CEDAR RAPIDS — They all can exhale, give a huge sigh of relief. But they’ve got to do it quickly.
“Everybody knows they get just one,” Cedar Rapids Kernels General Manager Scott Wilson said. “Because our life on the merry-go-round starts going 120 miles per hour soon. One deep breath, and then we’ll move on.”
That Wilson and everyone with the Kernels get to move on is a big story. Major League Baseball announced Friday that all 120 minor league clubs offered invitations late this fall have signed their mandated Player Development Licenses.
That means the Kernels have officially survived a massive restructuring of the affiliated minor leagues that eliminated one complete level and cost 40-some cities, including Clinton and Burlington, their spots at the affiliation table. Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities are part of what is being called right now the High-A Central league.
The Kernels will remain partners with the Minnesota Twins and be their high-A affiliate for the next 10 years. Previously, Cedar Rapids was Minnesota’s low-A affiliate.
The other full-season minor league levels are Double-A and Triple-A. Rookie-level players will play at their respective major league team’s spring training complexes in Arizona or Florida.
“We feel we are one of the giant community assets here,” Wilson said. “We have such a captive audience at every game. Meanwhile, the charitable and awareness work that is done through Kernels events or Kernels partnerships, this means in the long run that is going to continue. We are going to be part of this community for a long time and get back to doing the things we always have and are known for in the community.”
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Wilson said a very good relationship with the Twins was crucial in being extended an invitation to remain. He said the club’s robust player host-family program is a separator that many other cities and minor league teams do not provide.
Major League Baseball has taken over complete operations of the minors and is making massive changes. Player pay will increase, in-season travel will decrease, and upgrades to minor league facilities will be mandatory.
The Kernels do not know all of the specifics, yet, about upgrades that will be needed at 19-year-old Veterans Memorial Stadium, though they know home and visitor clubhouses will need to be larger. Multiple indoor batting cages also are assumed.
“We’ve got some of the facility updates, obviously, some of those are in writing, some we are (already) working through,” Wilson said. “I think in the long run, every one of the locker rooms is going to look like a major league locker room in that they will have small commissaries, I don’t want to say full kitchens. There will be places in (the clubhouses) where guys are going to be able to hang out, say, at a kitchen table where they’re going to be playing cards or something.
“I think what they want to see is things going on in the major leagues right now trickle down as far as they can. Players are going to be treated kind of the same way top to bottom.”
Wilson said there is room for the stadium to physically expand, specifically in the lower parking lot area, to meet MLB’s new standards. He said the ballclub has had discussions with the city, which owns the ballpark and leases it to the Kernels, including recently about potentially upgrading to LED lighting for the 2021 season, something that is assumed will be a MLB requirement.
The Cedar Rapids Professional Baseball Club is a group of 15 local men and women who own and govern the Kernels via a board of directors. It is run as a nonprofit, with yearly dividends earned, if any, going right back into the ballclub’s operations.
The cost of those operations is going up, for sure, though the Kernels believe they can make a go of it financially. That’s why they signed the PDL.
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“There are some pluses and minuses,” Wilson said. “There are some things now that the major leagues are picking up that we used to split with the major leagues. There were national association dues that we had to pay to the minor leagues. So there are some savings on that side.
“We put the numbers together, and it’s not significant enough that we were worried about it. In our world, maybe there will be a little bit more cost involved. I think that some of the developments that will be coming in the future, like facility upgrades and things that we have been working on with the city, will be tremendous.”
Wilson said he anticipates a 2021 schedule to be released by MLB within the next week or so. The season is expected to be 120 games and run from May to mid-September.
Cedar Rapids is in the six-team Western Division of the High-A Central with Beloit, Peoria, Quad Cities, Wisconsin and South Bend.
The Eastern Division consists of Lake County, West Michigan, Great Lakes, Fort Wayne, Dayton and Lansing.
It is unknown if there will be cross-division play this season, though it is anticipated that homestands will be longer in order to reduce travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Getting together with friends and family, our ballpark is a gathering point,” Wilson said. “It’s a lighthouse in the city. I think that whether it’s (strictly) baseball or not, a third of the people when they leave the stadium probably don’t know who won, but they had a terrific time. We are going to get back to doing that, and we’re going to do it for a long time.”
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