116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS – Minor-league baseball players did everything they could to stay sharp and in shape last year when their season was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many found gyms to work out in or facilities in which they could throw or maybe get in some hitting. Some practiced with high school or college teams in or around their hometowns.
Others found more unique ways to try and keep their skills intact: like Jair Camargo.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels catcher is from Barranquilla, a city of a million people in Colombia. He played in a winter league in his home country, which helped prepare him for April’s spring training in Florida.
Prior to that, he did whatever he could at home.
“It was really hard in the beginning. They shut down all the stuff,” Camargo said. “For me, it was literally hitting balls or corn with my dad. Just try to figure out, try to find a way to keep swinging the bat.”
Did he say hitting corn? Yes, he did.
“Just in my backyard, swinging, sometimes with a stick and little corn,” Camargo reiterated. “Anything to keep that hand-eye coordination, keep those arms moving.”
A man who plays for the Kernels trying to hit them with a stick is quite ironic. Try doing that sometime.
If you can do it successfully, you ought to be able to square up a 95-mile-per-hour fastball.
“Sometimes I’d just have a day or two to work out, so you put hard work into those days,” Camargo said. ”The other days, you do your work at home. Play catch in the streets or stuff like that.”
Camargo, 21, was acquired by the Minnesota Twins in the winter of 2019-20 in a high-profile trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers that sent major league starting pitcher Kenta Maeda to Minnesota and highly-touted, flame-throwing pitcher Brusdar Graterol to Los Angeles.
Graterol was a key cog out of the Dodgers bullpen in their run to the World Series championship last fall. Maeda was terrific for the Twins last season, though not nearly as much this season.
Perhaps Camargo will be the one that tips the scales on the trade toward the Twins. He’s young, has shown good game-calling and defensive skills and a propensity to hit the ball hard when he makes contact.
There is stuff to like with the kid.
“With Camargo, the talent is there,” said Kernels Manager Brian Dinkelman. “He has power, he’s good behind the plate. He’s working on trying to control the strike zone when he’s swinging. Not chasing pitches. When he does that, and the ball is in the zone, he can do damage with some pitches. Kind of the ups and downs of the season with trying to be consistent every day and swinging at strikes. So hopefully as we go forward, he can do that.”
Camargo originally was signed at the age of 16 as an international free agent by the Dodgers in 2017. He went into the weekend hitting .231 with three home runs for the Kernels in 14 games, just one behind his full-season career high.
As Dinkelman alluded, his approach is a work in progress, with evidence being two walks and 25 strikeouts in 52 at-bats.
“So far, I’ve been overthinking at the plate,” Camargo said. “That makes me chase a little bit out of the zone or maybe away. So I think that’s something that I’ve got to start doing. I’ve been working with Bryce Berg, our hitting coach. I think right now it’s more just about trusting myself and just my eyes. Let the eyes dictate. See the ball and swing. I think sometimes I’m overthinking, looking for pitches, and I start chasing.”
Hitting corn kernels with a stick when there was nothing else he could do shows you about Camargo’s work ethic. His passion for the game is obvious just by watching him play.
Another plus is that he speaks fluent English, which allows him to communicate fully with Kernels pitchers.
“Thanks to my family. We’ve been blessed,” Camargo said. “My dad has done really hard work to put me in English schools. My mom never thought of me as being a ballplayer. She thought of me as being something else, not a ballplayer. Just (play) it for fun. Now I have (speaking English) in my pocket. Thank God I have it, that I started English school, my brothers, too.
“It’s really fun. It’s way better for me to have a relationship with my pitchers and my team.”
Camargo said he was caught off guard when informed he had been traded. But he loves his new organization and vows to play well enough to justify it trading for him.
“The way that they treat the people here is amazing. Really professional guys,” he said. “They treat you like family, super confidence … You work with what God gave you, you work with a passion and hustle. The way that they teach us is amazing. You feel free.”
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