Go ahead and underestimate Cedar Rapids Kernels outfielder Jason Kanzler. He’s used to it. Having to show people they’re wrong about him is nothing new.
”I think I’ve done that my whole life, pretty much,” Kanzler said. “I was never really at the top on anyone’s priority list. I wasn’t recruited out of high school. I tried to walk on at Northeastern University and I was cut after two weeks.
“Then I went to Buffalo as kind of a recruited walk-on and I didn’t play. I guess my red-shirt freshman year, I got 10 at-bats.Then I platooned a little in left and right my sophomore year.”
That’s not exactly the kind of start to a college baseball career that you’d expect for a guy with hopes of playing ball professionally.
Things turned around for Kanzler his next two seasons at the University of Buffalo, however.
“I started in center field my junior and senior year and won two gold gloves so I kind of shoved it up in everyone’s faces.”
If you think it sounds like Kanzler has a little chip on his shoulder over people underestimating him, you would be correct.
Kanzler spent spring training with the Class A group, but got the word the last week of camp that he would not be heading north to Cedar Rapids with the others.
Asked how he felt about being one of the final cuts to the Kernels’ roster as spring training drew to a close in March, he quickly corrected the questioner and didn’t hesitate to say exactly how he felt about it.
”I was the last guy,” he said. And he said it without a trace of a smile.
“I was angry, I was really angry,” he admitted. “The coaches down in extended (spring training) told me to cool it and I’ll get my chance eventually.”
You get the sense from Kanzler that “cooling it” isn’t something that comes very natural to him on a baseball field. In fact, in the game the evening after giving the interview, Kanzler was ejected for arguing a called third strike late in the game.
In any event, he didn’t have to cool it for very long this spring before he was given a plane ticket for Cedar Rapids. Four games in to the season, Kernels center fielder Zack Granite was injured and Kanzler got the call.
Granite rejoined the Kernels last week, but it wasn’t Kanzler’s roster spot he took. Instead, Ivory Thomas was given his unconditional release by the Twins to make room for Granite and Kanzler in the same outfield.
At the Midwest League’s All-Star break, the halfway point of the Kernels’ season, Kanzler is hitting .293 with an .813 OPS. He has five doubles, five triples and one night after his ejection he hit his seventh home run of the year. He has also stolen 10 bases.
Kanzler was utilized as a top-of-the order hitter when he first arrived in Cedar Rapids, but the power he’s demonstrated has resulted in a move toward the middle of the lineup.
How could power go unnoticed?
“I’m not a ‘guy’ really. Just an ‘extended guy’,” Kanzler explained. “I was hurt for 14 days during spring training with a hamstring, so I really only got to play like ten spring training games.”
The pop in his bat may have surprised others, but not Kanzler. “I knew I had it. I think it makes me even more mad that no one else really knew,” he said.
Kanzler has let his play convince others he’s more than just a defensive specialist and slap hitter.
“I guess I could show it off in BP a little bit,” he said, “but they kind of figured I was just a speed guy with good defense and once you get pigeon-holed, it’s hard to kind of climb your way out.”
Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins knows Kanzler has a bit of a chip on his shoulder and that the player uses it to his advantage.
“I think that’s one thing that motivated him, being the last guy left off the team,” Watkins said. “From talking to him since he’s been here and in spring training, I think he’s been a guy that people have always told him he couldn’t do it, so he set himself out to prove everybody wrong.
“If you tell him he can’t do it, he’s going to work 10 times harder to prove you wrong.”
Asked about his goals for this season before the year started and whether they have changed at all with his performance in Cedar Rapids, Kanzler was thoughtful with his responses.
“I think my goals are just to play my game,” he responded initially. “I think if I play my game, everything will kind of work itself out. I guess my main goal is to play excellent defense and kind of be a spark plug. I kind of like to do a little bit of everything. So whether it’s hit a home run or steal a base or make a diving catch, I just like to play the game hard.”
Watkins thinks Kanzler’s on the right track with that goal.
“I think for him just to work on his overall game,” Watkins said. “He’s a guy that has tremendous tools, all of them. He can hit, hit with power, he can run, he can throw. He’s got all the tools, it’s just fine-tuning all of them and have them show in the game.”
Of course, Kanzler has longer term goals, too. “My goal is to get to the Big Leagues, but that’s more like a dream than a goal right now. Still a few too many steps away to be a goal yet.”
A native of upstate New York, Kanzler added another potential goal before he reaches the Big Leagues, “Fill up the Red Wings’ stadium.”
“Maybe my (short term) goal would be to make a post-season all-star team and help the Kernels win the second half and get in the playoffs and win the playoffs.
“I like that. I like to win.”
Kanzler and his team mates aren’t accustomed to looking at the standings and seeing their team near the bottom. They don’t like it much.
“Yeah, I think especially because we have, I think, a lot more talent than a lot of the teams that are above us. We have so many games where we can’t put everything together. One or two things go right instead of all three.”
As intense as Kanzler can be on the field, he’s capable of relaxing and enjoying his time away from the ballpark.
Recently, that included a trip to a local music store with team mate and Cedar Rapids native Chad Christensen.
“He (Christensen) bought a guitar and I bought a ukulele,” Kanzler related. “So I’ve been practicing my ukulele a little bit. Ryan Walker has a banjo and it’s amazing, It’s an instrument I’d like to learn.”
How’s that ukulele coming and does it sound good with Christensen’s guitar?
“No we haven’t tried that. The guitar is too loud and they don’t collaborate well I don’t think.
“Chad’s been learning mostly country songs and I’ve been learning video game songs, like Mario and Zelda. That’s my kind of thing. Just fun little stuff.”
You get the feeling that all it would take for Kanzler to become the best ukulele player ever would be for someone to tell him he can’t do it.