A late Summer Evening on the Farm
Story and Photos by Gordy Jones
With the Twins in the tank, I found myself yearning for some fun baseball. I hopped into my car and proceeded to begin a new tradition. I took the first of what I hope will be many annual trips to see the Twins’ minor league affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels, a Class A team in the Midwest League.
It is an easy 4.5-hour drive from St. Paul, to a great place where you might see some future stars as they are playing their hearts out: it’s called Perfect Game Field in Memorial Park. As I checked into the hotel, and when I went to a sandwich shop, and even when I bought some goodies at a neighborhood grocery store, I noticed that the town was buzzing because Jake Mauer’s Kernels had made it to the playoffs. That night they were to play the Quad City River
Bandits in a must-win game. Unfortunately the Kernels couldn’t make it past the River Bandits to advance to the next round, but their inaugural season in Cedar Rapids was deemed a success. Fans were treated to a winning season, and they got to watch the Twins’ hot prospect Byron Buxton as he dazzled them, before being promoted to Fort Myers midway through the season.
Perfect Game Field is a pretty park that has a small-town charm and ambiance about it. It
offers free parking, reasonable vending prices, a war memorial, and a lot of fun. In 2013 ticket prices ranged from $8 to $12.
As I entered the park, I was greeted by Kernel’s GM Doug Nelson. Doug is not a traditional baseball guy; he is more of a business man. He been an administrator and is a CPA, and he gradually fell into this job while helping out his partners about 10 years ago. He became full-time general manager three years ago. I asked Doug if he had ever played ball, and he replied, “My Little League coach would be laughing so hard he’d fall off of his chair if he knew I was a general manager of a baseball team. I found out by middle school that I didn’t have the athletic ability to be on the field, so that’s why I’m on the other side of the backstop.”
We began talking about the virtues of minor league baseball. Doug said, “They play with their hearts, they take every game seriously, and there’s all kinds of energy out here. It’s really neat now that we’re affiliated with the Twins, how great these guys are to work with in the community. We do a number of community appearances each year, and these guys have gone to every single appearance, and the coaching staff has been extremely supportive. So not only has it been fun team on the field with a lot of energy and passion, they have the same type of passion out in the community.”
Minor league ball sometimes has great promotions, and Cedar Rapids is no different. Every Friday they have a gate give-away. After joining the Twins family, the Kernels gave away a double bobblehead with their beloved mascot, Mr. Shucks, shaking hands with TC Bear. In another promotion, they hired a helicopter to fly over, and while the kids waited on the warning track, the helicopter dropped candy and soft-toss baseballs onto the field. The kids surely had fun scrambling around the outfield picking up treats.
The Angels were the previous major league affiliation for Cedar Rapids. The fans recently watched Mike Trout and Alexi Casilla (Alexi was a Twin, but came up through the Angels). Last year Alexi had a day off and made a surprise visit to the ballpark here. That shows the family-like atmosphere that is radiated at Perfect Game Field. Overall, since they began playing ball here in 1890, there have been more than 400 players that have made it to the majors.
If you come, I recommend that you bring your entire family, and you should stay downtown. My hotel, the Doubletree, was only 12 blocks away from the field; only a five minute drive, and it had plenty of good restaurants and fun little bars within walking distance.
Blending into the crowd that evening were Jake and Teresa Mauer, watching their son “Jakie” manage his team. The Kernels’ hitting coach is former Twins infielder Tommy Watkins.
Also at the park that evening was Twins GM Terry Ryan. I had a chance to visit with him, and I asked him about the Twins’ first year’s affiliation with the Kernels. He said, “It’s been a success, Gordy, and not only on the field, but off of the field, too. We consider Cedar Rapids part of the market for the Twins. The geography is a good thing for all of us involved. It’s easy to get here not only from the Twin Cities, but from the entire state for that matter. We have a good club here — even moving guys up at the half, and we replaced them with some talent, as well. I think the people who run this affiliation are very happy with us, and I can tell you the feeling is mutual.”
Terry then talked about the coaching staff: “Jake Mauer had a good year, as well as Gary Lucas and Tommy Watkins, our trainer Ryan Hedwell, and our strength and conditioning people, everybody that’s had a hand in this operation here, Gordy… I don’t know if we could’ve had a better first year.”
Even though the Kernels lost that night, I walked away with a feeling of peace and tranquility that you can find only at a small-town ballpark. As I got into my car, I had to laugh. I remembered the final question I asked GM Doug Nelson. I asked him if he ran into his Little League coach today, what would he say? He replied: “I’d tell him, ‘You made the right decision in benching me.’ ”