Kernels, Twins Lovey Dovey As Opening Night Approaches
By Jeff Johnson and Josh Christensen, Reporters
The Kernels' season opener against Beloit will be broadcast live on KCRG 9.2 on Thursday night. The game starts at 6:35 p.m. CST.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The honeymoon phase of a marriage is always the most fun, and the Cedar Rapids Kernels and Minnesota Twins are holding hands and making kissy faces at each other a lot right now.
The Kernels' first game as a Twins affiliate is Thursday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium with a 6:35 scheduled first pitch against Beloit. Ironically, Beloit was the Twins' low-Class A affiliate last season.
This new beginning for the Kernels has been all positive thus far. The club has seen a spike in ticket sales, visibility and excitement within the community after deciding to end a 20-year run with the Los Angeles Angels.
Folks from the Twin Cities even have made plans to drive south to see prospects like center fielder Byron Buxton. The Kernels also think they'll be able to reach more fans in Northeast Iowa.
"I think the Twins have been received well, and I think we've been received well by the Twins," said Kernels President Gary Keoppel. "We had a great run with the Angels, but it was time to make a change, and we found a great affiliate. Being around town, a lot of people you didn't know were Twins fans are suddenly wearing Twins garb. Which is great. The excitement that is here now I think will just continue to build as the kids who play here get to the big leagues."
These feelings are reciprocal, especially from Kernels players who spent last season in Beloit, which had the lowest attendance in the Midwest League, not to mention what is widely regarded as the worst ballpark.
"Definitely a lot nicer, a lot bigger here," said Kernels outfielder J.D. Williams. "We've got real lockers now, a lot more room for the guys to move around. It's a lot nicer, actually a stadium now. From what I saw last year, they get a lot of fan support here, too, so it's just all-around a nicer deal. I liked Beloit last year, but this is definitely a step up."
Those same kinds of thoughts were shared by Kernels catcher Tyler Grimes, who spent all last season and the latter portion of the 2011 season in Beloit.
"This is our job, and to go into an environment that we were stuck in in Beloit, it was showing up to our office and not really being the best of the best, you know?" Grimes said. "At times it was tough. Knowing that I'd been to this stadium and knew the facility and everything like that, it was just a different outlook going into spring training this year. The whole camp."
Even flying into the Eastern Iowa Airport from their spring training base in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday was a thrill.
"Being able to see the town, instead of flying into Chicago and having to drive about an hour and a half," Grimes said. "It was a positive imagery coming into Cedar Rapids and knowing that they've been preaching to us that you guys here are all excited for us. There were actually some Cedar Rapids fans down in Fort Myers coming around and watching us. It was good and real comforting."
The Kernels' housing program also is something the Twins are happy about. Cedar Rapids is unique in minor-league baseball in that it has an organized program with volunteer billet families for every player.
"The host family program here isn't something we're accustomed to in our organization," Kernels Manager Jake Mauer said. "For those people to open up their homes, for the community to allow us to come in here and watch our boys play is something that's obviously attractive to our organization. It's going to be a great experience for these kids."
Left-hander Taylor Rogers is expected to get the opening-night start for the Kernels. He was a combined 4-3 with a 2.25 earned run average in 15 games last season at Rookie-level Elizabethton and Beloit.
The rest of the rotation is right-hander Hudson Boyd, lefty Mason Melotakis, righty Tyler Duffey, lefty David Hurlbut and lefty Brett Lee, in that order.