uniforms seemed reminiscent of the powder blues of the 1980’s Cardinals. In 2008, the club reverted to a previous handle, the River Bandits, which was used locally from 1992 to 2003.

The Cardinals Quad Cities club reached the playoffs each season from 2005 through 2007, but lost all three times in the first round. While the sixth-place finish in 2008 was a disappointment, the franchise is carrying a five-year-and-running streak of winning seasons. Across the system, the next-closest club is Palm Beach (A-Advanced) with three, fueled in a large part by former Quad Cities players.

Quad Cities and their predecessors remain the Cardinals winningest affiliate over both the last ten and 25 years. In addition, the Midwest League entry also has earned the most playoff appearances of any club in the organization during both the short (five in ten years) and long-term (12 in 25 years).

In terms of amassing regular-season wins and getting into the post-season, their MWL club is consistently the best the Cardinals have staffed in at least the last quarter century.

Cardinals system records – Quad Cities/Peoria/Madison/Springfield (IL)

Last ten years (1999-2008) Level Mark Record Years Club
Best cumulative record club 0.509 702-676 1999-2008 Quad Cities/Peoria (A)
Most winning seasons club six 02,4,5,6,7,8 Quad Cities/Peoria (A)
Current winning season streak club five 2004-2008 Quad Cities/Peoria (A)
Most playoff appearances club five 02,4,5,6,7 Quad Cities/Peoria (A)
Last 25 years (1984-2008) Level Mark Record Years Club
Best cumulative record club 0.523 1805-1646 1984-2008 Quad Cities/Peoria/Madison/Spr1 (A)
Most winning seasons club 16 Quad Cities/Peoria/Madison/Spr1 (A)
Most playoff appearances club 12 Quad Cities/Peoria/Madison/Spr1 (A)

Related articles:

Cardinals in the Appalachian League – 1975 to present

Cardinals in the New York-Penn League – 1981 to present

A quarter century of Cardinals minor league results

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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