Minor Leagues: Seeing Stars Before They’re Stars

Regular readers of our site are probably aware that I’m a Twins fan exiled in Iowa. While I spent 10 years of my youth growing up in Minnesota, I’ve lived almost all of my life since then in Iowa and I currently call Cedar Rapids “home.” In fact, I’ve lived here in Cedar Rapids for pretty much the past 35 years.

When it comes to my baseball fandom, I’m also more than just a Twins fan (and no, I’m not referring to the soft spot I retain for the Baltimore Orioles). I’m also a fan of our local Cedar Rapids minor league ballclub, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series focused on the Kernels. In this post, I’ll review the organization’s history. In Part 2, I’ll share an interview of Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson, who gives us a glimpse behind the scenes in to the inner workings of a minor league ballclub.

Photo: Kernels.com

The Cedar Rapids Baseball Club has a long, rich history dating back as far as 1890. They’ve been the Bunnies, the Rabbits, the Raiders (and Red Raiders) and the Rockets. They’ve also taken the name of their MLB affiliates, including the Indians, Braves, Cardinals, Astros, Giants and Reds. Currently, the Kernels are affiliated with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

John McGraw played professionally here in 1891. Lou Boudreau did likewise in 1938. In fact, if you visit Perfect Game Field at Veterans Stadium in Cedar Rapids, you’ll see “stars” in the concrete of the concourse and “section” signs, both honoring a long list of Big Leaguers that spent time on the ballfield playing for Cedar Rapids. In addition to Boudreau and McGraw, you’ll find Allie Reynolds, Rocky Colavito, John Rosboro, Pedro Borbon, Jerry Reuss, Ted Simmons and Bob Forsch, among many others. You can visit the club’s Hall of Fame, within the souvenir shop at the stadium. There’s also a terrific display of historical old uniforms, press clippings and equipment on the suite level.

The “old” Veterans Memorial Stadium, replaced in 2002 (Photo: ballparkreviews.com)

I’m old, but I haven’t been around long enough to have seen any of those players during their days here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen my share of Major Leaguers on the green grass of Cedar Rapids.

I’ve been attending minor league games here for over 30 years. The first summer I lived in Cedar Rapids, I watched an 18 year old Chili Davis play for the Cedar Rapids Giants. By 1980, they were the Cedar Rapids Reds and a 20 year old Les Straker was on the mound. (Seven years later, Straker would be in the rotation of the 1987 World Champion Minnesota Twins). The Reds organization was actually pretty good to Cedar Rapids. They considered Cedar Rapids their “Advanced Class A” affiliate, so the team was competitive more often than not.

The 1982 Reds were led by Jeff Jones, who hit 42 home runs and batted over .300. Jones jumped all the way to Cincinnati by Opening Day 1983. You may not remember Jones, but you probably are familiar with a couple of his team mates on that ’82 Cedar Rapids team, Eric Davis and Paul O’Neill. Reggie Jefferson spent the following year in Cedar Rapids. Rob Dibble entertained the locals in 1985 and Trevor Hoffman honed his talents while racking up 12 saves for Cedar Rapids in 1991.

Erick Aybar (Photo: Sproutingnews.com)

The team became the Cedar Rapids Kernels in 1993 and hooked up with the Angels the same year. Since then, we’ve seen a 19 year old Bengie Molina in 1994 and part of 1995. John Lackey put up a 2.08 ERA in his five starts as a 21 year old Kernel in 2000. The 2001 Kernels had six members that have gone on to MLB careers of some manner, including Mike Napoli, Bobby Jenks and Joel Peralta. Napoli and Peralta returned to Cedar Rapids in 2002 and were joined by ten other future Big Leaguers, including Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, Dallas McPherson and Casey Kotchman. 19 year old Erick Aybar hit .308 for the Kernels in 2003, but Alberto Callaspo’s .327 led that team.

In 2004, Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood were joined for a late season call-up by 19 year old Alexi Casilla. Casilla started 2005 with the Kernels as well, but spent time that year in Class A, AA and AAA within the Angels organization. He would eventually be traded to the Twins for relief pitcher J. C. Romero.

Mark Trumbo (Photo: Sproutingnews.com)

In 2006, Mark Trumbo hit 13 home runs at age 19 for a team led on the mound by another 19 year old, Nick Adenhart, who went 10-2 with a 1.95 ERA. (A memorial sign, honoring the memory of the late Adenhart remains on the outfield wall of the Kernels’ ballpark.) Trumbo returned to Cedar Rapids in 2007 and brought current Angels Hank Conger and Peter Bourjos with him (at least they’re current Angels as I write this… both are being mentioned often in trade rumors lately).

Toward the end of 2009, the Angels promoted a young 17 year old outfielder to the Kernels where he appeared in just five games, but it wouldn’t be until the following year that Mike Trout would really open the eyes of fans in Cedar Rapids with his .362/.454/.526 split in 81 games as an 18 year old.

Just as an aside, fans of minor league teams don’t always have to wait until a young player makes it to the Big Leagues before seeing their names come up on ESPN. For example, the Angels acquired Zack Greinke from the Brewers on Friday in return for three prospects (Jean Segura, John Hellwig and Ariel Pena) and all of them were team mates of Mike Trout’s on the 2010 Kernels. Maybe Greinke will lead the Angels to the World Series this fall or maybe he won’t, but Segura, Hellwig and Pena are all very good ballplayers and at some point I believe the Brewers will be very glad they made that deal.

As you can tell, I’ve seen a few pretty fair ballplayers over the years, but none of them were as impressive, to me, during their days in Cedar Rapids as Trout was.

I may never see talent like that on the field in a Cedar Rapids uniform again… then again, I might. That’s one of the joys of attending the games. Sure, we want the Kernels to win. It’s great to make the playoffs and you certainly enjoy the games more when the locals are at least competitive.

But there’s something that’s just fun about watching young players who are often still just starting out on their professional baseball careers, beginning what every one of them dreams of being a process that will lead them to The Show. They’re playing for the dream (it certainly isn’t for the money they’re getting paid as minor leaguers).

The Kernels’ Player Development Contract with the Angels is up for renewal after this season. There’s some discussion locally about whether the Kernels should renew that agreement or look to partner with a different Major League organization. Obviously, I’d certainly love to see perhaps Max Kepler and Byron Buxton in Kernels uniforms in the near future, but regardless of how the PDC decision goes, I’ll continue to enjoy spending a lot of time at the ballpark watching some very good baseball next summer and, hopefully, for many more summers beyond that.

If you’ve got a minor league team near you, I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about because you probably spend as much time at the ballpark as I do, if not more. If there’s a club near you and you aren’t getting out there, what are you waiting for?

– JC

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