Given the start of the political “silly season” (already, right?), this seemed appropriate..
I rarely post anything here not related to the Twins, the Kernels, baseball or some form of sports-related topic. This, however, is one of those rare instances.
Growing up in Albert Lea, Minnesota, back in the early 1960s, one of my closest friends was Jeff Schmahl. We were the same age and lived about a block apart. My dad was a high school coach. His dad was the sports editor for the local newspaper. Our families became close friends.
After second grade, Jeff’s family moved to Grand Island, Nebraska. Five years later, my family moved to Webster City, Iowa. But despite the distances involved, our families remained friends.
When we moved to Iowa and I had a little trouble adjusting to the new environment, I went to Grand Island to spend a week or so with Jeff and his family. It was then that it became clear to me that Jeff had a serious case of Cornhusker-itis. I wasn’t much into college sports at the time, but that didn’t stop Jeff from talking about the Nebraska Cornhuskers – a lot. We weren’t even in high school yet, but he made no secret of the fact that he was going to become a Cornhusker.
He made good on his goal of attending Nebraska and he played tennis for the Huskers. Eventually, he did broadcast work on Lincoln television involving Husker sports and later became a vital part of the Nebraska athletic department (introducing HuskerVision to Big Red football fans, for example) and, later yet, joined the Texas A&M athletic department.
I know all of this, not because he and I stayed in touch (we really didn’t), but because our mothers have managed to remain in close contact with one another throughout all of these decades. I would get regular updates on how Jeff was doing from my mother, who got her information from Jeff’s mom via their monthly phone calls.
Unfortunately, this is also the way I found out, about a year ago, that Jeff had been battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
It’s also the way I found out this week that Jeff lost that battle a month ago.
When my mom originally told me of Jeff’s diagnosis, she also mentioned that he had started a blog called, The Last Train. Naturally, my curiosity and my memories of our childhood friendship led me to check it out.
In the Introduction section, Jeff explained why he was starting the blog.
My hope is what I share will encourage you and give you some insight as to what it’s like to be on The Last Train. Perhaps my words will also provide you courage when it’s time for you to board The Last Train, because it is one trip we are all guaranteed to take.
But more than that, I hope my words encourage you to make the most of the train ride you are on right now. That’s really what is important to make the most of your life right now and to have a positive impact on the people in your life right now.
That’s really just part of the Introduction, so I certainly encourage you to read the entire thing. In fact, I encourage you to read all of his entries at some point. It’s powerful stuff.
In addition, as part of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on cancer, Nebraska Educational Television featured several local stories entitled “Living with Cancer in Nebraska.” The Schmahls were one of the families that were featured. I’ve embedded it below. It’s only about seven minutes long and since you’ve read this far, you should definitely take the time to watch it
Jeff obviously touched a lot of peoples’ lives in his roughly-59 years on this earth. I’m told that more than a couple hundred of them gathered last Saturday in the Club section of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln to celebrate his life.
His was clearly a life well lived.
After hearing about Jeff’s condition, I made an effort to write to him – several times. I just couldn’t get the job done and now, naturally, I feel bad about that.
I returned to read his blog periodically, but honestly, doing so brought back so many reminders of having witnessed my father’s ultimately unsuccessful fight against cancer years earlier, that even trying to craft a letter to him became emotionally overwhelming for me.
Fortunately, it is clear that Jeff had no shortage of people in his life who had far more intestinal fortitude than I do in this area and they made sure he knew how important he had been to them.
I wanted Jeff to know I’ve never forgotten the days we spent playing Cadaco’s All-Star Baseball in his basement or the time we spent pretending we were big leaguers ourselves as we pitched to one another in our backyards. He had an odd affinity for then-Twins pitcher Lee Stange, for some reason I have never quite understood – but I can still hear him say that name with great enthusiasm in my mind today.
I would have liked him to know I still remember the two of us going up and down the street handing out free “tickets” for our neighbors to come watch the two of us go one-on-one in hoops in his driveway and setting up all manner of chairs for the inevitable crowd to sit in while we battled. I don’t recall much of anyone showing up, but I do remember he beat me. But then, that was hardly unusual.
Most of all, I would have wanted him to know that I will carry these memories, and more, until, inevitably, I board my own Last Train.
Even more, thanks to his gift in the form of his writing, I’ll have much more than boyhood memories to accompany me through to that final stop. I’ll have his faith, his humor, his courage and his wisdom to support me on that journey, as well.
But the most important take-away, for me, from his efforts over the past year is how important it is that we all focus on what’s really important in our lives right now, while we are still hopefully well short of the time we’ll need to board our own respective Last Trains.
In one of the last blog entries before his death, Jeff’s son, Zach, included a quote from minimalist author Colin Wright.
“You have exactly one life in which to do everything you’ll ever do. Act accordingly.”
I. for one, intend to try to do exactly that.
A couple of weeks ago, my employer for the past 38-ish years informed me that my position was being eliminated. It’s not the way one would typically choose to end one’s employment, but it’s not a terrible thing, either, to be honest. The separation package is sufficient enough that, if I choose to do so, I’ll be able to bridge my way to the point where I can begin tapping my retirement accounts..
I’m still sorting out in my mind exactly what form I want this next phase of my life to take, but at least I have some options and some time to avoid having to rush into anything.
I am clear about one thing, however. I’m going to remember that I only have one life in which to do everything I’ll ever do and I’m going to act accordingly.
Thank you, Jeff, for your friendship so many years ago and for sharing your gift of courage and wisdom with me and so many others during the journey on your Last Train.
Farewell and rest in peace, my old friend.
– Steve Buhr
We’ve reached the end of the Dog Days of Summer, that period that stretches from 20 days before Sirius (the Dog Star) is precisely in conjunction with the sun until 20 days after those bodies are in alignment.
Those 40 or so days are typically the most cruelly hot of the summer and, coincidentally or not, the days when young professional baseball players often hit the proverbial “wall” during their first full season of pro ball. Players that are accustomed to playing anywhere from 40 to 70 games in a summer, find themselves having already eclipsed that mark by mid-June, with another 70 yet to play on the schedule.
It’s when bats become heavier in a hitter’s hands and pitchers often lose velocity or some sharpness to their breaking ball due to a “tired arm.”
Then again, the Dog Days of Summer really is a Northern Hemisphere phenomenon, so Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Sam Gibbons, who hails from Geelong, Victoria, in Australia, may well be immune to the Dog Day effects.
After a shaky start to his season, the 21-year-old Aussie didn’t really begin to hit his stride until the second week of July.
As Gibbons toed the rubber in Kane County on July 12 to begin his seventh start after joining the Kernels at the end of May, he shouldered an unimpressive 5.34 ERA after giving up 21 runs (19 of them earned) in his first six starts for Cedar Rapids.
The righthander gave up one run in the fourth inning of what would become a no-decision start against the Cougars that night and, from there, ran his scoreless inning streak up to 28 consecutive innings before giving up a pair of runs (one earned) in an 8-2 win over Bowling Green on Saturday night before a near-capacity home crowd.
Included in that stretch was a nine inning complete game shutout on the road at Kane County on August 1. It has been the only complete game shutout twirled by a Kernels pitcher this season and only the Kernels’ second complete game this year. (Mat Batts lost a 1-0 decision despite throwing a complete seven-inning game in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Peoria in May.)
Finishing the complete game meant Gibbons threw a few more pitches than normal.
“Last year, we were generally around the 80-90 (pitches) mark,” Gibbons explained, “but very rarely would we go over 85. Throwing 110 pitches (in the complete game), I was feeling it the last inning, but there’s no way I was going to give in.”
After that extended outing, Gibbons knew he was destined for a shorter night in his next start on Saturday.
“I think I was on some sort of pitch count (Saturday), but I was cruising through the middle three through six innings pretty well and then got two outs in the seventh. Then things got a bit sticky. But, you know, things happen. It’s OK and we ended up winning, so that’s the main thing.”
How has Gibbons gotten stronger as the summer heat has been at its most oppressive?
“You know, I wish I could bottle it and pass it around to other guys,” said Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla.
For his part, Gibbons said he does feel like he’s getting stronger, but doesn’t think his workload this season has been all that unusually heavy.
“The thing is, I pitch in the ABL (Australian Baseball League) every year, so I have at least 30 innings before I get to spring training on my belt,” Gibbons explained.” So I’m pretty used to having a fairly deep workload.”
We may not know what to credit for Gibbons’ improvement through the past several weeks, but he knew exactly who to blame for the scoreless streak coming to an end on Saturday.
“I spoke to my mom (after the game) and I told her it was all her fault for making me aware of it,” Gibbons related, with a smile.
Blaming mom? Wow. That’s harsh.
“I had to blame someone,” a laughing Gibbons reasoned.
Typically, Gibbons likes to take a bit of time off in the fall after the season winds up, but things didn’t work out that way for him this past offseason.
“My plan last year was to play after Christmas and the New Year,” he recounted. “Then I was asked to play on the under-23 Australian Team. so I went in November last year. That kind of interrupted things but any chance you get to play for your country is a great opportunity, so I definitely wanted to do that.”
Perhaps taking the extra off-season work into account, the parent Minnesota Twins held Gibbons back in Extended Spring Training when the Kernels came north to start the season, then promoted him to Cedar Rapids on May 28. He made his Kernels debut May 31. His first four starts after arriving were not pretty. surrendering 16 runs in 20 innings of work covering that initial stretch.
“Obviously, I had a bit of a shaky start, but things are coming good now,” Gibbons understated.
“I think after the first month, I was struggling with fastball command a bit, and not being able to throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts, where I have been now. I’ve been attacking guys, but attacking with my off-speed pitches, which is something I’ve never been able to do, really.
“So, having command and just having faith that if I make a bad pitch, that I’m going to come back and make a better pitch to get weak contact or a swing and a miss. I feel that fastball command, knowing I can throw a fastball wherever I want and when I want is something that is pretty big and that will progress you through the ranks.”
Bonilla, his pitching coach, agrees.
“He just came up and he’s been a strike thrower,” the coach observed. “He’s always been a strike thrower, he’s going to throw it over and I think that’s to his credit and also to his detriment. He didn’t really locate. He just said basically, ‘somebody’s going to hit a ball at a guy. If I throw a strike, I’ll be ok.’
“It worked for a while with some of the younger hitters that don’t really drive the ball, but some of these guys are prospects, they can hit the ball, or some of them are grown men. Some are 24- 25 year old men that can hit the ball far. He’s learned that the hard way.
“The first couple outings he got kind of hit around. To his credit, he’s allowed himself to change. He’s going to the corners a little bit more, he’s attacking down in the zone, being more aggressive by not throwing so many strikes. He’s throwing ‘quality misses,’ is what we call it.”
According to Bonilla, a lot of Gibbons improvement has come from his mentality, as much as any improvement he’s shown with his mechanics or pitch selection.
“He’s trusting it,” Bonilla said. “I think one of the biggest things for him is his confidence. He’s out there confident that he can make pitches. He does it and he does it with a purpose with all of his pitches.”
The coach also conceded that sometimes a little early failure greases the skids a bit for quicker improvement.
“It’s hard to go away from success on the field,” he explained. “If a (hitter) is hitting .300 and we’re telling him, ‘hey, it’s not going to work when you get to the big leagues,’ he’s going to be like, ‘well, I’m hitting .300.’ If a (pitcher) is getting outs here, he’s like, ‘what do you mean it’s not going to work?’
“So it’s hard for them to get themselves out of immediate success and look at four years down the future. To their credit, the ones that do are the ones that kind of take their lumps early, but you can see them kind of turn it around and stay with it and go good. And he’s one of those guys that’s been doing that. So he’s done a great job, I’m very happy with him.”
Gibbons was signed by the Twins as a 17-year-old in July, 2011, but continued to play in his home country for a while and didn’t make his first appearance for a Twins affiliate in the States until the following year.
“Our school (in Australia) works a bit differently, so I was actually halfway through my senior year of high school, so it was a bit different to how things are out here. It was a big thing for my mom to make sure that I finished high school.”
There’s that “blame mom” thing again. How dare she do something like wanting him to finish high school before moving thousands of miles away to play baseball for a living?
“I look back on it and I wanted to get over here as soon as possible,” Gibbons recalled, “but it was a slight decision, finishing high school at least.”
In the end, mom won out – as moms are prone to doing.
“So, I made sure I did that (finish high school) and then came over the following (extended spring training). The Twins don’t tend to like to bring Aussies over here for spring training their first year,” he explained. “Trying to wet their feet a bit, I guess, by just coming to extended and seeing how things work and then their second year, bring them over for spring training.”
Gibbons played two years for the Twins Gulf Coast League team in Fort Myers, then moved up to Elizabethton for the 2014 short season, where he teamed with many of the same guys he’s sharing the Kernels clubhouse with this season. That’s not an insignificant factor in his recent success, according to the pitcher.
“I feel that the (catchers) we have on our team, they really take notice of what pitches you have and what works well for the situation. Having (Brett) Doe, Navi (Brian Navarreto) and (Alex) Real behind there, it’s pretty good,” Gibbons offered. “All three of the catchers on this team now were in E-town last year and the majority of our pitching group is the same from last year, so everyone has a good idea of what we throw and when you want to throw it.”
All three Kernels catchers have been successful at controlling the opponents’ running games. Navarreto, for example, has thrown out over half of the runners attempting to steal off of him. That’s a factor Gibbons appreciates.
“Having Navi behind the plate the last couple of outings has been exceptional. We’ve played together for three years now, so he’s known me pretty well. I’m pretty lucky to have him behind there pitch calling and his defensive work is immaculate.”
Gibbons doesn’t appear to be exactly a high-maintenance pitcher for his catchers to have to deal with. If you find him sitting alone for a couple of hours before each start, he’s probably watching a movie or listening to music, not focused on envisioning every pitch that’s about to come out of his hand.
“No, no, not at all,” he admitted.” I don’t really do that until I’m out on the mound going, ‘ok, let’s go and see how this goes.’”
As the season winds down, Gibbons stands to play a critical role in the postseason for the Kernels. He’s thrown just over 64 innings since joining Cedar Rapids, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about the front office limiting his work just when the team needs him the most in the playoffs.
When his year in Cedar Rapids wraps up, Gibbons will be headed back “down under” for the off-season. For him, that means beach time.
“Back home, I live about 15 minutes from the beach,” he said. “I’m always going down there with buddies or just hanging out and kicking back. I play club ball sometimes or I practice and train with my brother. (Club ball) is like a mens’ league sort of thing that I just go down and I have some fun with my brother and my buddies that I grew up playing with.”
He’s going to take a bit more time off this year before starting the real training for his 2016 season.
“Definitely take off a fair chunk of the offseason and come back in mid-January at some point, I guess,” Gibbons said of his plans. “Play a bit of ABL and get a couple of starts before spring training.
“I have to be in contact with (Twins farm director Brad Steil). Henry (Bonilla) and I will sit down before the season finishes and see where the innings are at and see what they want – a pitch count or innings limit sort of restriction.”
Those limits will then be communicated to Gibbons’ ABL coaching staff.
“They’re happy to have me pitch whatever that is,” he added.
It’s good that the ABL coaches are so easy to work with. At least that’s one less thing Gibbons should have to blame his mom for.
I suppose this is what we asked for, Twins fans. Our team is playing “meaningful games” in August. Technically, they even continue to possess the second American League wild card spot (for a few more hours anyway).
Entering the season, if someone had told us that our Twins would be right in the thick of the hunt for even a wild card postseason spot, I think most of us would have smiled and said, “thank you.”
Some of us have had some elevated hopes for 2016 and even more would have projected 2017 as a reasonable goal to see the Twins contending for the postseason. But 2015? No, not really. There were just too many question marks and, frankly, calling some areas of the Twins Opening Day roster “question marks” would have been being generous.
So, given this unexpected bonus of meaningful play in August, why don’t I feel like celebrating?
To begin with, it’s not like the Twins’ hold on that final wild card spot is exactly something you’d call a death grip. OK, bad wording. Maybe that’s exactly what you would call it, as in, “they are about to lose that grip and see their season die.”
The Twins enter Monday with a one game lead over Baltimore and Toronto, a three game lead over Tampa and Texas, and a 3.5 game lead over Detroit and Chicago. That’s a lot of competition and it doesn’t even include the Angels, who currently hold the first wild card spot, just one game ahead of Minnesota.
Certainly, the front offices of some of those teams have already decided not to even try to compete for a spot in the league’s one-game, win or go home, wild card play-in game. Detroit and Tampa appear to be selling off parts. I’m not sure what the White Sox front office is doing, other than apparently trying to overcome the shock of discovering they’re actually not mathematically eliminated from the postseason yet.
Then again, as a Twins fan, I probably shouldn’t be too critical of another organization’s inertia in the face of unexpected contention for the postseason.
After all, while Chicago has only recently pulled themselves in to the hunt by winning a whole bunch of games in a row, the folks running the Twins have had an entire season to get acclimated to the fact that their guys actually have a shot at doing more than just playing meaningful games this late. And yet, the Twins front office gave no indication at the trading deadline that they had noticed.
That’s not really true, of course. Twins General Manager Terry Ryan did give such indications. He indicated to the media on more than one occasion last week that he intended be active in the trade market in an effort to improve his ballclub.
Then he did nothing.
And no, don’t even try to claim with a straight face that adding Kevin Jepsen, the relief pitcher they acquired from the Rays for two minor league pitchers, constitutes making a serious bid to improve the Twins.
Pioneer-Press Twins beat reporter Mike Berardino asked Ryan last week if the GM felt a responsibility to the current players to improve the roster. His reply:
“That’s correct,” Ryan said. “That would be very accurate. I know that. There’s nobody that’s more sensitive to that than me. I know they’ve done a hell of a job of getting to this point and we’re in a good position. Now it’s my responsibility to help the cause.”
Then Ryan went out and added Kevin Jepsen and – nothing else.
As a result, the Twins open a four-game series with one of the teams who is nipping at their heels in the wild card standings, the Blue Jays, without the benefit of any significant help from their front office.
Meanwhile, those Blue Jays have added Troy Tulowitzki, David Price and Ben Revere in the past few days. That’s a top of the rotation starting pitcher, a good-hitting veteran shortstop and a centerfielder who improves their club’s defense (and, therefore, their pitching as a whole).
Maybe this was never going to be the year the Twins made a postseason run. It certainly wouldn’t help their cause that Ervin Santana won’t be available to them in the postseason, even if they found themselves there as a team.
But Ryan was right. This collection of ballplayers has worked hard, exceeding everyone’s expectations, and he owed them a better result last week.
I’m not suggesting he should have traded away a bunch of top prospects for rental players. You don’t mortgage your entire future on a slim chance at the brass ring in 2015. But you don’t pay lip service and then try to convince the guys in your clubhouse that adding a middle inning reliever is all you could come up with to give them a boost while their nearest competitors are making serious improvements.
Making no deal at all – just saying right out loud that you don’t think this year’s club is built to not only get a wild card, but contend in the postseason once they get there – and explaining that you are not willing to give up any of your above average prospects at all in this environment would have been courageous. Likewise, making Toronto-sized mega deals that would have cost you some serious prospects would have been courageous.
Taking either road would have required some real stones, because either approach would have been controversial and would have met with loud criticism from the fan base. Yet either approach would have at least been defensible.
Dipping your toes in the water and giving up a couple of decent, but very young, pitching prospects for a middle reliever, but doing absolutely nothing else, is neither courageous nor defensible, in my opinion.
Of course, we know that the end of the non-waiver trade deadline in July does not necessarily constitute the end of all trade opportunities. Terry Ryan can still improve this year’s Twins roster in August via waiver trades. If he does, I’ll be among the first to applaud.
But waiting too long to provide that help is a real concern and making deals later this month certainly won’t help the Twins this week in Toronto.
Ryan is sending Paul Molitor in to Toronto this week to fend off one of his club’s closest challengers and Molitor’s club is seriously outmanned. The reason is as simple as it was preventable. Molitor’s club was not given the kind of boost that the Blue Jays got from their GM last week and that was, by his own admission, Terry Ryan’s responsibility.
The first, last and most important job any minor league baseball player has is to work hard at improving his skills to move on up the organizational ladder to the next level. That said, when Cedar Rapids Kernels infielder Pat Kelly gets his next promotion, it may be bittersweet news for Pat and, more specifically, his family members that have been making frequent trips from Red Wing, Minnesota, to Cedar Rapids to watch Pat and the Kernels.
That could become a much more difficult trip to make as Kelly’s career carries him from Cedar Rapids to other stops on the Minnesota Twins affiliate list in Florida, Tennessee and New York.
According to Kelly’s father, Jim, who works in the Goodhue County (MN) Sheriff’s Office, the Kelly clan has made the trip to Cedar Rapids, “about every other weekend.”
“My schedule, I’m off every other weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and this particular year, the Kernels have been home when I’ve been off pretty much,” the elder Kelly added. “When I first looked at it, I miscalculated and I thought, ‘I’ve got to work every weekend they’re home.’ But it turned out to be the opposite, so it worked out real good”
“There’s like 25 of them here,” Pat Kelly said Saturday. “My dad’s one of ten (siblings) so I have a lot of uncles. They’re all in Red Wing pretty much. I have an aunt up in Cottage Grove, Minnesota (about 35 miles from Red Wing), and that’s about the farthest they go.
“They love coming down and coming to some games. They did that every Easter at Nebraska (where Pat played college baseball for the Cornhuskers). We’d get about 50-60 family members, they’d all make the trip down to Lincoln for Easter. It’s quite the crew.”
The “crew” during the most recent Kernels weekend homestand included not only family, but Cornhusker Head Athletic Trainer, Jerry Weber, whose career at Nebraska has spanned the Kelly generations. He was there when Jim was on campus as a Husker football player, as well as during Pat’s baseball career there.
Despite his dad’s connection to “Big Red,” it was no sure thing that Pat would follow in his father’s footsteps to Lincoln. And there was no chance he’d follow those footsteps to the football field at Nebraska, or anywhere else.
“I grew up loving baseball, basketball and football, all three, (but) baseball was always my favorite growing up. I played football, it was probably my third favorite.
He said he wasn’t just playing football growing up out of some kind of obligation to his dad, either.
“No, I liked it, I really did.”
By his junior year of high school, however, football was left behind.
“In tenth grade I was playing like eight quarters of football every Friday night. I was playing tenth grade games and then the varsity needed players so I would go play cornerback, running back, quarterback, like every Friday night. Then come my junior year, it was just like, it’s going to be too much.
“I was doing a lot of baseball in the fall. So I gave up football. I didn’t even start my junior year. I just started doing a lot more baseball in the fall. I played basketball, I love basketball. But baseball’s always been my favorite.”
That focus on baseball began early, according to his father.
“All baseball,” Jim confirmed. “He never really gave me a break. We work 12 hour shifts (at the Sheriff’s Office). I go to work at six in the morning and get home at six at night and he would be sitting on the steps with a bucket of balls, his bat and his glove and I would get in the driveway, ‘Let’s go dad.’ So we’d just go down the street to a park and he’d hit for as long as I could throw balls to him.”
Jim recalled it wasn’t until Pat was in fifth or sixth grade that his son discovered, while looking through an old scrapbook, that his dad had played football for Nebraska. “He saw that and he said, ‘We should go to Nebraska sometime.’ I said, ‘sure.'”
“Sometime” turned out to be when Pat was a freshman in high school.
“He had a Nebraska schedule up and he said, ‘I want to go to watch Nebraska and Texas A&M,” the father recalled. “In whatever year that was, they were ranked 4th and 5th in the country, respectively and I said, ‘alright, we’ll go.’”
That baseball game made an impression on Pat.
“There was like nine or ten thousand people there. The game went like 16 innings long and not a fan left. Pretty cool. So from then on, I just felt like, ‘I really want to go to Nebraska.’ It ended up working out.”
It was the only basball game the Huskers and Aggies got in that weekend as rain washed out the scheduled Saturday and Sunday contests.
“We ended up leaving early on Sunday and I think we got as far as Omaha and he said, ‘I know where I want to go to college, dad. I’m going to go to Nebraska.’ I said, ‘oh, okay.’ You know it was so early yet, but you know, let the kid dream. Why not?”
Why not, indeed. Kelly ended up living his dream as a Cornhusker, earning 2nd team All-Big Ten honors his freshman year and was 1st team All-Big Ten in both his sophomore and junior seasons.
Not bad, considering he nearly never had the opportunity to attend his chosen school.
“It’s kind of funny though. Nebraska was one of my last recruiting letters,” Pat recollected. “I was just waiting for it, waiting for it. I’d always come home from school – I didn’t play football then, so my falls were open – so I’d come home early. I remember coming home and there were two letters, North Carolina and Nebraska, and I didn’t give a crap about the other one. I was pretty excited about that.”
“He called me at work and said, ‘dad, I got it!’ ‘You got what?’ ‘I got the letter.’ ‘OK, let me guess,’” Jim added.
“I had an amazing time at Nebraska,” Pat said. “Coach (Darin) Erstad is an unbelievable guy and a great coach and did a lot for me. Yeah, I love Nebraska. I can’t wait to go back there in the offseason and go to football games and hang out there.”
According to Pat, It wasn’t easy to leave a year early and begin his professional career. He knew it was time to move on, but it was a difficult decision to make.
“Yeah for me it was,” he recalled. “just because I loved Nebraska so much. It’s hard to leave those guys and the coaching staff.
“At the end of the day, every kid’s goal is to be a big leaguer. You just had to look at that and obviously I had no doubt if I go back to Nebraska, it would have been a great year and we probably would have had a great team, I mean they had a good team this year. But at the end of the day, you want to be a big leaguer and you want to get that going.”
For Pat, getting that going meant being signed by the Minnesota Twins as their 12th round selection in the 2014 draft and heading to Elizabethton, Tennessee, last summer to begin his professional career.
Nobody will confuse the environments for playing ball in Elizabethton with those in Lincoln, but Kelly didn’t mind the change.
“It was definitely a little bit of an eye-opener going down to E’town,” Pat said of his first impressions of the community where the Twins’ short-season Appalachian League affiliate is located. “I didn’t really have any expectations, to be honest. I just kind of went in with an open mind. It was fun, we made the playoffs and had a good season. Getting paid to play baseball, that’s a pretty good deal.”
This season, Kelly has been on the Kernels roster since Opening Day, making this his first year of enduring a full 140-game minor league schedule. Some players feel like they hit a wall, physically and/or mentally, at about this point in their first full season.
“Yeah it’s kind of funny. Around the all-star break, you get half way and you’re like, ‘alright, we’re doing that again. Same thing over,’” Kelly said. “But no, I haven’t really seemed to hit that wall yet. I’m still enjoying every day with the guys and just can’t really complain. Getting paid to play baseball.
“I think just the base adjustment from college to now is, here it’s every day, you play every day. In college, you didn’t play every day. You had class, you had other stuff. But now, every single day, this is your job. I think that’s just the biggest adjustment.
“Even if you’re not in the lineup, you have a full day. You’re at the park from 1:30 to 10 or 11 at night. You’re still doing your work. You’re in the cage, you’re doing stuff. You’re still drained at the end of the day and then the next day, you do it again. I think that’s just the biggest adjustment for me, just getting mentally ready every day to go to work and get better.”
With that mentality, it’s no wonder Kelly uses Florida Georgia Line’s “Every Night” as his walk-up song.
After Kelly hit .242 in 39 games, all at second base, for Elizabethton a season ago, he’s been running closer to .220 over the season for the Kernels. He played second base through most of the season, but has been spending more time at third base since TJ White’s promotion to Fort Myers.
Kelly’s also been faring better at the plate more recently, hitting .258 in his last ten games and carrying a four-game hitting streak into Thursday night’s contest with Clinton.
That stretch includes Kelly getting three hits, including a pair of doubles, in eight at-bats with his personal cheering section in the Cedar Rapids crowd last weekend.
This offseason, Kelly will return to Lincoln where he’ll live and work out with Cedar Rapids native (and 2014 Kernel) Chad Christensen, who is also a former Husker ballplayer.
“We lived together last offseason and we’re going to live together this offseason,” Kelly explained. “We do everything together and work out there.”
Lincoln is also much closer than Red Wing to his girlfriend’s home in Kansas City, but that’s probably just a coincidence.
No matter how far away from his home and family in Red Wing Kelly’s professional baseball career may take him, however, he’ll always carry something of his home with him.
Yes, the love of his family, certainly, but also the oil he uses to break in his gloves.
“I oil them with oil from Red Wing Shoes in Red Wing. I always use their boot oil for my gloves and it seems to work really well.”
So getting Brian Dozier into the All-Star game became a bit of a thing .. just in case you missed it. There were some EXTREMELY creative outreaches on social media – especially the last day on Twitter. This was my favorite:
If you really want some more laughter in your day, check out the #VoteDozier hashtag on twitter – you’ll giggle for hours.
In each of the past several seasons, the Cedar Rapids Kernels have held an “Autism Awareness Night” at the Veterans Memorial Stadium, with the Kernels wearing special jerseys that are auctioned off to benefit The East Central Iowa Autism Society.
The Society’s web site reports that the rate of autism is currently 1 in 88. However, as the site goes on to point out, “To most Americans, 1 in 88 is a number. To the families of a child with autism, our 1 in 88 has a face and a name.”
For one Kernels player, that face is his younger brother’s and that name is Max.
Cedar Rapids outfielder Zack Larson doesn’t need to wear a special jersey to remain aware of autism. In the unlikely event that Larson would require such a reminder, he needs only to look at his own right arm and the tattoo there consisting of the puzzle piece logo, widely used to promote autism awareness, along with his brother’s name.
Larson’s a native of the Bradenton, Florida, area, but moved to Virginia with his family when he was just five years old.
“I lived there for four years,” Larson recalled, “then, my little brother was born in Virginia and was diagnosed with autism. So we moved back down to Florida where we found a school for him to go to. That’s where we’ve been since.”
Max and the rest of Larson’s family follow Zack and the Kernels as closely as possible from Florida.
“They bought that (MiLB.tv) package so they watch the games on TV that are there to watch and they listen to every game with Morgan (Kernels radio broadcaster Morgan Hawk). My mom came (to Cedar Rapids) in May, so it was good to see her.”
If, as you’d expect, Max looks up to his big brother the ballplayer, it’s equally apparent that Zack admires Max, as well.
“He has pretty severe autism,” Larson explained. “He doesn’t talk very well but he knows words. He’s really brilliant on the computer. He knows how to work every electronic thing you can think of. My dad won’t know how to turn on something and Max will go in there and turn it on right away. My dad’s like, ‘what the heck?’ He’s a genius when it comes to electronics and computers and stuff.
“Not many people totally understand what it’s all about. It was eye-opening for me when I first started to understand what my brother was diagnosed with. I was still young. It made me a better person, it made my family better people and it’s a blessing to have my brother.”
Larson was signed out of high school in 2012 after being drafted by the Twins in the 20th round. Like virtually all high school players that are drafted, he had to choose between starting his professional career immediately or going to college first and trying to improve his future draft status. It really wasn’t a difficult decision for Larson, however.
“I signed with a junior college, but ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a professional baseball player and the Twins gave me the opportunity,” Larson recalled. “I didn’t want to pass on it. I could have gone to college and got hurt and could have never gotten another chance to play professional baseball.”
Larson said he did discuss options with his family, but, in the end, “it was always my childhood dream to play pro ball, so I did it.”
Had Larson gone to a four year college instead, he’d have been a draftable junior in this year’s draft. That’s not something he gives any thought to, however.
“I don’t play any ‘what if’ games. I just did what I wanted to do. I just followed my dream and I haven’t looked back since.”
Is he happy with how that dream has turned out, so far?
“Yeah, absolutely. It’s awesome.”
Larson played 41 games with the Kernels a year ago, but missed much of the season with a hamstring injury.
The result of missing so much time with an injury was being assigned, again, to Cedar Rapids this spring as he works to resume his rise up the Twins’ organizational ladder.
“My goal was just to have good quality at-bats, not to give any at-bats away,” Larson said, of his plans for 2015. “Just get on base however I can. I never really set any number goals or any of that. I wanted to get to the playoffs the first half and we did.”
Larson got off to a slow start in April, hitting just .211 for the month, but he and Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins have been working together and that work is starting to show results.
“I’m working with Tommy just on staying through the ball, working down to the ball instead of lifting the ball,” Larson explained. “I’ve been getting under it and lifting it. I’ve just been working with Tommy every day in the cage and starting to improve.”
Larson has been particularly effective at driving in runs for the Kernels, hitting .347 with runners in scoring position and leading his team with 39 Runs Batted In headed in to the July 4 weekend.
Watkins said he likes what he’s seeing from his pupil.
“He’s got a pretty good swing,” Watkins observed. “We’re just working with him on using the whole field, trying to drive some balls to the gap. Right now, just trying to get him to stay on top of the ball and use the middle to the opposite way. To pull the ball, let that happen on its own.
“He’s a student of the game and he’s a guy that I look to lead our club, being here last year. He’s more of a quiet guy and he’ll lead more by example than anything, but I look for him to be a leader on this team. Great guy with runners in scoring position. He hunts out those RBIs and that’s a good thing.”
Larson and his teammates put together a 41-29 record in the first half of their Midwest League season, good enough to lock up a playoff spot by finishing second in the Western Division, but they know they have more work to do.
“We had a pretty good first half, but we think we can do better,” Larson said. “We had a meeting with Jake (manager Jake Mauer) and he said that if we had averaged four runs per game, we could have won 50 games in the first half. So, we were like, ‘what the heck, we can score four runs.’
“We don’t want to take the second half lightly, we want to show the teams that we’re playing some ball and we’re ready for the playoffs, that we can push it all the way into the playoffs and make a run.”
When you ask ballplayers about their outside interests, it’s not unusual for them to express an interest in hunting. In that regard, Kernels’ pitcher Randy LeBlanc fits in with the crowd.
It’s when you ask what he hunts that LeBlanc begins to vary from the norm.
He’ll tell you he spent most of his offseason fishing and duck hunting, with a little deer hunting thrown in. Although, “my dad does more deer hunting than I do,” he says.
After a pause though, he adds the kicker.
“I’ve been gator hunting a few times. A couple of years ago, my cousin got a tag and we got one that was ten feet.“
LeBlanc hails from Covington, Louisiana, though while his offseason activities might be right in line with his Cajun heritage, you’d barely know it to speak to him.
“I’ve had people tell me up here that I don’t have any kind of accent,” he said. “People down south tell me I have an accent. It’s different than an Alabama accent. I’m definitely Cajun. My dad grew up in Cajun-land.”
You can take the boy out of Cajun-land, but it’s not so easy, apparently, to take the Cajun-land out of the boy.
In all the years the Minnesota Twins have been conducting spring training in Florida, they’ve certainly dealt with a wide variety of minor disciplinary issues with their ballplayers. Boys will be boys, after all.
But this spring, LeBlanc and fellow Louisiana native (and former Kernels pitcher) Ryan Eades may have been among the first Twins farmhands to get talked to about messing with the local alligators.
“Me and Ryan got in some trouble messing with some of the ones in Florida during spring training,” LeBlanc admitted with a small smile. “We had a meeting about it.”
“Everybody’s so scared of them,” he added, in a way that made it sound like he couldn’t quite grasp why that would be the case.
You can hardly blame the Twins, though, for discouraging LeBlanc from “messing with” alligators.
Despite being relegated to the often anonymous role of middle relief pitcher, LeBlanc is opening eyes this summer with the Kernels. He took a string of 26 consecutive scoreless innings of relief work in to the tenth inning of Friday night’s game against the Quad Cities River Bandits, a team high for the season that he shared with one of the Kernels’ closers, Trevor Hildenberger.
That string might have extended to 27 games, but for a line drive in to the outfield that was a single misplayed in to a triple. The result was LeBlanc’s first loss of the season, as Cedar Rapids fell to Quad Cities 4-3 in ten innings.
As rare as the loss was for LeBlanc, almost as rare was the fact that LeBlanc worked just one inning in the game.
The 6’ 4” right hander has made 19 appearances this season for Cedar Rapids and all but two of them have involved more than one inning of mound work. His 42 and 1/3 innings leads all non-starters for the Kernels.
The Twins drafted LeBlanc out of Tulane University in New Orleans with their tenth round pick in the 2014 draft.
Those who follow the Twins minor league organization closely know that they’ve had a pattern of drafting hard throwing college relievers with the intention of trying to turn them in to starting pitchers.
The Twins have seemingly done just the opposite with LeBlanc, who was almost exclusively a starting pitcher during his college career at Tulane, but has been used only in relief roles since signing with the Twins.
“I made a couple of relief appearances (in college), but other than that, I started my entire life,” he said. “I’d never done any relief, not consistent relief. Last year (at rookie level Elizabethton) was definitely the first time I’ve done that. But I was fine doing it, comfortable doing it. Whatever the Twins feel is my best role is what I want to do.”
LeBlanc was drafted in the 16th round of the 2010 draft by the Florida Marlins after his senior year of high school, but chose to attend Tulane, rather than sign with the Marlins.
“They made me a pretty big offer. That was before the slotting stuff,” he recalled. “It was definitely a big decision to turn down the money and go to school, but I don’t regret that for the world. I enjoyed my four years of college. It was definitely a lot of fun. New Orleans is a great city. I love it.”
That’s easier for LeBlanc to say now than it might have been after his first season of college ball.
“I had Tommy John (elbow ligament surgery) my freshman year of college. I actually tore it in my third start. I ended up having surgery a week later and was out the rest of the year.
“Came back the next year and struggled a little bit, just didn’t have quite the same stuff. I say I struggled, but it definitely could have been worse, don’t get me wrong.
“Did a little better my junior year, went undrafted after that year. Had a couple of phone calls with some offers, but went back to school. I had a really good red-shirt junior year and got drafted by the Twins.”
So, after four years in Big Easy, LeBlanc found himself in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in April.
New Orleans and Cedar Rapids – pretty much the same thing, right? No, not so much.
“When I flew up to Minneapolis to sign last year, that was the farthest I had ever been north in my life,” a smiling LeBlanc recalled. “I would assume this (Cedar Rapids) is probably the second farthest.
“The games this year in Appleton, when it was snowing for two days, I’d never seen snow before. It was the first snow I’d ever seen. It’s been a trip. That was the coldest I’d ever pitched in, for sure. Man, it was cold. The wind was just howling the whole time. It was miserable.
“I do a lot of hunting and fishing in the offseason, so I’m used to being out in the cold, but not snow cold, not like that.”
The climate may not be familiar to LeBlanc, but if his performance this season is any indication, he’ll have no problem adjusting to pitching in Target Field someday.
LeBlanc has notched a 1.70 ERA in 42 and 1/3 innings over 19 appearances for the Kernels.
“I had a really good first month of April,” he recalled.”Then we started May and I kind of had a little rough stretch for about two weeks. Ever since then, I’ve had a little better command up and down in the zone and I think that’s the biggest thing.
“I’ve been throwing well. A couple times, I guess, during this little streak or whatever, I haven’t had my best stuff at all. Basically, I’ve just made pitches when I’ve had to, able to get out of jams, that’s the best way to describe it. I’m not out there just dominating everybody and striking everybody out. Just making pitches when I have to.”
LeBlanc is also quick to point out that he and his fellow Kernels pitchers have benefited this season from some pretty solid defensive efforts behind them.
“We’ve played a ton of defense. TJ (White) and Nick (Gordon) and the whole left side of the infield, that’s where the majority of my balls go, to that side. So they’ve done an incredible job and Pat (Kelly) has done a great job up the middle.
“We’ve had guys mixing all over the place at first base. Brett (Doe) has never played first base in his life and he finds himself over there and he’s doing a really good job. It definitely helps having good defense behind us.”
LeBlanc uses a three-pitch mix on the mound and, like a lot of young pitchers, he came in to the season with an agenda.
“Originally, coming up here, I was working on the breaking ball. It’s gotten much better. I’m throwing a slider, It’s kind of a slider or a slurve, I guess. I’ve gotten a lot of swings and misses with it.
“But, I mean, I’m a sinkerball guy. I throw sinkers down and in to most people. That’s probably my best pitch; that or my change up. My change up’s my out pitch. If I need a swing and a miss, I go to my change up. But most of my success is just getting ground balls.”
While LeBlanc isn’t unhappy with his middle relief role, he wouldn’t exactly be opposed to getting a shot at a rotation spot at some point, either.
His Kernels pitching coach, Henry Bonilla, is in LeBlanc’s corner on that issue, too.
“I’ve been pulling for it,” Bonilla said. “I’ve been putting that thought in their (the front office) heads that he can start, he wants to start.”
His success out of the pen may be working against the righty’s chances of changing roles, however. Sometimes you don’t mess with what’s going well.
“I just think he’s having so much success right now,” Bonilla added, “that you just kind of say, ‘just keep going.’”
LeBlanc says all the right things when he’s asked about his role now and in the future.
“I think that Henry has talked about it a little bit to some of the guys up above us making the decisions. But I’m not sure what they’re doing. I told them at the beginning of the year I’ll do whatever they want me to do that’s going to help me to move up. Whatever will get me to the big leagues, I want to do. Whatever, starting, closing, throwing relief, long relief, whatever it is. So whatever they feel comfortable with me doing, I’ll do.
“They might ask me to start here in three weeks, I have no idea. I’d be fine doing that, though, I’ve started my whole life.”
Many starting pitchers pick up a few miles per hour on their fastballs when they start working out of the bullpen, but LeBlanc said that’s not historically been the case with him.
“It’s actually the other way around,” he said. “I threw harder as a starter. I threw harder as the games went on in college.”
He has no explanation for why that might be the case.
“I have no idea. It was like that in high school and it was like that in college. I don’t know, that’s the weirdest thing.
“When I was getting drafted, (scouts) were like, ‘so if you threw in relief, you could throw a couple miles per hour harder,’ and I’m like, ‘yeah!’ I figured it would be around the same. Definitely not going to tell them, ‘no’.”
Whatever his role may be during the second half of the Kernels’ season, he’s been a major contributor to the Kernels’ success, so far, and his pitching coach recognizes that.
“He’s been doing everything we ask,” Bonilla said. “He’s been a big glue to the middle innings right now.”
The Midwest League’s Eastern Division All-Stars took two hours and forty-four minutes to top their Western Division counterparts 5-0 in Peoria Tuesday night, but any Cedar Rapids fans who made the trip hoping to watch the Kernels’ representatives had to be careful with the timing of any trips to the concession stand.
Pitchers Felix Jorge, Jared Wilson, Trevor Hildenberg and Cam Booser spent less than a combined 15 minutes on the mound while throwing a total of two and one-third innings for the West.
Jorge needed just ten pitches to retire all three hitters he faced in a perfect 3rd inning, striking out one.
Wilson started the 8th inning and was just as efficient, using just seven pitches to get through his assigned two outs, including a strikeout.
Hildenberger relieved Wilson and used just four pitches to finish the inning with a strikeout of his own.
Booser was assigned the first out of the 9th inning, entering with the West trailing 2-0. He walked one and gave up a pair of hits before getting an out on a bouncer back to him on the mound.
The four Kernels pitchers threw just 34 pitches between them, but All-Star games aren’t all about playing time.
Hildenberg and Jorge agreed afterward that the experience was well worth the trip.
“It was fun,” Hildenberger said, between bites of his postgame meal. “Getting to meet players you play against, talking to them about how their seasons are going. And to pitch in an All-Star game is an honor.”
Jorge, who’s role as a starting pitcher with the Kernels, calls for him to prepare to throw six or seven innings at a time, said he didn’t change his approach for the rare one-inning relief appearance.
“I was just trying to do the same,” he said.
West hitters managed just three hits off Eastern Division pitching on the night and perhaps could have used the bat of injured Kernels first baseman Trey Vavra, who made the trip to Peoria after being elected to start the game before going on the Kernels’ Disabled List with an ankle injury.
Vavra was happy to get the opportunity to participate in the All-Star festivities, but there was no chance he’d be able to play in the game.
“I’m glad that the Twins gave me the opportunity to come here and hang out with everybody,” Vavra said before the game. “It’s great that they allowed me to do that.
“My rehab’s come a long ways. I’m not going to be able to play in the game tonight. It’s unfortunate, but it’s kind of how it worked out.”
Despite the progress with his rehabilitation, Vavra isn’t sure yet when he’ll be back in the Kernels’ lineup. He’s also not certain whether he’ll complete his rehab in Cedar Rapids or whether he’ll make a trip to the Twins’ facility in Fort Myers.
“It’s kind of up to (the Twins) at this point. We’ve been doing some rehab for a long time. I’m progressing. I wouldn’t anticipate anything in the next week, but maybe the week after that.
“I might go down there (to Fort Myers). I’ve heard both. Going down there to get some extended batting practice, but I’ve also heard that I’m staying up here and doing all that stuff up here, so I’ll just keep my head down and keep working.”
With the All-Star break now in the rear-view mirror, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Twins didn’t make some roster adjustments and that could include promoting any of the four pitchers the Kernels sent to Peoria for the All-Star Game.
Vavra, as well, played well enough while he was healthy to warrant consideration for a promotion, but it’s likely the organization would want to see him get more time in with the Kernels when he’s ready to resume his season.
Hildenberger, however, indicated that they haven’t heard anything yet from the Twins about any possible promotions.
On Wednesday, the Twins and Kernels announced that pitcher Brandon Bixler has been activated from the Disabled List and lefty starting pitcher Luke Westphal has joined the Kernels’ active roster from Fort Myers. Bixler made 41 appearances for the Kernels in 2014, notching a 2.68 ERA out of the Cedar Rapids bullpen. Westphal has put up a 3.82 ERA in five starts and 11 relief appearances for the Miracle this season.
The Kernels will begin the second half of the season on Thursday night against Quad Cities. The River Bandits were the champions of the league’s Western Division in the first half of the season.
P.S. This is where you watch the game from when you’re late with your request for media credentials for the MWL All-Star Game. On the other hand, the weather was terrific and I would have missed this ballpark sunset if I’d been in the pressbox!