Never Forget

It’s incredible to think that there is now almost a complete generation of Americans who have little or no direct recollection of the day the United States was attacked and thousands of people lost their lives when the two tallest buildings collapsed to the ground in New York City.

never-forgetI suppose my parents’ generation felt much the same way about Pearl Harbor and all of the horrors that came about out of World War II.

Of course, I remember 9/11 and as long as I have my full mental capacities, I always will. I’ll remember one of our administrative assistants sticking her head into my office and telling me a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I’ll remember doing almost no work that day as I was hitting “refresh” on CNN.com every minute or two. And I’ll remember trying to reach friends who lived and/or worked in Manhattan to make sure they were safe.

As much as that day, though, I’ll remember what came after.

I’ll remember the stories of the bravery and ultimate sacrifices made by first responders that day.

I’ll also remember the way sports helped return a sense of normalcy to our lives, while at the same time giving us an avenue for expressing our strong resolution that, while we Americans disagree on many things, we are one people and when you come after us the way Al Qaeda did that day, we will stand together.

There’s a lot of talk today about how various NFL stadiums, athletes and others will be choosing to memorialize this 15th anniversary of that day. I’m sure some will be better than others, but I’m confident there will be some very touching scenes.

That’s all well and good.

But what I would much prefer to see is a return to that sense of unity that we all felt in the aftermath of that attack. In the past 15 years, it feels like we have turned from a diverse people held together by a common pride in what our country can stand for into a population irreparably fragmented along lines defined by political ideology, race, gender and other factors.

That saddens me and, in some ways, it makes me feel like we might be dishonoring somewhat those who have given their lives so that we are free to express our differences.

Later today, I’ll spend my day watching the Vikings on television and going to Clinton to watch the Kernels in the Midwest League Playoffs, Most of you will be doing similar “normal” Sunday things, as well.

But for just a few moments, let’s reflect on 9/11 – and the way we’ve evolved as a population over the subsequent 15 years – and consider what each of us can do to make our country something worthy of honoring those who lost their lives that day

-Steve

P.S. This weekend, I read an incredible recounting of 9/11 from the perspective of the people who were traveling with President Bush on 9/11. It’s at Politico.com and you can find it by clicking here. It’s not a quick read, but it’s well worth your time. One thing that really stood out to me was just how “backward” technology was just 15 years ago, even aboard the most technologically well-equipped aircraft in the world, at the time.

Kernels on the Links

Every year, a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels players and coaches spend one of their off-days sweating on a golf course with a bunch of people willing to shell out a couple dollars (actually a bit more) for the pleasure of sharing their company as they knock a little white ball about 6,000 yards around a local golf course to benefit the organization’s childrens’ reading program.

Max Cordy is slightly taller than Sean Miller
Max Cordy is slightly taller than Sean Miller

Today was such a day.

I was fortunate enough to get to be part of a fivesome that included Kernels relief pitcher Max Cordy.

It's in the hole! OK - maybe not.
It’s in the hole! OK – maybe not.

Cordy is a 23-year-old righthander drafted by the Twins out of UC-Davis a year ago, made just three appearances at E’Town this year before being promoted to Cedar Rapids. He has a 2.00 in eight appearances for Cedar Rapids and is striking out about one batter per inning since arriving in Cedar Rapids.

Our group didn’t come close to winning anything in the 5-man best-shot competition, but that didn’t stop us from having a good time, despite enduring some heat (and even more humidity) as we made our way around Hunter’s Ridge Golf Course.

Kernels infielder Sean Miller was playing with the group ahead of us on the course and, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t even hit a decent shot into Miller’s group to make them nervous.

The golf outing is just one of several ways Twins minor leaguers participate in community relations activities in the Cedar Rapids area during the season.

That drive was right down the middle!
That drive was right down the middle!

I’d like to tell you everything Max and I talked about during our 4+ hours together, but what’s said on the golf course stays on the golf course. Plus, I might have had a beer or two during the round, so I probably wouldn’t relate anything we talked about accurately anyway.

Kernels & Jake Mauer Focus on “Task at Hand”

With less than 40 games left in their 2017 campaign, the Cedar Rapids Kernels need a strong finish to clinch a Midwest League playoff spot, something they’ve accomplished every season since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins in 2013.

Kernels manager Jake Mauer and Manuel Guzman (SD Buhr)
Kernels manager Jake Mauer and infielder Manuel Guzman (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Peoria Chiefs and Clinton Lumberkings finished one and two in the Division’s first half standings, automatically qualifying them for the postseason. Their Division rivals with the two best records in the second half will join the Chiefs and Lumberkings in the playoffs.

If the season ended today (Monday), Clinton would have the best second half record in the West, while Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities (currently second and third in the Division) would fill out the Western half of the postseason bracket. However, Burlington and Wisconsin sit one game or less behind Quad Cities, so the race is likely to be tight over the final weeks of the season.

Jake Mauer has been at the helm of the Kernels from the beginning of the club’s affiliation with the Twins. His 292-226 record with the Kernels makes him Cedar Rapids’ winningest manager in the modern era (1949-present) and places him third all-time. He’ll catch up to Ollie Marquardt in the second spot with his next win, but Mauer’s going to have to stick around a very, very long time to top Belden Hill’s 831 wins.

While winning takes a back seat to player development in modern minor league baseball, the local fans definitely like to follow a winner and Mauer has given the locals plenty of success, beginning with a squad that was loaded with top prospects in the inaugural season of the Twins/Kernels relationship. That team made winning look easy – at least a lot easier than it has looked in the two-and-a-half seasons since.

2016 has, perhaps, been the most challenging of Mauer’s four years of wearing number 12 for the Kernels. This year’s group is short on players you would find among “top prospect” lists published by the likes of Baseball America, MLB.com or any other group in the business of tracking minor leaguers’ paths to the big leagues.

Nonetheless, in an interview late last week, Mauer was unwilling to say that the lack of blue chippers on his team makes this season his most challenging.

“Each year is different,” Mauer said. “If you have a lot of high-end (prospects), you’re expected to win and if you don’t have a lot of high-end guys, you’ve got to find ways to win. It’s all part of development, it’s all part of the process.

“The second year (2014), I thought we had a lot of challenges, they were comparing the ’13 team to the ’14 team and that wasn’t fair to that ’14 team.”

Winning is obviously a lot easier when you’ve got a lot of those high draft choices and big money international free agents. Several of them, including first round draft choice Byron Buxton and six-figure bonus international signee Max Kepler (both now playing the outfield for the Twins) spent much of their 2013 seasons in Cedar Rapids uniforms.

“You get blessed with years like ’13 where you have seven of them, eight of them. They’re all panning out at different speeds,” reflected Mauer. “You know, some of the clubs I had at Fort Myers I don’t think we had one. So it just depends on what you have.”

When you’ve got a team of projected stars, a manager in Mauer’s position will generally stick with a pretty consistent lineup. “Obviously, guys that are higher end guys as a player,” he said, “you’ve got to find out what they can and can’t do, that’s the nature of the beast.”

Not so this season.

“I wonder how many different lineups we’ve used,” Mauer pondered. “It’s probably been fifty or sixty of them, would be my guess.

“Clubs like this, some of these guys that aren’t necessarily Baseball America guys get an opportunity to kind of put themselves on the map. As you can see, there’s no way to get buried on our bench here. Everybody plays.

“Pitching’s a little bit different,” he conceded. “They earn (consistent playing time) a little bit more. They’re all going to get an opportunity, it’s just a matter of what they’re going to do with it.

“It’s all getting these guys to understand themselves, first, in order for us to do anything – in order for them to have any impact down the road. This is the league where we start to shake out the guys that aren’t as mentally tough as others. Find out who can play every day, find out who can do what it takes. So, they’re going to get tested, they’re going to get innings, they’re going to get at-bats, get all that stuff. Then we’ll kind of look back in September at how everything unfolded.”

(L-R) Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez, manager Jake Mauer and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman (behind screen) )Photo: SD Buhr)
(L-R) Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez, manager Jake Mauer and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman (behind screen) (Photo: SD Buhr)

Throughout most of the first half of the season, it looked like the Kernels would easily clinch an early playoff spot by finishing in one of the top two spots in the Western Division’s first-half race, but they faltered badly during the final couple of weeks before the midpoint and ended up in third place.

“You hate to say it,” Mauer commented on his squad’s late first half implosion, “but we scored the same amount of runs, but we lost two guys in the back end of the bullpen and lost probably the best starter in the league.

“We weren’t necessarily blowing the doors off of anybody in the first half. It takes you a while to figure out who can step up and take those roles.”

Mauer is starting to see some guys stepping up.

Last week, the Kernels went on one a six-game road trip over into the MWL Eastern Division territory and came away with a perfect 6-0 record against Lake County and Fort Wayne.

“We swung the bats really well,” he said of their Eastern sweep. “We rode (Luis) Arraez, (Zander) Wiel and (Jaylin) Davis, really. Other guys chipped in here and there, but those guys had a monster week. You’re scoring 6, 7, 8 runs a night, it gives you a pretty good chance to win.

“(Wiel) can carry a team, which he did the last week. Jaylin Davis is probably in the same boat, he can carry a team. Arraez has been pretty consistent, but we kind of go where those three guys go. When the three of them are having a pretty good week, we’ve got a pretty good chance. If they’re not, it will be more difficult for us.”

Finding pitchers to fill the holes left following promotions has been more challenging for Mauer and pitching coach J.P. Martinez. “Pitching is still kind of up in the air who we’ve got,” the manager said.

“It’s so different,” Mauer said, of the Kernels’ bullpen situation. “We’re not as pitching-deep as we were last year. If we had a lead going into the fifth inning, we pretty much knew we were going to win last year. That’s not the case this year. You’ve got some guys that need to step up and take control. I’d say (Anthony) McIver has, to a point. We’ve got to find out about (Tom) Hackimer. But we still have several guys you don’t quite know what you’re going to get in given situations. We’ve got to find out.”

Mauer’s clearly also looking for some improvement among his starting rotation.

“(Cody) Stashak’s probably our number one (starting pitcher). (Lachlan) Wells has been good. Those two guys have been pretty good. If we can just get some of these (other) guys to take that next step, it would make the process better.”

Kernels pitcher Lachlan Wells strikes out Reds first round draft choice (2nd overall) Nick Senzel. (Photo SD Buhr)
Kernels pitcher Lachlan Wells strikes out Reds first round draft choice (2nd overall) Nick Senzel July 25. Catching is Rainis Silva. (Photo SD Buhr)

The season’s second half is shaping up to be at least a four-team dogfight with the Kernels, Burlington Bees, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Quad Cities River Bandits playing leapfrog with one another in the standings on virtually a daily basis as they jockey for one of the coveted second-half playoff spots.

“That’s our division,” said Mauer. “There really isn’t a team that’s head and shoulders above anybody. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night and I think you’re going to see that kind of as we go through. Things change, obviously, as these draftee guys (from the 2016 draft) starting to come and some of these first full season guys that tend to hit a wall a little bit.”

Mauer’s working with a pair of coaches, in his fourth season with the Kernels, that he hasn’t been teamed with before. Martinez and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman are in their first seasons by Mauer’s side after coaching with the Twins’ Gulf Coast League team, where games are played on back fields at the organization’s spring training complex in front of few, if any, fans.

But the manager says things are going, “good,” on that count.

“(Martinez and Dinkelman) have been real good. Their first ‘real baseball’ compared to that ‘complex ball’ that’s a lot different. They’ve done a good job. For them, their first year, this is unusual to have so many different guys coming through.”

Forty-nine players have already worn a Kernels jersey in 2016. It’s not unusual for fewer players than that to suit up for Cedar Rapids in an entire season.

“What’s nice is that these guys know most of the kids that have come up,” Mauer added. “They’ve had them, they know what makes them tick, the things to do with them, what they need to work on.”

High roster turnover, few top prospects, new assistant coaches. Those things, on their own, might make a manager’s job challenging, but last week the Twins added a little something extra to the load that Mauer and his staff have to carry. Long-time General Manager Terry Ryan was fired by the Twins ownership.

“It’s unfortunate,” Mauer said of Ryan’s dismissal. “Obviously, he’s a great baseball man. He’s all I’ve ever known as a GM, other than Bill Smith, but Terry wasn’t far away (during Smith’s tenure as GM). I think it came as a shock, the timing of it, to everybody. He’s done so much for us and for our organization and whoever comes in after him is going to have big shoes to fill.”

As a result, Mauer and his coaches now are essentially lame ducks, uncertain whether the new GM will choose to retain them going forward. How’s that for adding a little anxiety to the manager’s life?

But, as Mauer observed, the anxiety goes well beyond just he and his coaches.

“It could be for scouts, all the way down to the athletic training guys and strength guys. You don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know who is the next guy, if they have somebody in mind, if they don’t. So, we’ll see. I’m sure they’ve got a game plan up there for what they’re going to do.

“But, if you’re confident in what you’re doing and you do a good job, you can’t control that,” Mauer concluded. “This is just like we tell the players, if they look at what’s going on ahead of them or who’s doing what behind them, they can’t control that. Same with us, (we can’t) worry about who’s coming in and fret about it, and not do the task at hand. We’ve got to do the task at hand first of all and see what shakes out.”

The “task at hand” for the manager and his charges is to finish the final six weeks of the season strong. How does Mauer see the remainder of the season shaping up?

“We’ll see. I wish I could answer that, honestly. I have no idea. We look like a million bucks for three or four days, then we have a tough time for three or four days. It’s just kind of how it is. We talk extensively about, we need leaders to step up and to lead and to be our guys so you kind of know what you’re going to get day in and day out.

“They’ll keep playing hard and they’ll keep competing and we’ll just see how it ends up.”

Twins Moving in the Right – and Wrong – Direction?

The Minnesota Twins’ top brass set off shockwaves across Twinsville on Monday, announcing that General Manager Terry Ryan had been relieved of his duties.

There’s not much point to discussing why Ryan lost his job. This quote says it all. “The reason for this change, I think it’s safe to say, the last couple years we have not won enough games. That’s what it comes down to. It’s nothing more, nothing less than that.”

If you don’t recall reading that quote yesterday, it’s because you have to go back much further than that – 22 months further. It’s what Ryan told the media when he announced Ron Gardenhire was being let go as the club’s manager.

What’s good for the goose, etc.

Terry Ryan is a class individual who knows a lot about baseball. I can say that from first-hand experience, having spoken with him several times, both in formal interviews and informally. I enjoyed every minute I had with him.

But the Twins rosters he has assembled have not been winning for far too long and, as Gardenhire conceded at the time of his firing, “I’m gone, I’m outta here because we didn’t win. That’s what it gets down to in baseball. That’s what it should get down to.”

And he was right. In major professional sports, it’s about winning and the Twins haven’t done enough of that for some time.

So there’s not much point in debating whether Ryan deserved to be let go. Instead, let’s focus on what comes next.

If you were one of the significant (and growing) number of Twins fans who wanted to see someone else be given the keys to Ryan’s office, you got to spend an hour or so smiling on Monday. But if you heard or read the quotes coming out of the mouths of the people who will be making the decision concerning who will be getting that office next, your smile didn’t last long.

I’m sure there could be worse ways for an ownership group and team president to handle the dismissal of their GM than what the Pohlads and Dave St. Peter did on Monday, but it’s kind of hard to imagine how it could have been worse.

To begin with, the bungling of this situation didn’t start on Monday; it started last month when, according to Jim Pohlad, he notified Ryan that he would not be retained after the end of the current season.

Reports indicate that Ryan and Pohlad had differences over how to improve the team. Ryan had made several public comments indicating he planned to be very active on the trade market. If Pohlad did not support that approach, it would be one indication he deserves his reputation for not possessing a terribly astute baseball mind.

But to essentially give his top baseball executive four months’ notice of his intent to fire him also would indicate Pohlad doesn’t have the greatest business mind, either. How, exactly, was that supposed to work?

At best, Ryan would have limited motivation to take actions necessary to improve the club and probably would have limited authority to make deals without ownership approval. At worst, word would leak out around MLB that he was a lame duck GM, totally undermining his negotiating position with his peers.

So, bungle number 1 was telling Ryan he was going to be fired four months in advance.

Bungle number 2 came right on the heels of number 1, though, when Pohlad left it to Ryan to determine how to handle the timing and announcement.

Really? In what kind of business does that make sense?

It’s one thing to cut back some middle management staff, ask them to stick around through a transition, and leave it to them whether to tell people it was “early retirement.” It’s quite another thing to do that for the guy who is essentially running every aspect of your baseball organization short of hiring the beer vendors.

The result is that Ryan waited until just two weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline before telling Pohlad it was time to make the announcement, leaving his assistant (and interim GM) Rob Antony in a very difficult position.

Bungle number 3 is actually more like number 3a through 3(something way down the alphabet from b). Almost every word spoken by Pohlad and St. Peter on Monday reflected an organization totally unprepared for what comes next.

It was made clear that Paul Molitor will be manage the Twins in 2017 and any GM candidate who didn’t like that need not apply. How many potential candidates will that rule out, unnecessarily?

But, hey, Pohlad has been preparing for this search by familiarizing himself with how other MLB clubs are structured – by looking through their Media Guides.

Not to worry, though, because the Twins “may” utilize a professional search firm to recruit qualified candidates. They may. Of course that also means that they “may not.”

How can these people not at least have some clue as to how their peers around the league are organizing their front offices? No matter. Now would be a really good time to look into that. Maybe one of those search firms could help.

Pohlad also indicated that St. Peter will play a major role in the GM-hiring process and that the new GM will report to the Twins president.

Sigh.

To my mind, the man at the top of the organizational ladder needs to be a Chief Executive Officer (or whatever alternative, more baseball-like, title you want to give to the CEO-type) who understand both the baseball AND business sides of running a big league organization. That is not Dave St. Peter, so St. Peter should be reporting to the new hire, not the other way around.

The CEO level might not be necessary if anyone in the ownership group had some level of baseball savvy, but that is not the case with the Twins. It’s time for the Pohlads to not only admit that (which they’ve essentially done already), but to also structure their business accordingly.

Once the CEO is hired, that CEO should get to hire a GM. And, oh, by the way, that GM should get to hire the manager of her/his choice, too.

I like Molitor and I don’t disagree that, had Ryan been retained, he should have been given another year to manage the team. But if you handcuff your new GM before you even get any applicants for the opening, you aren’t likely to even get the best candidates to come in for an interview.

These issues don’t have to be resolved immediately. A thorough (and professionally organized) recruitment of qualified candidates should take place. Ideally, this would all take place toward the end of the season, but bungles 1, 2 and 3 have already set the wheels in motion.

Mistakes have already been made, but there’s still time to do the rest of this thing right and get a competent, forward-thinking executive to run the baseball operations.

Unfortunately, early indications don’t give me much hope that will happen.

-JC