Minor League Sports

Minnesota Twins first-base coach Tommy Watkins rides out coronavirus pandemic in Cedar Rapids

Kernels manager Tommy Watkins is introduced at a Kernels pre-season meet and greet at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar
Kernels manager Tommy Watkins is introduced at a Kernels pre-season meet and greet at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. Kernels players mingled with fans, signed autographs and showed off their skills on the field during an open practice. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — These should be the best days of Tommy Watkins’ professional baseball career. No one toiled harder to get to those days.

Instead he finds himself back in Cedar Rapids right now.

The first-base coach of the Minnesota Twins does like it here. He has spent recent offseasons in the City of Five Seasons because his girlfriend lives and works in town.

But he spent 20 years almost exclusively in the minor leagues as a player, coach and manager before getting his big big-league break last year. The COVID-19 pandemic is preventing him and everyone else from being part of a game they have put their heart and soul into.

“Whether you are in the major leagues or the minor leagues, it kind of sucks for everybody, you know?” Watkins said Monday, after finishing a round of golf at a local course. He played by himself.

“The most important thing is people’s safety and health,” he said. “I don’t know, man. It’s just tough times right now.”

Watkins, 39, has been dubbed “The Mayor” because of his gregarious nature. He signed with Minnesota as a 38th-round draft pick out of high school in Fort Myers, Fla., in 1998, making friends everywhere he went in the Twins organization as a player from 1998 to 2009.

That included a nine-game call-up to the majors in 2007.

He accepted an opportunity to become a minor league coach for the Twins in 2009 and spent time here as hitting coach for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, finally getting his managerial break in 2017 when he was picked to lead the Kernels. After a year managing Double-A Chattanooga, first-year Twins manager Rocco Baldelli named him to his staff last season.

Minnesota won the American League Central, losing to the New York Yankees in the playoffs.

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“It was fun, I learned a lot,” Watkins said. “We had a good group of guys. A lot of learning, I’m still trying to learn as much as possible. A good ride.

“I don’t know that there was anything that surprised me. It’s still baseball. In the beginning, it went fast just trying to get used to everything. Especially in my position. I was used to putting a sign on, thinking ahead … Towards the end of the season, I felt like everything slowed down for me.”

Major League Baseball called off spring training in the middle of March as the severity of the coronavirus outbreak became evident. No one knows if there will be a season, though there is wide-ranging speculation there will be one, albeit abbreviated, obviously, with perhaps multiple teams playing in places like Arizona or Florida.

Basically, teams would not travel, having a home hub in which they would play other teams in that same hub. Playoffs could be of the expanded variety, in a tournament setting, of sorts.

“I’m not sure,” Watkins said, when asked if he thought there would be a season. “We haven’t heard anything, I don’t know much. I think there’s a chance, yeah, for sure. But, honestly, I don’t know anything, and I’d hate to speculate on it.”

So, for now, he’s here instead of the Twin Cities, checking in daily on his parents down in Fort Myers. He takes part in organizational online meetings once a week, is in constant contact with Baldelli and the rest of the Twins coaching staff.

He golfs when it’s nice out, plays a lot of video games as well to pass this strange, strange time.

“Yeah, I think it’s weird,” he said. “We’re used to the offseason providing us with a lot of down time. When you’re having down time right now … that throws you off a little bit.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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