The new crop: Midwest League baseball

Midwest Baseball
Midwest League baseball means cheap tickets, cheap beer, variable quality and raw players—who sometimes exhibit incredible promise. — photos by David Henderson

Witness! Players with incredible names like Colton Cain, Damien Magnifico and Rock Shoulders (really!) as they fight for their baseball lives! (And to avoid an alternative career or another plan B they don’t even want to consider.) Here you can sit close enough to home plate to track the break on a breaking ball and check the MPH readings on a scout’s radar gun. And the tickets, food, drink and fuel for a day at the ballpark will set you back less than the cost of parking alone at a major league game.

It’s only a short day-trip from Iowa City to Burlington, to Cedar Rapids, to Clinton, to Davenport—the eastern Iowa cities of the Midwest League, where the next generation of superstars, replacement-level utility infielders and back-of-the-rotation innings-eaters can be witnessed for just a few bucks.

“It’s awesome,” Kris Sutter, father of two Twins fans said. “We can come to any game we want now. Before we would wait till the Twins farm team came here and then we’d go.”
Midwest League baseball means cheap tickets, cheap beer, variable quality and raw players—who sometimes exhibit incredible promise. Like folks who once saw Nirvana at Gabes for $4, these smaller baseball venues offer the chance to get in on the ground floor and to maybe even say, “I saw Mike Trout play for the Cedar Rapids Kernels in 2010,” two years before he was the Rookie of the Year and MVP runner-up to Miguel Cabrera (who in 2001 was an 18-year-old shortstop for the Midwest League’s Kane County Cougars).

Team wins and losses are noted, but ultimately the minor leagues are about player development. Sometimes, for example, a pitcher is terrible. But sometimes he just seems terrible, for a time, because the organization is forcing him to develop a new pitch needed in order to survive in the major leagues. (Please bear this in mind, Drunk Guy on a Thirsty Thursday screaming invective at a struggling teenage pitcher.)

Over the offseason, some Midwest League teams and their major league “parent” organizations shuffled affiliations and signed player development contracts with different major league clubs. After a 20-year association with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Cedar Rapids Kernels are now an affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. The Sutter family from Manchester is pleased with this.

The family goes up to games in the Twin Cities at least once a year, but they love having a sneak preview of future Twins. They’ve already been to two Kernels’ games this season, in spite of the cold, wet April weather that cancelled and postponed many games throughout the league.

“It’s awesome,” Kris Sutter, father of two Twins fans said. “We can come to any game we want now. Before we would wait till the Twins farm team came here and then we’d go.”

The Sutters love seeing the Kernels’ current crop, including Byron Buxton, who signed with the Twins out of high school for $6.2 million and leads the league in hitting. Grown men linger on the railing by the dugout with duffel bags full of baseballs and cards for him to sign. He is off to such a strong start he may soon be promoted up the next rung on the minor league ladder. “I told [my wife] Laura, ‘It’s time to see ‘em right now because I bet by June he’s gone,’” said Sutter. “He’s gonna be gone. As soon as they have the draft in June, he’ll be moved.”

Kernels right fielder Adam Brett Walker is also a budding star. After the Kernels 4-3 win over the Lansing Lugnuts on April 28, Walker wore a straw hat and shades as he mingled with other Kernels players and fans over pizza in the Arctic Insulation Party Plaza.

The Twins selected Walker in the third round of the 2012 draft and Baseball America rated him as the Twins’ 31st best prospect entering the season. He was named the Midwest League Player of the Week for April 22-28, a period in which he hit five home runs.

Though change is a constant on minor league rosters, Walker credits the organization with giving players a greater sense of stability and one less thing to worry about by helping arrange housing. He and Kernels pitcher Tyler Duffey are rooming together with a host family. “For them to give us people to live with and to be able to come here and not have to worry about finding a place to live is really nice.”

While the Twins are known for not rushing player development, the needs of the major league club set the agenda. Injuries or player performance can force the team’s hand. There’s a carpe diem aspect to minor league baseball—for the players and the fans. A fan favorite may be promoted (or sent down or released) by the major league organization at any moment.

David V. Henderson remembers when the Kernels were the Cedar Rapids Reds. He reported on the 2011 Quad Cities River Bandits for WVIK radio and was into Oscar Taveras way before anybody. He lives with his family in Iowa City and on Twitter @DavidVHenderson.

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