116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS – Things won’t be the same as before. But don’t use the ‘D’ word.
That has more of a negative connotation.
“I don’t want to say different because we’re playing baseball,” Cedar Rapids Kernels General Manager Scott Wilson said. “It’s just going to be unique the way it evolves. Opening night will be emotional for everyone, because all of us keep thinking about what we’ve been through. That’s everyone in our community, with the pandemic and the derecho. Minor league baseball as a whole, we’re celebrating on Tuesday.”
When the Kernels open their High-Class A Central League (it’s not the Midwest League anymore) season Tuesday night against the Peoria Chiefs, it’ll end a 603-day drought between professional baseball games at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a cancellation of the entire 2020 season, the locally owned ballclub’s front office was halved because of the lack of revenue, then the ballpark sustained multi-million-dollar damage in last August’s derecho.
The winter was just as eventful, as Major League Baseball took over complete operations of the minor leagues and shed 40-some franchises, including Clinton and Burlington here in Iowa. The Kernels survived, signing a 10-year agreement to remain partners with the Minnesota Twins.
In one more change, the team has moved up a level from low-Class A to high-A. Thus, 21 of the 28 active players on the opening-day roster already have played here.
“There is just a ton of excitement surrounding having a season,” Wilson said. “I think as a staff, we’re pretty proud that we’ve recovered from everything. That’s just due to the hearts and efforts of the city, the veterans for being able to get this construction stuff put together and all these contractors and sub-contractors.”
Stadium repairs have been made, and you’ll notice new LED lighting if you come out for any of the opening six-game homestand. It already is permanent around the outfield and portable right now behind home plate and in the infield.
When the Kernels go on the road next week, workers will be able to permanently install all of the LED lights.
There is an extensive list of protocols in place to protect fans, Kernels players and staff, most of them MLB mandated. The ballpark is being limited to 2,100 fans maximum per game, which includes the outfield and first-base party areas, suites and the seating bowl and grass areas.
That’s roughly 35 to 40 percent of pre-pandemic maximums. Wilson said an algorithm built into the team’s electronic ticketing system allows for precise socially distanced seating.
Kernels players and coaches are being kept away from everyone, sans Wilson and the team’s clubhouse manager, the only two people allowed entrance to the clubhouse. The team had to isolate in hotel rooms for two days upon arriving in Cedar Rapids from spring training Thursday night and pass COVID tests administered Saturday.
“There will be a 12-foot buffer zone (around) the field,” Wilson said. “Fans will notice there is a wooden fence in the grass area keeping you 8 feet away from that wall. Therefore, 12 feet away from the bullpens and keeping those pitchers safe.”
The Kernels removed the first row of bleachers next to the team’s home bullpen and have placed plexiglass on the sides of both dugouts.
MLB has imposed a mask mandate for all of its minor-league clubs. Fans must wear them as they enter the ballpark and everywhere, unless they are eating and/or drinking at their seats.
Enhanced sanitation has been implemented by the club.
“I think the important thing to know is we are a very small staff and can’t afford to get sick,” Wilson said. “So we are doing everything we can protocol wise to protect ourselves and to protect our fans. MLB is protecting the players, so that is built in.”
Wilson said MLB will evaluate its minor-league protocols as the 120-game season progresses. Certainly there will be tweaks.
The hope is things will continue to become more and more “normal” as the summer moves along.
“I’d say 90-some percent of the guys who got off the bus (Thursday night) have had their second shot,” Wilson said. “So in two weeks, this team will be fully vaccinated, for the most part. There might one or two who are not. That’s a great thing, and I think in the end, that is going to help loosen protocols.
“Hopefully sometime here in May we will get something from MLB that will loosen things up around here, kind of across the board, really.”
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