Tommy Watkins gets his chance to be a manager

Will lead Cedar Rapids Kernels, who begin their season Thursday night at Beloit

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CEDAR RAPIDS — This is not the same Tommy Watkins that was here two years ago.

First off, there is less of him. Playing a lot of pickup basketball has made him lean and mean.

Not really that last part. You won’t find a better, more personable guy.

Then there is the full beard. That’s a brand new thing.

So is his job title. A longtime player and coach in the Minnesota Twins organization, Watkins is a first-year manager, leading the 2017 Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Let’s just say he’s pumped for this opportunity. Cedar Rapids begins the 2017 Midwest League season with games Thursday and Friday nights at Beloit, with the home opener 5:05 Saturday afternoon against the Snappers.

“Yes, I always wanted this,” Watkins said. “I think the timing for it now was good. When I first started coaching, that first year, I wanted to manage, but I don’t think I was anywhere close to being ready. I think it’s a good time now.”

Watkins, 36, was drafted by the Twins in 1998 out of a high school in Fort Myers, Fla., and spent 12 seasons with them as an infielder, mostly in the minor leagues. He did get into nine big-league games in 2007.

Hired as a hitting coach following his playing career, “The Mayor,” as he is affectionately called, had a three-year stint with the Kernels from 2013 to 2015 and was at Double-A Chattanooga last season. Jeff Smith got promoted to the Twins major league staff in the offseason, opening a manager’s spot in Minnesota’s farm system.

That spot went to Watkins. He replaces good friend Jake Mauer, who managed the Kernels their first four years as a Twins affiliate.

Mauer is at Chattanooga this season. Doug Mientkiewicz, whom Watkins worked under last season, is at high-A Fort Myers.

“Spring training was good,” Watkins said. “Don’t know how to explain it. It was a lot of fun just getting used to running the club. Now is the time to see how it really is, I guess. I just followed Doug and Jake around a lot of spring training. I’m excited to be here, though.

“It’s always good to be in a familiar place. I’ve been in the league six years, so just knowing this league, being in Cedar Rapids three years in the past will help a lot. You know, I feel at home here. That should help a lot.”

So should the return of hitting coach Brian Dinkelman and pitching coach J.P. Martinez. Their familiarity with the Midwest League should be a boon and allow Watkins to adjust to his new role.

Watkins feels he will be able to use things learned from guys like Mauer and Mientkiewicz to be successful in developing players and winning games.

“Just working under different managers helped,” Watkins said. “Just seeing how they do things. Working for Jake and Doug, they let the coaches work. So I think that’s one thing I’ll do. J.P., the pitchers are his. I’ll have my say, but he’s with them every day. Just like Dink, too. He’s with the hitters every day. You’ve got to let them do their jobs. I’ll just help out when I can, and give them my input.”

Watkins said he has been impressed by the addition of Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine to the Twins organization. They have brought new ideas, including at the minor-league level.

“It has changed, just because you’ve got different faces up there,” he said. “These guys are good people, and they want good people to be around them. I see this as a change for the better. I feel like this organization is on the up.”

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