116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It’s here. After an August of devastation and a year of pandemic shutdown, we were antsy for it. But Spring is here.
Birds are singing, trees are budding out in defiance of a derecho, six-packs of blooming annuals are in the garden centers, night crawlers are drying out on the sidewalks after a rain … The signs of Spring are all here. All except one —
Kernels baseball. That starts a month late.
Don’t worry, this isn’t about baseball. I’m not a baseball fan. But I am a Kernels fan.
Here’s what we missed last year when sports shut down because of COVID-19:
The ballpark. In 2002, the new ballpark replaced a 52-year-old structure. This is a place that’s wide-open in the fresh air, family-friendly, and usually with enough bathrooms. There’s free parking and beer that doesn’t cost $9.50 like at a Cubs game. Adults can spend time with friends, and kids can chase a foul ball or just run around without parents having to worry about whether they’ll be safe (baseball allusion). There’s music to fill the quiet and silly on-field events between innings. Then there’s the main attraction.
The players. These young men love a sport that most of them know they will never play at the major league level. Aside from a few prospects with big signing bonuses, the players are paid next to nothing. But they all are pursuing a dream. Most of us have regrets because we didn’t at least try to make it at something we loved. These guys are taking their shot.
They’re working hard to move up in the system. You can see they are serious when they run, not walk, out to their positions; when they leg out every grounder or long fly ball; when they slam the bat on the dirt after a strikeout. The baseball is a plus, but the big reason for being a fan is the struggle.
There is something else that’s all too rare. The players are still having fun. They are on the dugout rails watching the game like fans. When there is a home run, they mob the hero. When a pitcher gets tagged with six runs in the bottom of the 5th, they support him with a “good job” and a smack on the butt. This camaraderie says a lot about character.
The local icons. If you’ve been to Kernels games over the years, you know them. Ron “Roady” Plein was the clubhouse manager for 25 years and spent most of those years racing down the foul lines chasing foul balls. When he took off, the roadrunner’s “Beep, Beep” rang over the P.A. He retired at 73 in 2017.
“Jon-Jon” has been a batboy since 2001 when he was 13 (disclaimer — he’s my son), and he had his own bobblehead in 2015. He is known for barehand-catching foul balls that go back over the home plate net, bounce off the broadcast booth, and make it back onto the field. Catchers better stay out of his way.
Can’t forget Mr. Shucks. A mascot with oversized feet, a huge baseball for a head, and big smile with a red stuck-out tongue. You’ll see him in the stands interacting with fans and on the field between innings. Kids either want a picture with him or run away terrified. Some adults, too. That suit has to be a killer when it’s 100 degrees on the field in July.
The promotions. It takes more than baseball to get people through the gates in the minor leagues. Thursday nights, you could win a TV. There are fireworks on Saturdays. Sundays have free food for kids; and there are caps, T-shirts, and other giveaways during the season. Everybody likes free stuff.
The fans. This is the unknown. Sometimes there are 150 people in the stands, and you can hear a worm-burner as it goes through the infield grass. Other times there are 4,000-plus, and you stand in line for ice cream. Whatever the size of the crowd, people are having fun.
This may sound like a promo piece for the Kernels, and it should be. There is a lot to like whether you like baseball or not.
It was the top of the ninth on a warm August evening. The sky was clear, and a light breeze wafted toward left field. Kernels up one run, two outs. The visiting team batter crushed a fastball deep to left-center. You could see the ball rise and rise and rise in the twilight, hanging like it would never come down. The batter was trotting around the bases sure he had a game-tying homer. And then, to my right, I heard Jon softly say “Not … tonight.” Catch; out number three.
Memories like that are worth way more than the price of a ticket. Take the kids.
Bob Teig was a career federal prosecutor in Cedar Rapids for 32 years before he retired in 2011.