CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids Kernels dined on chicken, carrots and sweet potatoes in their Veterans Memorial Stadium clubhouse between games of their day-night doubleheader Wednesday.
The visiting Quad Cities River Bandits ate chicken, rice, and a salad with vegetables.
Those who saw Midwest League baseball before it got all spruced up remember when the players would go to concession stands after games for hot dogs. The closest they got to something organic was tobacco, which they either smoked or chewed.
Today, the league’s ballparks are clean, well-lighted places instead of being somewhere to hide among shadows and splinters. Marlon Brando was paged by the public-address announcer one night at the previous stadium here. He may have been there for all we knew.
Minor-league teams now have nutritionists and strength/conditioning programs. They have video tools major-league teams didn’t have a generation ago. And they have occasional millionaires among them.
The Kernels have one in shortstop Royce Lewis, though he would be squeamish to see himself identified as one. He prefers “ballplayer.”
Besides, he stashed his $6.725 million signing bonus from the Minnesota Twins in a trust fund. The millionaire’s life? After returning to his residence here after Tuesday night’s game, he called family members back in California, then played some of the video game Fortnite.
He is, after all, 18. A year ago today, Lewis was a high school senior in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. In June, he was the first player picked in the MLB amateur draft. It looks like the Twins knew what they were doing.
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Through his first 100 at-bats this season, Lewis is hitting .340. He went 0-for-1 with two walks and two stolen bases in Wednesday’s matinee game. The out he made irked him because it was a strikeout.
“I have 13 strikeouts in 100 at-bats,” Lewis said. “I’m shooting for less than 10 per 100.”
That’s in an era where the number of strikeouts keep going up in all levels of pro ball. Quad Cities pitcher Cristian Javier whiffed 10 Kernels in five innings Wednesday.
Lewis says he cares about reaching base, not how. “If an error gets me on base,” he said, “I can steal second, steal third.”
I’d read and heard Lewis is personable, articulate, fan-friendly, media-friendly. He is all that and a bag of low-calorie, gluten-free, extra-fiber chips.
He said he tries to sign as many autographs as possible because “it kind of reminds me when I watched players like Derek Jeter and they’d throw a ball in the crowd, try to get the fans going.
“I try to do my best for fans. I’m always trying to sign if possible. ... I know they came out here for something special.”
For everything about it that is better than it once was, this still is the low minors. Players from college and high school alike learn what it’s like to play day after day with a lot of travel and short-sleeping. This is where former Iowa Hawkeyes slugger Jake Adams is in his first full season of battling better pitchers than he faced in the Big Ten.
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Adams got $210,000 to sign with the Houston Astros after getting picked in the draft’s sixth round last year. He hit an NCAA-high 29 homers for the Hawkeyes in 2017 and batted .335. He then went to Tri-City of the New York-Pennsylvania League and hit .170 with 68 strikeouts in 155 at-bats.
This is hard.
But Adams is getting paid to play, and the Astros want to see how far he can progress. He was hitting .261 entering Wednesday night’s game, way better than .170.
“My goals are to keep working on my defense and make better contact,” Adams said. “If I can get those two things narrowed down, I think I can move up in this organization.”
After Wednesday night’s game, the River Bandits will bus back to Davenport. On Thursday afternoon? They’ll bus back to Cedar Rapids. That will make five games and four round-trips from Davenport in four days.
Not long ago, that also would have meant a lot of hot dogs and cigarettes.
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