Kernels Youth Baseball Camp is a Hit

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.

Jared Wilson and Michael Theofanopoulos working in the bullpen with young pitchers

Jared Wilson and Michael Theofanopoulos working in the bullpen with young pitchers

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.

Blake Schmit and Randy LeBlanc teaching campers proper fielding position

Blake Schmit and Randy LeBlanc teaching campers proper fielding position

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.

Zach Tillery with instructions for campers on proper grip and form

Zach Tillery with instructions for campers on proper grip and form

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.

Cam Booser gets a "pinky promise" from a young camper

Cam Booser gets a “pinky promise” from a young camper

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.

TJ White and Trevor Hildenberger working with a group of outfielders

TJ White and Trevor Hildenberger working with a group of outfielders

“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.

Cam Booser and Trey Vavra talking baseball with campers in the indoor batting cage

Cam Booser and Trey Vavra talking baseball with campers in the indoor batting cage

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.

Brett Doe and John Curtiss getting organized with some campers on the mound

Brett Doe and John Curtiss getting organized with some campers on the mound

“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.

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins was directing things at the camp but pitched in with the workout stations, too

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins was directing things at the camp but pitched in with the workout stations, too

“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.

Kernels players signing autographs after the camp wrapped up

Kernels players signing autographs after the camp wrapped up

“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.”

 

 

Now Leading Off for the Kernels: Tanner English

You might not guess it just to look at him, as he patrols centerfield for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, but there’s a good chance that Tanner English is among the most athletic ballplayers on the roster.

Tanner English

Tanner English

Sure, he measures just 5’ 10” tall and is listed at just 160 pounds, but don’t let his size fool you. English has athletic skills.

For example, how many of his team mates do you think could do a standing back-flip in the middle of the field?

More to the point, how many do you think have actually DONE a standing back-flip in the middle of the field?

Now that he’s trying to earn a living playing ball, you might not see English repeating the feat, but, as this video proves, he has certainly demonstrated he’s capable of it.

Yes, you may have noticed that the back-flip wasn’t the only oddity in that video, from his time with the Harwich Mariners of the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2013. English also was the pitcher who recorded the final out of that game.

Neither pitching nor back-flips have been part of the 22-year-old’s repertoire since he signed with the Twins after being drafted in the 11th round last summer following a three year career at the University of South Carolina.

“No, the team we were playing that night in the Cape, that was their last game and we were going in to the playoffs,” English explained, while laughing. “Our bullpen was kind of spent and we had about a two-hour rain delay that night, so our coach was looking for people who could pitch. Me and another outfielder said, ‘hey, sign us up. We’ll do it.’ I just got up there for fun and threw some strikes.”

And the back-flip?

Again, the laugh, before the explanation from English.

“We were kind of messing around the whole game, playing rain-delay games and stuff. Then a whole bunch of the guys on the team bet me I wouldn’t do it (the back-flip). So I showed them that I would. I proved them wrong.”

English isn’t looking to make a name for himself as a pitcher – or a gymnast – at this point. Instead, he’s continuing to build his reputation on being a reliable center fielder who gets on base regularly and knows how to move along the basepaths once he does.

Tanner English (2) with a successful stolen base

Tanner English (2) with a successful stolen base

In fact, English is tied for the most stolen bases for the Kernels this season with seven swiped bases. He’s likely to pull in to the lead, too, since the player he’s tied with is Zach Granite, who was promoted to class high-A Fort Myers last week.

As for his skills in the field, English’s outfield defense has already landed him on ESPN’s “Top 10 Plays of the Day,” for the diving catch captured in this video:

“That was probably my number one goal, going to college,” he recalled. “’Man, I just want to get on ESPN’s Top 10 one time.’ I had a couple of opportunities to do that, so that was pretty cool.”

For some young players, playing in front of a few thousand people on a night that Cedar Rapids’ Veterans Memorial Stadium is packed is a new experience, but that’s nothing unusual for English.

South Carolina’s baseball program has been a big-time Division I program for years and English got to experience the thrill of playing in the finals of the 2012 College World Series with the Gamecocks as a freshman.

“That was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life,” English recalled, despite the fact that his club lost to Arizona in the finals. “Shoot, 30,000-plus fans at the game, everyone was going nuts. I know that every kid that plays college baseball, that’s their dream is to get there and I’m one of the rare few that can say that got to play there and play for a championship.”

With the promotion Granite to Fort Myers, English is likely to be the primary leadoff hitter for the Kernels. It’s a role he feels he’s ready for.

“I’ll hit wherever they want me to hit,” English said. But he’s aware his role is changing following Granite’s promotion and he’s working with Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins to be prepared to be the club’s table-setter at the top of the lineup.

“Really just trying to shorten things up, because I have a tendency to get a little bit long and try to hit the ball a lot further than I should, obviously, now as the leadoff hitter. That’s one of the big things I’ve been working on with Tommy and Jake (Mauer).”

Tanner English

Tanner English

Watkins believes English can handle the spot at the top of the Kernels’ batting order.

“Yeah, I think so. I’m a big fan of his. He’s got tools,” Watkins said, of English, over the weekend. “We’re trying to get him to trust himself – believe in his abilities. He can play baseball.”

“I think  there is a difference when you lead off,” Watkins added, “but just talking to Tanner about slowing things down a little bit and not using his body as much. He’s been doing a good job with that. Hopefully, he just keeps getting better – keep progressing on cutting the body down and using his hands a lot more.”

English acknowledged that he and his fellow position players are going to need to step up their games if the Kernels are going to be successful. Early in the season, the club’s pitching has largely been carrying the bulk of the load on the field, while the offense has been sporadic.

English is confident the hitting will come around.

“We probably need to stop missing our pitch, as a team. We have great hitters on the team, but I don’t think we’re hitting to our fullest potential right now. We just need to get to a point where everyone’s in that groove and feeling comfortable and getting to where we can barrel everything up.

“I know that baseball is hard, but just kind of do a better job in certain situations.”

If he and the Kernels can do that, the Kernels’ chances of competing for a third straight Midwest League Championship will improve significantly, but don’t expect to see English doing any celebratory back-flips on the field.

Then again, don’t bet him that he won’t do it.

– JC

Kernels’ Jason Kanzler Keeps Proving Himself

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.

Jason Kanzler

Jason Kanzler

“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.

Jason Kanzler

Jason Kanzler

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.”

Jason Kanzler breaking up a double play

Jason Kanzler goes in hard to break up a double play

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.

– JC

A Kernels Day in Photos

I’m traveling for work the first half of this week, so I won’t really have an opportunity to write a regular weekly update on the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Perhaps it’s just as well, though, because the Twins’ Midwest League affiliate did not have a real good week.

The Kernels dropped from the second spot in the MWL Western Division standings all the way to the cellar, as they endured an eight-game losing streak.

That losing streak ended Sunday in Burlington, however. Cedar Rapids topped the Bees 7-6. As a bonus, the win lifted the Kernels out of the MWL West basement.

Since I don’t have anything exciting to write about this week, I thought the least I could do is provide a few pictures of the game on Sunday. I had hoped to take more, but it turns out there are very few spots where you can take pictures at the Burlington ballpark that aren’t behind netting.

Some of the photos are a bit blurry. I hoped they just looked blurry on Sunday because I was having a few beers at the game, but no, they’re still a little blurry.

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That's something he would not be doing by the 9th inning, however.

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That’s something he would not be doing by the end of the game, however. Mauer was ejected in the 7th inning following a heated discussion with the umpires over a balk call.

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Ivory Thomas

Ivory Thomas

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Joel Licon

Joel Licon

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Bo Altobelli

Bo Altobelli

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Ethan Mildren

Ethan Mildren

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer's ejection.

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer’s ejection. Two runs scored in the 9th inning with Watkins and his bubble gum in charge.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels' final run.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels’ final run.

 

Episode 80: Tommy Watkins and Three Amigos

Paul is gone again, but we’re still here! While he’s gone we put pine tar all over our bodies and get ejected in the 2nd inning. You can download the new Talk to Contact (@TalkToContact) episode via iTunes or by clicking here.

tommy watkins

The Twins won a double header against the Jays, but other than that things have been less than stellar for the team in the pas week.  We dive into some stories from the week that was, including the acquisition of Sam Fuld and what it means for Aaron Hicks, the retirement of Jason Bartlett, and what to make of Chris Colabello.

It is an exciting time to be a podcast listener because this week Cody runs an interview for the first time in the history of the podcast as we chatted with the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ Hitting Coach, Tommy Watkins.  Watkins has coached several of the current Minnesota Twins and shares some of his baseballing knowledge with us.  

We also take some time to talk about the unhearlded pitcher Yohan Pino who has been pitching in Minors for 10 years without a MLB appearance.  Of coure, the usual – beer, baseball and the news to round out the show.

Enjoy the show.

 

If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are pretty cool, you guys.

Getting to Know the Kernels’ Bryan Haar

The Cedar Rapids Kernels sported a 9-7 record as they departed for Peoria Monday for the first of seven road games before returning to Veterans Memorial Stadium on Monday, April 28. They enter the week just two games behind Kane County in the Midwest League’s Western Division standings.

One reason for the success they’ve had thus far has been a power surge in the heart of their batting order.

The Kernels lead the MWL in slugging percentage entering this week’s games largely due to power generated by catcher Mitch Garver and infielder Bryan Haar. Garver leads the league in home runs, with five, and Haar is right on his heals with four round-trippers.

Over the weekend, Haar shared his perspectives on the start to the season that he and his team mates have had, as well as some thoughts about his own experiences moving from college ball, through two levels of Rookie level professional baseball and on to his first month with the Class A level Kernels.

Though Garver and Haar have provided much of the power early on for Cedar Rapids, Haar insists that their offensive success has been a team effort.

“When our team got hot and went on a little winning streak, I think we were all hitting pretty well so that helps,” said Haar. “Hitting is contagious. So I think we all contributed to the good start.”

While the Kernels have kept their record above .500, they haven’t exactly had it easy thus far.

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar and many of his team mates have spent their lives playing ball in far warmer climates. Several of the Kernels’ games have been played with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, so they were glad to see things warm up a bit over the past weekend.

“Anything above 50 right now is good for us,” Haar said with a smile on Saturday. “If it’s not 35 and raining, we’re happy.”

You won’t yet find Haar’s name on many of the organizational “top prospect” lists published during the offseason, but the 24 year-old from San Diego is showing power that’s been largely missing to this point in his professional career.

Haar was drafted by the Twins in the 34th round of the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft, following his senior year at the University of San Diego.

He hit only one home run in 44 games with the Gulf Coast League Twins in 2012 after signing with the Twins and went deep just six times in 60 games with the Twins’ short-season Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton last season.

Haar said it took some time for him to adjust from college pitchers, who generally threw a mix of pitches, to lower levels of professional ball, where he faced a lot of strong young arms who were looking to impress.

“In GCL that first summer, it was just fastballs all day,” recalled Haar. “I actually struggled a little bit because I forgot how to hit a fastball. It was new to me. They were blowing it by me.”

He had to continue working on being able to catch up with the heat a year ago in Elizabethton.

“In E’town, it was rookie ball, so there were a lot of 18 year old pitchers out of high school that maybe thought they threw 95 and really threw 91-92, trying to throw fastballs by me. I got more fastballs then. Jeff Reed (hitting coach at Elizabethton) is a great hitting coach, so he helped me out a lot.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the pitching he faced in college was superior to what he saw his first two years in the pros, though.

“I’d say not better, but more command of their sliders,” Haar explained. “In E’town it was sliders in the dirt, sliders in the dirt. They never flipped one over for a strike. In college, it was slider for a strike, slider for a strike, now you’re down 0-2. But now (in the MWL), it’s more college guys so I’ve got to readjust to college pitching, I guess.”

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar knows he’s largely been feasting on fastballs this season and said he already sees pitchers making adjustments.

“The first game of a series, usually I get some fastballs to hit. If I hit them well, then the next two or three games I get sliders and change-ups and curveballs. Just making that adjustment has been a little harder than I would have thought, but I’ve got to hit the fastball when I get it.”

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins has been working with Haar to keep a step ahead of the adjustments the pitchers are making.

“They’re throwing me off-speed a lot, so I’ve got to start adjusting my swing a little bit towards that,” Haar said. “Tommy and I have been working on that the past couple of days. Not really trying to strike out less, but just put more balls in play hard.

“I’ve hit two home runs off sliders, but I think they were the only hits I’ve had off sliders. We were working on that (Saturday), just kind of letting the ball get a little deeper, seeing it deeper.”

At 24, Haar is a bit older than the average MWL position player, but he’s not feeling any extra anxiety about trying to advance quicker up the Twins organizational ladder because of that.

“I don’t really worry about that. I’m just having a good time in Low-A with my friends,” he said. ”I got drafted in 2012 and pretty much all the guys here were drafted in the 2012 draft, so it’s nice to move up with them, in a sense. I’m just letting my play speak for itself and doing what I can here.”

That includes being versatile in the field. Haar has played both corner infield positions for the Kernels already and that’s fine with him. Haar said he’d play anywhere, “as long as I’m in the lineup.”

Haar played some football and basketball in high school and said his interests include, “pretty much every sport with a ball.” But as a Southern Californian, his interests outside of baseball go beyond what local fans might consider the norm.

“I’m from San Diego, so I surf whenever I can. Usually in September I take some time off from baseball and I go surf. But when I get back in to workouts, I don’t have much time for that.”

There’s obviously neither time nor opportunity for surfing during the season, so Haar is looking for other things to do with his limited down time.

“I do enjoy fishing, so since we’re in Iowa, I’d like to get out and fish a little bit, but it’s tough. Getting back from a long road trip, you want to sleep in, and then you’re at the field.”

Of course, there’s always the standard fallback option for ballplayers: video games.

Haar and team mates Garver and Zach Larson, who live in close proximity to one another this season, “have a little FIFA battle on the X-Box. We’re on that quite a bit.”

“Twins Weekend” in Cedar Rapids

Celebrating the affiliation agreement with the Minnesota Twins has been pretty much an “all season long” thing for the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their fans, but this weekend was the official Twins Weekend event in Cedar Rapids.

Guests of honor have included all-time Twins great Tony Oliva, Twins organist Sue Nelson and mascot TC Bear. All three made appearances at the Kernels’ game with visiting Peoria on Friday night.

Oliva signed autographs for a long line of fans before the game, Nelson treated fans to her talents on an electric organ during the game and TC teamed with Kernels mascot Mr. Shucks to entertain fans throughout the game.

On Saturday morning, all three joined several Kernels players and coaches, along with over 100 fans, for a breakfast event benefiting the Cedar Rapids Convention & Visitors Bureau.

As a fan who grew up in Minnesota in the 1960s watching Oliva play ball for the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium, I have to say it was a really big deal to me to have an opportunity to interview Oliva along with other local media Friday evening during the Kernels game.

It was even a bigger deal to find myself alone with Oliva in the pressbox for several minutes a short while after the formal media intervew and having the opportunity to just watch a ballgame and talk about a number of the young Twins prospects with Oliva.

On Saturday morning, during his remarks at the breakfast and in a “Q & A” session, Oliva shared a number of observations and anecdotes with the crowd.

If you’re interested in reading some of Oliva’s comments to the media from Friday night, click here to read my story for Metro Sports Report, which include Oliva’s thoughts on the current Major Leaguers from his native Cuba. Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Jeff Johnson also has a story focusing on Oliva’s comments concerning PED usage in baseball.

Here are a few photos I took from the weekend’s events.

OlivaAutograph

Tony Oliva patiently signed autographs for about an hour before the game

Twins organist Sue Nelson

Twins organist Sue Nelson

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

OlivaMedia

Tony Oliva met with local media on Friday during the Kernels game

Kernels pitcher and Twins prospect Brett Lee answers a question during the breakfast event Saturday morning

Kernels pitcher and Twins prospect Brett Lee answers a question during the breakfast event Saturday morning as Niko Goodrum, Adam Brett Walker, Kernels broadcaster Morgan Hawk, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins look on.

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

Kernels outfielder and Twins prospect Adam Brett Walker answers fan questions during Saturday's breakfast

Kernels outfielder and Twins prospect Adam Brett Walker answers fan questions during Saturday’s breakfast

From left to right: Mike Gonzales, Dallas Gallant, Morgan Hawk (standing), Niko Goodrum, Brett Lee, Adam Brett Walker, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins

From left to right: Mike Gonzales, Dallas Gallant, Morgan Hawk (standing), Niko Goodrum, Brett Lee, Adam Brett Walker, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins

Meet Kernels Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

Cedar Rapids Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins knows his way around a minor league field, having spent parts of 11 seasons as a player in the Minnesota Twins minor league system. Toward the end of the 2007 season, he got to live the dream of every player who ever put on a minor league uniform when he was called up to the Big Leagues by the Twins.

Tommy Watkins hitting ground balls to third baseman Travis Harrison

Tommy Watkins hitting ground balls to third baseman Travis Harrison

Since 2009, Watkins has been coaching in the Twins minor league organization and this season is his fourth as the hitting coach for the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League (the first three coming with the Twins’ then-affiliate, the Beloit Snappers).

Watkins recently sat down and talked about his role with the Kernels and more.

Jim Crikket: This is the first year in Cedar Rapids for you and the team after spending a few years in Beloit. How do you feel things are going here?

Tommy Watkins: Things are going great here. The people are amazing, just like the people in Beloit were pretty amazing. But things have jumped off here pretty well.

The facility is one of the best in the league, especially in our division. In the other division, you’ve got a lot of the newer parks, but we’ve got one of the best parks in our division and we get a lot of Twins fans, which is fun.

For me, the (batting) cage is right outside the clubhouse so if the guys want to get some extra work, we can go right out and get right to it. It’s been fun.

JC: Describe the work you do as the hitting coach. I’ve been told the organization puts a plan together for all the players in the minor leagues. How do you go about implementing that plan with the hitters?

Watkins: Everybody’s different. We have a hit plan that we stick to throughout the organization, but each guy is different with the drills they like to do or things they need to work on. So, like I said, we’ve got a hit plan over the whole minor leagues. Bill Springman (Twins Minor League Hitting Coordinator) put that together for everybody. And then we go through and we get individual hit plans for each guy.

JC: That sounds like a lot of work.

Watkins: It’s a lot of work, but I’m only dealing with twelve or thirteen guys at a time, so it’s not too bad.

JC: I understand the Twins have implemented some kind of “balance” program for the players in Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers. A program Jim Dwyer (the hitting coach for the Fort Myers Miracle, the next level up the Twins organizational chain) recommended. How’s that going?

Watkins: I think it’s good. The guys all take it pretty serious. I just think it’s training your brain. Just like we go out and take BP every day, they get on that balance board to train their brain. It helps with a lot of things, concentration being one of them I think, for me. I’ve even heard a couple guys talk about getting on it to help their golf game to focus and train your brain.

Jimmy (Dwyer), he got in to it big time last year. Just to see the guys do those exercises, he saw a change in their on-field stuff. It’s just like anything, you’ve got to train your body and you’ve got to use your brain to play and I think it helps you focus more.

We’ve even had guys in the dugout doing it during Batting Practice.

JC: I’ve heard that you sometimes serve as a translator for some of the guys from Latin America. I’d think it must be tough as a coach to communicate with players that don’t speak English. Are you bilingual?

Kernels Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

Kernels Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

Watkins: I like to call it Spanglish. It’s not really Spanish. It’s English mixed with Spanish. All of our guys speak (English) enough. The Twins do a good job of giving the guys classes during spring training and instructional league.

I went down to the Dominican and we had an English teacher down there. So, the Twins do a really good job of trying to help these guys learn English. I think it’s a big part of development and making it to the Big Leagues is learning how to speak the language.

The Twins gave me Rosetta Stone in Spanish. I’ll use it on the bus. It’s pretty good. But I think you learn a lot more by actually dealing with people and talking to people.

JC: During a game, fans can see you motioning to players in the field, moving them around some. Do you have particular in-game responsibilities?

Watkins: I think me and Jake (manager Jake Mauer), we work together on moving the defense around, depending on the batter, depending on the pitcher. We keep a book on what they (opponents) do, so it kind of helps us plan for how we play them defensively. That’s one of the things I do with defense.

When it’s late in a game, we’ll play a guy back in “no doubles,” I’ll let them know that. Or throwing the ball to the cutoff man or whatnot. Just those kind of details.

Hitting wise, I just try to watch their at-bats and see if I can help them out with anything. With approach or maybe a swing they took. A lot of times just trying to see what they were thinking and just get some feedback from them.

The guys are good to work with, all of them. We just talk a lot about approach. I ask them what they see and tell them what I see and try to fix whatever it may be.

JC: Do you get video of your hitters’ at-bats to review with them?

Watkins: We get video of a couple guys every night. Maybe we’ve got a lefty pitching (against us) and we’ll get all the right handed hitters that day. We’ll put it on the video and guys can go back there and take a look at it, analyze it. I have my iPad and sometimes I like to get video on that. They’ve got the video any time they need it. I think they also send it out within the organization so they can see it, too.

JC: You made it to the Major Leagues for a bit as a player with the Twins. Now you’re in your next career as a coach. Is it your goal to work your way back up to that level?

Watkins: I love the coaching part of it and coaching in the Big Leagues is a goal of mine. That’s what I want to shoot for, whether it be managing, coaching third base, first base, whatever it may be. I would love to have a chance to get up there and coach in the Big Leagues.

JC: Just as an observer, the guys seem to really like working with you. It’s got to be easier to coach a guy that you have some sort of rapport with.

Watkins: Yeah it is. We’ve got a bunch of good guys on the team and they get along with each other just as well as they get along with the staff.

JC: They see how you turned Byron Buxton from a nobody in to a prospect like that. It really gives you instant credibility, right? (question posed with a smile and tongue firmly in cheek)

Watkins: (Laughing) Yeah, yeah, right.

JC: That has to give your resume a pretty good shot. “I was Byron Buxton’s hitting coach.”

Watkins: I thank him. He might be able to help me out a lot!

No, but Buxton’s got tremendous talent, as everyone can see. You know, I just tried not to mess him up. When he left, I was like “alright, good.” I was joking with Jim, “hey, Dwyer, don’t mess him up.”

He was a fun guy to watch, man. Easy to coach. You’d suggest something to him, he’d listen and try to work on it. What was good about him was that he could apply it.

A couple times, he’d go 0 for 2 and he’d say, “what am I doing?” I’d say, “you’re alright, you’re OK.” Then the next two he’d hit right up the middle by the pitcher.

I just try to keep all the guys happy and just try to make them feel comfortable. I think that’s the biggest thing. Being comfortable, confident and just trusting in your ability.

Kernels Opening Series a Success

The Cedar Rapids Kernels won three of four games over the Beloit Snappers in their first series of the 2013 season and there was no shortage of drama in the process.

The Kernels won their season opener 8-6, then recovered from a 2-1 ninth inning deficit to claim a walk-off 3-2 win in game 2 of the series. The Snappers managed to hold their 2-1 lead to completion in claiming the third game of the series. In the finale, three Kernels pitchers combined to throw a no-hitter at the visiting Snappers.

Outfielder Byron Buxton gave the locals a good look at what all the fuss is about as he hit .563 for the series, including plenty of power.

The game stories are widely available on the web, but this morning, I thought I’d share a few (OK, much more than a few) of the pictures I took over the course of the past week, since the Kernels arrived in Cedar Rapids.

Kernels coaches meet the media" Tommy Watkins (hitting coach), Jake Mauer (manager), Gary Lucas (pitching coach)

Kernels coaches meet the media: Tommy Watkins (hitting coach), Jake Mauer (manager), Gary Lucas (pitching coach)

The Kernels are introduced to local fans on Meet the Kernels night

The Kernels are introduced to local fans on Meet the Kernels night

Kernels players enjoying the introductions

Kernels players enjoying the introductions

Hudson Boyd

Hudson Boyd

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

Travis Harrison

Travis Harrison

Romy Jimenez

Romy Jimenez

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Niko Goodrum

Niko Goodrum

Travis Harrison

Travis Harrison

Manager Jake Mauer and 3B Travis Harrison working together pregame

Manager Jake Mauer and 3B Travis Harrison working together pregame

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Kernels pitchers getting in pregame bullpen sessions

Kernels pitchers getting in pregame bullpen sessions

Pitching coach Gary Lucas works with Josue Montanez

Pitching coach Gary Lucas works with Josue Montanez

Manager Jake Mauer and Dalton Hicks

Manager Jake Mauer and Dalton Hicks

Josmil Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

JD WIlliams (diving away from a near HBP)

JD WIlliams (diving away from a near HBP)

JCD Williams

JD Williams

Kernels Celebrate a No-Hitter

Kernels Celebrate a No-Hitter

Kernels sign postgame autographs

Kernels sign postgame autographs

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See ya next week!

See ya next week!

If you didn’t see your favorite Kernels in these pictures, not to worry… we’ll be posting a lot more pictures over the course of the season.

– JC

Kernels’ 2013 Coaching Staff Announced

The Cedar Rapids Kernels and their new parent organization, the Minnesota Twins, have announced the Kernels’ 2013 coaching staff.

New Kernels Manager Jake Mauer and Twins prospect James Beresford share a smile during a minor league Spring Training game in 2011.

The Kernels will be managed by Jake Mauer, brother of Twins catcher Joe Mauer. Jake will be entering his sixth season as a minor league manager for the Twins. He played minor league ball in the Twins organization and has, for the past three seasons, been managing their “high A” team in Fort Myers FL.

Pitching coach Gary Lucas and hitting coach Tommy Watkins will be joining Mauer in Cedar Rapids. Both Lucas and Watkins have held the same positions for the Twins’ Midwest League affiliate in Beloit for the past several years.

The coaches will be joined by trainer Ryan Hedwall. Hedwall was previously the trainer at the Twins Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton TN and was named Appalachian and Minor League Athletic Trainer of the year for 2012.

Click here for the link to the story at Kernels.com.

– JC