Hlas: Twins/Kernels honeymoon in full bloom

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CEDAR RAPIDS — A minor-league baseball franchise needs a jolt of something every so often, and you can only build a new ballpark once every three generations or so.

So it was here, where the Midwest League’s Cedar Rapids Kernels were far from destitute, but had flattened out a bit in the energy department. The “new’ Veterans Memorial Stadium is now 11 years old, and the franchise’s affiliation with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim was 20. Which is an eternity in affiliation years.

Last September, the Kernels ended their relationship with the team from Orange County and began one with a club in snowmobile country. Enter the Minnesota Twins, and enter some new business.

“Our first impact was during the holidays, every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson. “We got two or three orders a day from southern Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, from Twins fans purchasing Kernels souvenirs.

“We’ve also sold ticket-packages to people in Dubuque and Waterloo who are Twins fans. We even sold a 17-game package to a fan in Rochester, Minn.”

I believe a minor-league affiliation figures only marginally in its season attendance. The make-or-break comes from how much people enjoy the ballgame experience, the condition of the stadium, the concessions, the promotions, the atmosphere.

“I think the affiliation and its (player) prospects get peoples’ attention,” said Nelson, “and they’ll get people to come to your ballpark. Then it’s the responsibility of the Kernels’ staff to provide them with a wonderful experience to get them to come back a second time, a third time. I’m confident we’ll do that.”

Proof of the immediate impact of the new marriage could be seen Thursday night at the Marriott in Cedar Rapids. There, a record-sized, standing room-only crowd of over 500 filled the hotel’s ballroom to attend the 17th annual Kernels Hot Stove Banquet.

It’s the first year of Twins/Kernels, so this is the honeymoon. But the Twins included the Kernels’ banquet as part of their current Winter Caravan, a clear sign the major-league franchise is serious about being a good partner with its nearest minor-league affiliate.

Minnesota didn’t send its ‘B’ team, either. Included in the group of personnel the franchise sent here Thursday was its manager of the last 11 seasons, Ron Gardenhire.

“I managed at Kenosha in 1988, my first year of managing,” said Gardenhire, who surely won over some people here with his friendliness. “We played Cedar Rapids for the championship. I think you were a Reds affiliate. You guys beat us and sent me home. I’m glad to be back.”

While many former Kernels have made marks in the majors with the Angels, that franchise has been known to empty out a money truck for players like Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.

The Twins, however, have always relied heavily on the homegrown.

“We bank on our farm system,” Gardenhire said. “We use our system about as much as anybody in baseball.”

That doesn’t matter to most who attend minor-league games. But it does to some, and they can make attendance and merchandise sales grow. They were at the Kernels’ banquet Thursday. They’ll be at the ballpark in April.


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