Affiliated Times

2013 Midwest League Regular Season at Perfect Game Field (Opened 2002) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Minnesota Twins Class-A Affiliate Cedar Rapids Kernels hosted the Oakland Athletics Class-A Affiliate Beloit Snappers in the second game of a three-game series. I spent a week in Iowa and realized the Kernels were in town less than a mile away, an offer that I couldn’t refuse. Cedar Rapids Kernels were down 5-1 in the 6th inning when they tied and ultimately won with a walk off double in the 9th inning. They went on to sweep the series.

Here is where naming rights get a bit awkward. Perfect Game USA, the world’s largest scouting service, has naming rights. Just outside the stadium is All Veterans Memorial Park, a memorial of the armed services veterans from all the wars. Local residents call it the “New Veterans Memorial Stadium”, in contrast to the original park that existed 1949-2001. It’s testimonial to the relation between Veterans and Baseball. Historically, over 400 MLB players have dropped their baseball equipment to serve in the military. In a time of war, fit men who could play baseball could contribute to the war effort, a sense of patriotic duty that resonated with the times. Back home, Americans were motivated by the notion that the game should go on because, after all, it was the pastime that lifted the spirits of a country in turmoil. That was also a driving force to the war effort.

The Cedar Rapids Kernels were founded in 1890, tracing it back to the early years of baseball. Since 1962, they’ve competed in the Midwest League. Over the years, the team has had 14 affiliations with MLB teams starting in 1932. Of those affiliations were the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (1993-2012). Among the long list of Alumni who played here are Mike Trout and the late Nick Adenhart. We all know about Mike Trout. Nick Adenhart’s career and ultimately his life was tragically cut short on April 9, 2009 in a car accident, shortly after midnight at the tender age of 22. After a pitching injury in high school and a series of setbacks, Perfect Game Field was a vital part of his road to recovery. He had just reached a milestone when he made his first start to debut in the 2009 Regular Season with the Angels. Just hours after that, Nick Adenhart was traveling with two friends when he was broad sided at the intersection of Orangethrope Avenue and Lemon Street killing all three in the car at the scene. In honor of his memory, there is an image of him and his number on the outfield wall of Perfect Game Field. The family gives a Nick Adenhart Memorial Scholarship every year for a student athlete in the area going into college.  Eric Davis also began his professional career in Cedar Rapids back in the 1980s. He played for this affiliate before going on to stardom and winning the 1990 World Series with the Cincinnati Reds.

Just as the rest of the Minor Leagues, this year was canceled. Needless to say, it’s been tragic for teams this year. And, like many other teams, the Kernels have been innovative in still creating promotions and engaging the community. In addition to the impact of a pandemic, the threat of MLB downsizing and causing teams to lose existing affiliations has been lurking for years now. The news came earlier this month that invitations for affiliations went out to 119 minor league teams. That means that some 43 other teams will need to come to terms with their fate. It’s the biggest change in Minor League history.

The Cedar Rapids Kernels were offered to remain the Class A Affiliate for the Minnesota Twins. In a related story, the St. Paul Saints, a storied and very successful independent team was invited to be the Class Triple-A Affiliate as well for the Minnesota Twins. The Beloit Snappers were offered to be a Miami Marlins Affiliate. Hopefully, the popularity of independent baseball will sustain some of the other teams that are having to reinvent themselves. In the face of crisis, change is no longer a choice.

Crash Davis was Here

Image of Crash Davis number retired at the New Durham Athletic Park, 15 minutes away. The real Crash Davis played for Duke University nearby, three seasons for the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1940s, and later came back to play for the Durham Bulls.

In North Carolina at the Old Durham Bulls Park, site of the movie “Bull Durham” (1988), starring Kevin Costner as Crash Davis. The actor went door to door looking for someone to pick up the script. At the time, Orion Pictures had two baseball movies in the works, “The Scout” and “Eight Men Out.” So, it was unlikely that “Bull Durham” would be picked up. But, it was. The 1980s were the golden age of sports movies. Even more unlikely was Ron Shelton, screenwriter and director of “Bull Durham.” His story is based in-part on his own experiences as a minor league player. Ironically, he’s never been a fan of sports movies, cringing at the typical underdog stories. For him, life is not always based on happy endings. Shelton credits Hollywood studios with looking past concerns with oversees markets where baseball movies traditionally didn’t sell. The iconic advertising, along the outfield wall, is gone. The animated-smoking bull beyond the left field foul pole, the bull that got fans a free steak if it was hit by a home run ball, is also gone. All that remains is a chain link fence and padding on the top rail to protect players. More importantly, it’s always great to see a preventive maintenance plan for places like this. It’s well kept, used as the home field for North Carolina Central University. As of 1995, The Durham Bulls have been playing in their new park 15 minutes away.

In the film, Crash Davis is a 12 year journeyman who is picked up by the Durham Bulls, of the Carolina League, to help Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins), a new pitching prospect, to prepare for a future call-up to the Majors. What Crash sees is a Pitcher with lots of talent and no brains, someone who doesn’t respect himself, to each his own. Crash’s main problem with Nuke is he won’t respect the game. Basically, Nuke represents Crash’s years of frustration from loving a game that does not love him back. His lesson number 1 to Nuke? “Don’t think, just throw!” In the end, his best advice to Nuke is to live in fear and arrogance (not ignorance). Crash believed that success depends on a humble belief in yourself.

The viewer is also left to wonder if Crash Davis will ever break the all time record of 247 career home runs. As in life, there isn’t always a game 7 or some milestone moment in your career. Most of the time, a career or a game ends with a weakly hit grounder. In the case of Crash Davis, he reached his 247th record breaking homerun. Uneventful. The real prize was making it to the “big leagues,” such is life. The Durham Bulls had a great season that year. But, no one knows how they finished the season, “The path is the goal,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

Every character in this classic brings something to the table. Over 30 years later, after countless surveys and polls, it’s the most accurate movie on the subject. Its said to have been a 2-hour commercial about life in the Minor Leagues. Who would have thought that this field, in the midst of this downtown Durham neighborhood, would lead to a renaissance in the Minor Leagues and have such a huge impact on American Culture? It all started here.  At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, it’s the Church of Baseball, according to Annie Savoy (Susan Sorandan), the voice of a woman in a man’s world. She was the focal point to the “menage a troi” with Nuke & Crash, struggling with moral behavior while invoking profound thoughts from poets and philosophers. “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game. The American game will repair our losses and be a blessing to us,” Walt Whitman.

Baseball has evolved into a game based on analytics, mathematicians who can scientifically dissect a prospect to predict his development and performance. But, they are unable to look into a players eyes and see the potential for winning or for being a hall of fame caliber player. The fate of the Minor Leagues is currently on hold. In a normal world, the MiLB and MLB would be meeting to renew their Player Development Contract next year. MLB & MLBPA are busy negotiating (or not) to re-open the 2020 regular season after the pandemic. It’s still unclear which 120 teams remain. Some 40 teams are on the chopping blocks to be unaffiliated with MLB. A minor league team can be the economic engine in small towns across the country, not to mention the crushed dreams of over one thousand players released days before the annual MLB draft. “Full many a flower is born to blossom unseen and waste its sweetness in the desert air,” what Annie Savoy would invoke here from Tomas Grey, or William Cullen Bryant? Maybe its from the “Church of Baseball.”