CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – As workers prepared to open the gates of Veterans Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, 77-year-old Tony Pantini stood leaning on a baseball bat atop the concourse, marker in hand. The retired schoolteacher has spent the past 12 seasons volunteering in the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ guest services booth, grabbing autographs when the occasion presents itself.
The rehabilitation appearance in town of 2009 American League MVP Joe Mauer was just such an occasion.
“The older players, you can always read their signatures,” Pantini said. “I’ll have to write [Mauer’s] name on the handle.”
That might be the only complaint lodged by anyone associated with the Kernels in the wake of the arrival of Mauer and Twins teammate Ricky Nolasco. General Manager Doug Nelson estimated Tuesday’s crowd at 4,300 fans, more than double the expected attendance before Mauer’s appearance was announced last Friday.
“When [Twins farm director] Brad Steil called with the news, I was speechless,” Nelson said.
Both players were in Cedar Rapids as part of their rehab from injuries. Mauer hasn't played for the Twins since July 1 because of a strained oblique muscle; Nolasco has been out for about a month with a sore arm.
Throughout the weekend and well into Monday, the phones in the Kernels’ box office were lit up like one of the team’s weekend fireworks displays. At its peak, “Mauer Mania” was moving about 100 tickets per hour according to Sammy Brzostowski, the team’s ticket office manager.
After suffering through a brutally cold April and May and a wet June and July, Mauer’s presence was just what the club needed to gets fans through the gates. More than 200 fans lined the first base railing three hours before game time to watch Mauer take batting practice and hopefully grab an autograph. The Twins’ six-time All-Star willingly obliged, and Nolasco was expected to do the same Wednesday as he remains in Cedar Rapids in preparation for his second start Sunday.
Countless fans sported Twins jerseys and caps, a sight Nelson and his staff became accustomed to during the team’s first year of affiliation with Minnesota last season.
“It’s safe to say both the Kernels organization and the Twins organization is very happy with the partnership,” Nelson said.
It’s a partnership that was extended through the 2020 season after Steil met with the Kernels’ board of directors Tuesday night. The Twins moved their Class A Midwest League affiliation from Beloit, Wis., to Cedar Rapids after the 2012 season. Cedar Rapids had previously been part of the Los Angeles Angels organization.
Mauer went 1-for-3 with a run scored in his debut, scoring on a single by Bryan Haar in the third inning. The Kernels scored six runs in the fourth inning to rip the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers 9-0.
“I kind of had a feeling off the bat that knowing Jake, I’d be going home,” Mauer joked after being removed from the contest in the fourth inning.
Jake Mauer, Joe’s older brother and a former Twins farmhand himself, is in his second year as the Kernels manager.
Nolasco went 3⅔ scoreless innings, surrendering a pair of hits while recording two strikeouts and walking one.