Some fans collect Twins baseball cards. Some gather Twins autographs. But in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the most fervent baseball fans stockpile future Twins players.
Or at least they will, starting in April. The Cedar Rapids Kernels already have commitments from nearly two dozen families willing to donate their spare bedroom, and in many cases an extra car, to the Class A ballplayers that Minnesota will send to the central Iowa farm community this summer. And there’s a waiting list of additional volunteers.
“It’s really a unique situation, the way that community embraces the players. It’s just a great tradition with that franchise, to give the players a host family who can help them acclimate to the community, get to know people,” said Brad Steil, Twins director of minor league operations. Several minor league cities have host-family programs like the Kernels’, but few have such widespread cooperation. “That was one of the big positives that attracted us to Cedar Rapids.”
The Kernels might find plenty of Minnesotans attracted to their community of about 125,000 this summer, because high-upside prospects such as Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios and Max Kepler are likely to be assigned to the Midwest League franchise for 2013. And Cedar Rapids is only a little more than a four-hour drive from Target Field.
The affiliation with the Kernels is new for the Twins, who decided after eight seasons in Beloit, Wis., to seek a partner with a better stadium than 30-year-old Pohlman Field and more modern amenities. “We liked the Beloit franchise; the people are great. But their stadium needs a lot of upgrades, and unfortunately they don’t have the means to get many improvements done,” said Jim Rantz, who held Steil’s job for several decades until retiring last winter and who led the search for an affiliate last fall. “We decided to see what else might be available.”
At the same time, the Kernels were looking for a way “to energize our fan base after attendance began to stagnate,” said Cedar Rapids General Manager Doug Nelson, and a new affiliation — one with a Midwest team, something the franchise had not had since 1972 — seemed a perfect solution. “There really isn’t a connection among our fan base to the Angels,” Cedar Rapids’ major league partner for 20 years, Nelson said. Fan surveys showed greatest support for the Chicago Cubs, whose Class AAA affiliate is an hour away in Des Moines, “with the Twins consistently a strong No. 2,” he said.
The Kernels severed their ties with the Angels in October and quickly found an eager suitor in Rantz. Veterans Memorial Stadium was built in 2002, seats 5,500 people, or almost twice as many as Pohlman, and has an indoor batting cage, a sizable home clubhouse, one of the largest and best-equipped workout rooms in the Midwest League — and all those volunteers willing to open their homes to players. Every Angels farmhand stayed with a host family last season; only two Twins players had similar arrangements in Beloit.
“That’s a big deal to us, considering we’re talking about 19- and 20-year-old kids, many of whom have never been away from home for so long,” Steil said. “[Cedar Rapids] wanted to do a four-year deal, too [rather than an industry-standard two years], so it was just a great match.”
And it should be for Twins fans who want to take a day trip to see their team’s future, too. “The whole city is really excited about the Twins. Our season-ticket sales rose by 15 percent, and we’ve already sold out four bus trips to Minneapolis,” said Nelson, who also has been overseeing the installation of a 30-by-48-foot video board. He’s planning “Twins Tuesdays,” too, with players wearing Minnesota uniforms once a week, to celebrate the partnership. “I think Twins fans will really enjoy the game experience here.”