Minor League Sports

Johnson: My top 10 memories in 20 years covering the Cedar Rapids Kernels

The lights at the new Veterans Memorial Stadium are turned on for the first Cedar Rapids on March 27, 2002. (The Gazette)
The lights at the new Veterans Memorial Stadium are turned on for the first Cedar Rapids on March 27, 2002. (The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — OK, there have been way more than 10 memorable moments after all these years, but some of the stories aren’t suitable for print. Anyway, here’s my list, in no particular order.

So long, old friend

The original Veterans Memorial Stadium served Cedar Rapids from 1949 to 2001. It and neighboring Kingston Stadium were so close, you could foul a ball off the third-base side and have it land in Kingston. The last game at the stadium was August 28, 2001, against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, and Cedar Rapids won, 4-1. It was televised live on KCRG, and 5,653 fans were there. I remember getting to the park about three hours before game time, and fans were already there, riding a ferris wheel in the parking lot, and milling about. After the game, everyone was allowed onto the field to walk around, play catch ... and say goodbye.

 

Hello, new friend

The “new” Veterans Memorial Stadium was supposed to open April 8, 2002. A sold-out crowd showed up, waited, waited and eventually was sent home as persisent rain forced a postponement. Quite the bummer. Everyone came back the following night for a stadium-opening double-header against Quad Cities, which the Kernels swept. Jeff Mathis hit a walk-off, two-run home run in the seventh inning to win the very first game in the stadium, 5-3. It was Mathis’ first professional homer. A great way to christen C.R.’s beautiful new home.

You're out

You wouldn’t think a late August game against Peoria in a lost 2001 season for the Kernels would be newsworthy. But this one was definitely. Manager Tyrone Boykin accused umpire Erik Stalbusch postgame of intentionally missing a call at first base to get back at Kernels outfielder Jason Coulie for something Coulie said to Stalbusch earlier in the game. Boykin just happened to have proof, as he was wired with a mic for the game by KCRG for an unrelated story. The R-rated argument between Boykin and the ump was priceless to hear, and completely incriminating. Stalbusch resigned three days later.

The scary tarp accident

The Kernels had just sent a June 30, 2014 game into extra innings, when a severe thunderstorm with 80-mile-per-hour winds blew into Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Kernels grounds crew, front-office members and others ran to unroll the tarp and get it onto the field, only they didn’t make it. As sirens rang in the background, the wind picked up the tarp and blew it over and onto the helpless group. Assistant general manager Scott Wilson suffered a dislocated shoulder and three others had concussions. Video of the accident was shown on ABC news. “It was total chaos,” said head groundskeeper Jesse Roeder. “Someone could have very easily broken their neck or been seriously hurt.”

You wanna umpire?

A late-August, rain-delayed, four-hour game between the Kernels and Lansing went 11 innings and lasted until 1 a.m. The Kernels won, 7-6, beating a position player who was forced into pitching action because his team was out of options. Whacky enough, right? That wasn’t it. The home-plate umpire left the game in the bottom of the seventh inning because of heat exhaustion and taking a foul tip to the mask. The base umpire came in to relieve him. The base umpire was replaced by ... one player from each team. Seriously, that was Midwest League protocol at the time. Jake Mathis was the C.R. representative and got overruled by the only legit ump on a safe call at third base in extra innings. Ah, minor league baseball.

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Byron breaks out

Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton emerged as baseball’s best prospect in 2013 with a scintillating first half with the Kernels. Amazing catches, amazing speed on the bases, he did it all here in two and a half months. That included a heroic game May 16, 2013 against Burlington at Memorial Stadium that Buxton said in a return visit to town two years ago as part of the Twins Winter Caravan that he still vividly remembered. Cedar Rapids was down three runs in the ninth inning but loaded the bases with one out. Buxton came to the plate and obliterated a walk-off grand slam well over the porch in left and into the night, as the stadium erupted. Buxton got a plate of shaving cream to the face from a teammate as he did a postgame television interview. With shaving cream still on his face, he signed autographs for kids at the side of the dugout for several minutes.

 

Roady goes on the DL

There is no more recognizable face around the ballpark than Ron “Roady” Plein. The equipment manager came to Cedar Rapids from Quad Cities when the Los Angeles Angels became C.R.’s major league affiliate in 1993. He was so beloved, he even got his own bedroom built into the newer Veterans Memorial Stadium when it was constructed in 2002, where he stayed all summer. The nickname Roady is short for Roadrunner, by the way, because whenever there was a foul ball, Plein would sprint after it like the fleet bird. Anyway, in the early 2000s, Roady — who would travel with the team — sprinted after a foul ball hit behind home plate during a game at Wisconsin. So did Wisconsin’s batboy. The two collided, and Roady went down in a heap with a broken leg. An ambulance was called and drove onto the field to pick him up and take him to the hospital. At the conclusion of the teams’ series a couple of days later, the Kernels team bus pulled up to the hospital on the way back to Cedar Rapids, loaded up Roady and brought him back to town and his room at the stadium.

 

Give me that broom!

I loved former Kernels Manager Todd Claus. He was a great guy, a great baseball guy. I remember in 2002 when he brought his team back onto the Memorial Stadium field following a disappointing performance and had them march around military style in the outfield while he shouted orders at them. In late May of that successful season, the sometimes-intense Claus became angered with Kernels mascot Mr. Shucks after he (she?) brought a broom and paraded around the field after a game that clinched a C.R. series sweep. Claus felt it was an unsportsmanlike gesture, so he came after Shucks and asked for the broom, Shucks couldn’t hear him, so Clausie ended up forcibly taking it from the mascot, flipping him over and breaking the broom in two over his knee. The manager ended up publicly apologizing to the guy posing as Shucks. No harm done. And no more brooms.

 

Mauer Mania

I’ve had the pleasure of watching a few major leaguers come into town on injury rehabilitation stints. There was Ryan Dempster, Mark Wohlers, Ricky Nolasco, Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla ... and Joe Mauer. The Minnesota Twins star came to town for a two-game stint in August 2014 as he rehabbed from an oblique injury, playing for his oldest brother, Jake, the Kernels manager. Jake Mauer closed the team’s clubhouse to the media during Joe’s stay (the first and only time I can remember that happening). Joe spent his first day in town patiently signing pregame autographs down the left-field line for at least a half-hour. Let’s just say he impressed everyone in his two days here. A class act.

 

Oh, so close to a championship

The 2015 Midwest League Championship Series was a beauty. The Kernels and West Michigan battled in five close games. Cedar Rapids won Game 1, lost on a controversial call in Game 2 and took a 2-1 series lead on a Brian Navaretto walk-off infield hit in Game 3. West Michigan clawed back to win a tight Game 4, 2-1, leading to the winner-take-all Game 5 at Memorial Stadium. The Kernels built a 2-0 lead after four innings, only to have West Michigan score three times in the fifth for a 3-2 win. Such dramatic, wonderful, exquisite baseball. The hope is I’ll last long enough to be able to cover a Kernels championship team.

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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