116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids Kernels are back.
After a full year away because of the COVID-19 pandemic, minor league baseball players and coaching staffs are getting ready to do their thing again. They’re in spring training in Florida and Arizona right now, an actual season on the near horizon.
They could not be happier.
“It’s good to see all the guys again,” said Kernels Manager Brian Dinkelman. “Missing a full season with no games, having nothing really, getting shut down in spring training last year. Just to be back on the field and be around all the guys and playing baseball again is just a good feeling. I know everybody is excited to start.”
Dinkelman is in Fort Myers, Fla., preparing the Kernels for the 2021 Midwest League season. Actually, it’s not the Midwest League anymore.
Major League Baseball has taken over complete operations of the minors, chopping 40-some franchises from affiliated ball (including Burlington and Clinton) and making other changes. The Kernels were among the lucky survivors, signing a 10-year agreement to remain partners with the Minnesota Twins.
Cedar Rapids is one of 12 teams, all formerly in the Midwest League, in what generically is being called the High-A Central League. The Kernels have jumped up a level, from low-Class A to high-Class A.
Dinkelman, who lives here in the offseason with his wife and daughter, has gotten a promotion after managing the Kernels to a successful 2019 season. He was hitting coach for them prior to getting a chance to manage.
He described this spring training as unique, as you could imagine. MLB conducted major league spring training as usual in February and March, with minor leaguers not reporting for their camp until the big leaguers had cleared out to begin the regular season.
“Things are definitely different,” Dinkelman said. “We’re getting tested twice a week for COVID. Everybody is just spaced out farther … With the major league team already gone, half the guys are over at their stadium, using that side, and half the guys are at the minor-league complex on the other side.
“We’re using different fields, and we’re kind of splitting it two times a day. Two teams come in in the morning and two in the afternoon to get their work in. So things are just different, not usual from what we’re used to, as far as scheduling and workout stuff. But we’re still able to get our work in, just a little longer days. Everybody is still able to get in the stuff they need.”
The clubhouses at Hammond Stadium, the ballpark used for major league spring training and the home of the now low-A Fort Myers Miracle, are being accessed by players and coaches in an attempt to keep people separated as much as possible. Masks are required everywhere.
COVID vaccines were given out last week to any minor league player or staff member who wanted one. Second shots of the vaccine will be distributed once everyone gets to their assigned city.
Dinkelman said he thought COVID cases in Twins camp have been very minimal and pretty much exclusive to the intake process, when players and coaches first arrived in Fort Myers.
“Just doing the best we can to try and stay away from people … so hopefully no one catches it, gets sick,” Dinkelman said. “So far, things have gone well.”
The 120-game regular season is scheduled to begin May 4. The Kernels will open with six games against the Peoria Chiefs.
That’s a 2021 schedule staple: pretty much a week at home against one team, then a week on the road at one city. Cedar Rapids has a two-week, 12-game homestand (six games each against Beloit and Wisconsin) in late May, then hits the road for 12 games (six each against Fort Wayne and Beloit).
Mondays are off days for everyone.
“It’s going to take a little adjusting to, getting used to, especially for guys who have been doing it for a few years and are used to the three- and four-game series, traveling a lot,” Dinkelman said.
There are no more commuter road trips for the Kernels, with hotel stays everywhere, including Quad Cities. They will use multiple buses to ferry everyone about, something that will remain even when the pandemic ends or eases.
There will be no batboys used for games this season, and players will not sign autographs for fans before or after games. There will be new clubhouse protocols in effect, with no access to anyone other than players, coaches and front-office staff.
Dinkelman said in the grand scheme of things, it’s very important not to have a lot of Kernels gathered at one time for long periods.
“Pitchers not pitching that day, maybe they get their work in and have to go home for the game,” he said. “Just so we don’t have 30, 35 guys around each other for hours on end. There will be some minor adjustments we’re not used to. If sometime during the summer they make protocol changes, Major League Baseball does, we’ll adjust to that and all the guys can stick around, be there and watch games like usual.”
Dinkelman said there are 27 or 28 players working out with the Kernels spring training group right now. Many are trying to knock off the rust of a year’s inactivity.
There will be a lot of familiar faces on this team this season, guys who played in Cedar Rapids when it was a low-A club.
It’s going to be a different deal overall for everyone, fans included. There’s no doubt about that.
But baseball is back here, and that’s a very good thing.
“We’ll get back out there and play baseball like we always have,” Dinkelman said. “Follow the guidelines, hopefully we don’t have any issues, and we can make it through the summer.”
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