More than just baseball buddies

Kernels coaches Mauer, Watkins share deep friendship

Cedar Rapids Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins (right) laughs with manager Jake Mauer ahead of the game against Lake County in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Cedar Rapids Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins (right) laughs with manager Jake Mauer ahead of the game against Lake County in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

CEDAR RAPIDS – Tommy Watkins hates frogs. Can’t stand ‘em, doesn’t want to be anywhere near ‘em.

They’re green and slimy, make funny noises, and you never know where they’re going to hop. They eat flies and other insects.

Look at it that way, and you can’t blame the Cedar Rapids Kernels hitting coach for his case of ranidaphobia. At the same time, how can you not rib him a little bit for it?

Especially if you’re one of his friends.

“I remember we were in Jupiter, in the Florida State League, playing against the Marlins one night,” Kernels Manager Jake Mauer said. “It’s about the fifth or sixth inning, and it starts pouring rain. They pull the tarp and everything. Well, these bullfrogs about the size of your fist start coming out from underneath the stadium. They’re just hopping around everywhere.

“Tommy, you would have thought it was a horror movie. He was scared to death, and our teammates all knew it. So, of course, one of the guys grabs a frog and brings it into the dugout. Tommy sees it and starts running away. This guy is chasing him. It’s pouring rain, mind you, while this is going on. Finally, Tommy goes and sits in the stands, in the rain, because he’s scared to death of all these frogs on the field.”

Frog fear or no, Watkins is one of the best guys you’ll meet in professional baseball. So friendly and personable, willing to strike up a conversation with anyone.

Mauer is the same way, which is perhaps why they have developed such a strong friendship over the years. Quality people gravitating toward other quality people.

“Pretty easily, yeah,” Watkins said, when asked if Mauer is his best friend in the game. “He’s one of my best friends in life.”

“It’s rare to get the opportunity to work with one of your best buddies, especially in baseball,” Mauer said. “I’ve known Tommy for 12 years, he was a teammate for four. I wish our guys would have seen him play. The passion that he played with every day. You still see that a little bit here. He’s a little more subdued than he used to be, partly because you can’t get up there and swing the bat anymore. But his energy is irreplaceable.”

These friends come from distinctively different backgrounds. Funny how baseball brings people together.

Watkins, 34, is an African-American from the south (Fort Myers, Fla.), Mauer, 35, a white guy who is part of perhaps the most famous family in Minnesota. But they hit it off when they first met as minor league teammates in the Minnesota Twins farm system in the 2000s.

Mauer and his brothers Joe (the Twins catcher) and Billy (a former Twins minor leaguer who owns Mauer Chevrolet car dealerships in the Twin Cities) lived together in Fort Myers during the offseason back in the day. They would play golf and work out regularly with Watkins.

Watkins was a groomsman in Jake Mauer’s wedding and is considered Uncle Tommy to Mauer and wife Rachel’s three young children.

“They’re unbelievable, man. All of them,” Watkins said of the Mauer clan. “From their parents, to Jake and his brothers, their wives and kids. They are unbelievable people. They would bend over backward for anybody. It’s just been amazing to be around them. You would think coming from a family like that, it would be a different deal. But they’re all down to earth, good people.”

Watkins played until 2009, getting an eight-game cup of coffee in the big leagues with Minnesota in 2007. Mauer’s playing career ended due to injury in 2005, though he immediately began a coaching career that included becoming a manager for the first time in 2008.

This is his seventh season as a skipper in the Twins system. Watkins is in his fifth season as a coach, and this is their second season together on the same staff.

“It’s been a lot of fun seeing him transition over to the other side from player to coach,” Mauer said.

“I’ve tried to learn, take everything I can from him,” Watkins said. “He started coaching before me and has been in the manager role for awhile. That’s something I want to do someday. It’s been great to kind of sit back and see how he runs things, how he carries himself. That part has been good.”

Just about everything these last two summers has been good for these friends, even if one of them let slip about the other’s frog phobia. Watkins, by the way, told a reporter to call Mauer “Spike” the next time he talked to him.

An inside joke, apparently that was Mauer’s nickname during his playing days.

“I think Jake and I always had pretty much the same mindset as players,” Watkins said. “Even though we played the same position, we were utility infield players, we pulled for each other. We never battled against each other, we pulled for each other. We were roommates. He was always like a bigger brother to me … I could always trust him to tell me the right thing.”

“Tommy would give you the shirt off his back,” Mauer said. “He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll meet. And that’s what made these last two years so fun.”

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