CEDAR RAPIDS — Take me out to the ballgame. For at least one more season.
No one knows after that.
Cedar Rapids has had a professional baseball team since 1890, but 2020 could mark the end of a century long run. The Professional Baseball Agreement is the agreement that binds Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, and it expires at the conclusion of this coming season.
While extension talks have begun, no official proposals have been brought forth, and the sides seem miles apart. There is acrimony, big time, with the sides essentially calling each other out via public statements in the past month.
The largest sticking point is MLB seeking to contract 42 minor league teams in what it says is an attempt to streamline player development. MLB says there are too many levels in the minor leagues and that many of the 160 minor league teams play in facilities that are subpar.
An initial list of the potentially contracted was leaked, and it contained Iowa clubs Quad Cities, Burlington and Clinton of the Midwest League. But “The List,” as it is being called, is considered fluid.
MiLB, obviously, doesn’t want any of its franchises eliminated from affiliated professional baseball. It argues the minor leagues are the best grassroots movement for a sport that, quite frankly, is decreasing in popularity.
Politicians have become involved, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who all are opposed to contraction. This whole thing is a huge mess with no immediate and clear end in sight.
Let’s just say black clouds are hovering over every minor league franchise.
That includes the Kernels.
Hard to believe, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that a club that had mega-star Mike Trout play for it in 2010 could not be a club at all a decade later.
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“There are just no guarantees,” said Kernels President Greg Seyfer. “It is a very true statement to say there are no guarantees that the Cedar Rapids Kernels will continue to exist in the 2021 season.”
“Minor league baseball is more than just the balls and strikes,” said Kernels CEO Doug Nelson. “It’s what we do out in the community, it’s the memories we create at the ballpark. Whether it be a little boy or girl running the bases, getting a foul ball, it’s the experience. It’s the gathering places for co-workers in group areas. Losing that entertainment venue, and, more importantly, that gathering place, is going to be a real shock to the country as these teams just go out of business, basically.”
Seyfer and Nelson sat down for an interview with The Gazette recently to give their thoughts on this entire situation. Seyfer represented the board of directors of the Cedar Rapids Professional Baseball Club, the group of local men and women who own the Kernels.
Q: You have a season to prepare for, but you have no idea what is going to happen beyond that, or even if you will exist beyond that. Can you explain what this is like for you as a ballclub?
A (Seyfer): “This is a really important season coming ahead. We have to show wide community support, because they are really going to be looking at every minor league team. It’s Triple-A, it’s the whole thing. The teams that have been put on this (contraction) list, there is nothing definite there. That’s a moving target. We could end up on that list. So our emphasis going into this is we need to show Cedar Rapids belongs. That we can support, and we can exist.
“We know that whatever ultimately happens with this (new PBA), we are going to have additional expenses. I mean, there is just no way around it. The worst case, I don’t even want to think about it, but if we lose Clinton, Quad Cities and Burlington, we have lost our (commuter trips). It’s going to be a whole new ballgame then.”
(Nelson): “Travel for us would go through the roof.”
Seyfer pointed out the Cedar Rapids Professional Baseball Club technically is a for-profit entity, but the board of directors do not see any dividends. In 2019, the Kernels had the lowest attendance for a season since they moved into the newer Veterans Memorial Stadium in 2002, averaging 2,243 fans per game.
“We operate, you know, but I don’t know if everyone knows, not as a non-profit, but there has never been a distribution of any benefit to any shareholder, ever. Every penny goes back into the ballpark. We have some years better than other years, and last year was a tough year, as you know, weather-wise. That has become the new norm. You don’t know what you are going to get, the beginning of the season is going to be crazy, and you’ve got to make that up on the good days and hope it’s not 110 degrees.
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“So this season, we need butts in the seats. Not just that, but we need corporate, community support. It would be wonderful if every company had season tickets, and that they used them. My whole set of friends will show up maybe one time, two times a year and gleam about it. They love it. It’s just getting them in the habit and knowing that they are supporting the community. Not just baseball, Cedar Rapids, the Kernels, but minor league baseball. That’s what we’re going to need to emphasize.”
Q: OK, so if you had to tell someone, a casual fan, why they should come out to the stadium, why affiliated professional baseball should matter to Cedar Rapids, what would you say?
A (Seyfer): “You start with it being the national pastime. Baseball is America. It has been here, in Cedar Rapids, 130 years. It is just a part of our city.”
Q: Would you agree that having an affiliated minor league baseball team gives Cedar Rapids a name nationally, however large?
A (Seyfer): “Yes, an identity. You are one of 160 communities in the country that has this right to operate ... It’s special, and we don’t want to lose it for the community. I’m going to jump a little bit here, but we have a facility built for minor league baseball. We let other people use it, but we pay a lot of rent. Pretty much we pay for the stadium by paying the bonds and all. I don’t know where the city goes if we lose this.
“(MiLB’s recent response letter) really does do a good job of touching all of the issues. This threat that they’ll just wipe out minor league baseball shows the divide between the sides. It’s not going to happen, but there are going to be changes.”
Q: You really don’t think they would completely blow this whole thing up and start over from basically scratch?
A (Seyfer): “Maybe I’m just being hopeful, but, no, I don’t believe that will happen. I just think it’s the national pastime, and Minor League Baseball is baseball in its own (entity). I completely agree (it’s the greatest grassroots movement for the sport there is).
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“Who can find the time, the money to go to a Major League Baseball game? It’s crazy. But it is what it is right now. We’ve been told it’s going to take awhile before there is an agreement. They are saying optimistically maybe six months. There is a chance there may need to be an extension of the existing (agreement). But that takes both sides to agree to even do that.”
Q: Do I have it correct that the Minnesota Twins (Cedar Rapids' parent club) have requested to you that there be more clubhouse room and more indoor batting cages at Veterans Memorial Stadium? That these would be requirements of any major league team that might provide players here?
A (Seyfer): “When we met with the Twins, and this was more just getting feedback because we are starting to plan, they said they’d like to have a dedicated room to video. Right now, the video guy shares it with the rovers (roving instructors). They would like a room where three, four, five guys can all be in that room looking at video.
“They’d like to expand the coaches locker room, so we are probably going to combine the current family room with the coaches room. Staffs now are six, seven, eight guys. They’d like to have three batting cages, which would be more long term but probably would require building a separate building to create those batting cages. They’d like a kitchenette. As you know, nutrition is now a big, big critical item, so we are looking at where we can create a kitchenette for them and almost kind of a little bit of a lounge for the players to hang out. Meeting rooms for the players as well.”
(Nelson): “This stadium definitely has served its purpose for over 19 years. But things change.”
Q: Did either of you see any of this coming?
A (Nelson): “I didn’t see the contraction coming. We all want to improve and provide the best facilities possible for development, so I knew that was coming. I didn’t see everything else coming.”
(Seyfer): “We are relying on our negotiators, and we don’t know a lot about what’s going on. I’m sure there are things going on on both sides. We are fully supportive of Minor League Baseball, all of these teams, and rightfully so. Maybe we should be one, but some of these teams on ‘The List’ have come out guns ablazing. You can’t blame them. If we were on that list, we would probably be taking a different tact. But we are doing everything we are being asked to support the effort and the negotiations, and I honestly do believe they will come to an agreement. It’s going to have to be a longer-term agreement. More than five years, and there is talk of that.
“The big part of that is, let’s just look at our situation. If they come in and say they need this and that done, who is going to finance it? You’ve got to be able to plan more than five years down the road, with the things that are coming. Again, no guarantees about anything. But I would think at least a 10-year deal.”
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(Nelson): “I will put a plug in for our partners: the city and the Veterans Commission. Because that strong partnership and having a plan to maintain our stadium and keeping it in great condition is why we are not on the list. But we are going to need to have that partnership to continue and expand to hit the new facility requirements. Obviously, the frustrating part for me is how do you plan for something that you don’t know (specifics of).”
Q: In a worst-case scenario, you lose your team. Major League Baseball is proposing an independent Dream League for cities that have that happen. Would that even work here? Would you be able to make it work financially, considering all of the added expenses of independent baseball?
A (Seyfer): “It’s a good Q, but I would just say no. There would have to be a major shift in our relationship with the city. I just don’t see how that would work. The expense of doing that would be just astronomical. How long do those things ever last?”
(Nelson): “We operate a (collegiate) Northwoods League team in Waterloo, but it is a much different operation model. We don’t pay the players, and the season is half as long.”
Q: Say a major league team came to you and offered to buy the Kernels. If it ensured the long-term survival of affiliated professional baseball here, would you consider it?
A (Seyfer): “If the only way Cedar Rapids could retain a team, and it would have to be allowed to stay here long term ... we will do whatever it takes to keep this team in Cedar Rapids.”
Q: Is there anything else you guys want to touch upon?
A (Nelson): “Official negotiations on this have not even begun, yet. We have a long, long way to go. There have been meetings, but there has been nothing in writing. No formal proposals out there ... Our focus is on 2020. There’s no reason to think that we won’t be playing here for years to come. So on one hand, we are keeping our eyes on this, doing everything we can to support Minor League Baseball and get the job done. But our No. 1 priority is 2020 and having a very good 2020.”
(Seyfer): “I just don’t see how they can knock out any team without giving them an opportunity to meet whatever the new ballpark standards are going to be. It’s just not fair ... The biggest thing right now, where the sides are wide apart, is 160 teams and 140. And until they can get that part (of the negotiations) moved along, everything else is on the sideline ... I’m sure someone has already used this out there somewhere, but it’s Wall Street versus Main Street. It really is. Minor League Baseball is Main Street, and it needs to exist, and it needs to thrive.”
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