One of the things the Minnesota Twins and Cedar Rapids Kernels organizations have in common is an emphasis on community service and that commonality was on display Saturday morning on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids.
After playing a night game on Friday night, Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins and several Kernels players were back at the ballpark by 8:30 the next morning to conduct a Youth Baseball Camp for well over a hundred boys and girls.
There was a signup sheet in the Kernels’ clubhouse with nine lines on it for volunteers to sign up to work the camp. Every line was filled and a couple additional players wrote their names in between the lines, giving Watkins a group of 11 ballplayers pitching in for the two-hour long camp, topped off with an autograph session.
Wandering around the field, it was really hard to tell who was having more fun, the kids or the players. Suffice to say there were a lot of smiles among the young players and the not-as-young.players.
With kids as young as five years old, there was a bit of a “herding kittens” aspect to some of the groups, but each of the six stations that the campers rotated between worked on specific aspects of the game of baseball.
In the indoor batting cage, pitcher Cameron Booser and first baseman/ outfielder Trey Vavra gave kids a chance to hit in the cage.
Out on the field, Catcher Brett Doe and pitcher John Curtiss worked with kids on coming off the mound to field bunts and throw toward first base.
Down in the Kernels’ bullpen, Michael Theofanopoulos and Jared Wilson were working with pitching fundamentals.
Out in right field, pitcher Zach Tillery was giving lessons on proper throwing technique.
In center field, infielder TJ White and pitcher Trevor Hildenberger were teaching kids how to go back on fly balls hit over their heads.
And over in left field, pitcher Randy LeBlanc and infielder Blake Schmit were teaching technique for fielding ground balls and making a throw.
While the kids were learning the game from Kernels players, some of the Kernels staff gave parents an opportunity to take a tour of the stadium, from the suite and pressbox level down through the clubhouse and batting cage level.
Many of those parents took the time afterward to thank Kernels staff and players for giving their kids this opportunity.
Kernels General Manager Scott Wilson was also appreciative of the time put in by Watkins and the players.
“You’ve got to think about, these guys played last night and get out of bed and be here by 8:30 to do this camp,” WIlson pointed out. “Then they’re probably going to go in the locker room, take a nap on the couch and then at 2:00 get back up and report for baseball and then do their jobs.”
The Kernels have a long tradition of community outreach and the camps are just one example. They also sponsor a summer reading program that involves Kernels players going out in to the elementary schools to read to kids and encourage them to read on their own over the summer.
The Youth Camp has long been a popular program
“I would say we’ve probably been doing this camp for about ten or twelve years,” Wilson said. “It’s gone through a lot of changes. We used to do a two-day camp that was four hours at a time – much more kind of intense. But with 137 participants that we had today, that’s hard to try to keep focus and attention spans.
“The way that Tommy runs it now, I love it, because everybody rotates to little different things.”
Nobody is going to become a big league ballplayer just by attending the Kernel’s two-hour camp, of course. But that’s not really the point.
The Kernels want to provide an enjoyable and affordable opportunity for some of the youngest fans in the local area to share a field with real professional ballplayers. Each camper also gets a Kernels cap and a voucher for a free ticket to a Kernels game, in addition to getting autographs from the players once the camp wraps up at the end of the morning.
“Although you might think that they’re not getting a lot of individual instruction, it’s an affordable $15 camp,” Wilson pointed out. “You’re getting a ball cap, you’re getting a ticket and they get to spend some time with some guys and see the drills that they do on a daily basis.
As Wilson went on to explain, it’s very possible that some of the young ballplayers have already had a chance to meet a few of these players.
“All of these (players) have been involved, too, in our schools program for us. These kids probably saw them at the reading program and now they get to shake their hand, get an autograph and play catch in their world with them, even if it’s just throwing the ball to them one time.”