Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Minor League Opening Week 2011

All photos of the Kernels home opener available on Flickr.

A week after play started in the big leagues, most full-season MiLB teams across the country started their season on Thursday, April 7th. Minor League Opening Day may not have the pomp and enthusiasm as the majors, but I of course enjoy it just the same because I love the hustle and devotion of minor league athletes. No matter what the league is or level of competition, Opening Day symbolizes the same thing everywhere - a fresh start and a new opportunity. It is the beginning of a journey for each of the thousands of minor leaguers, from new draftees to AAA veterans, that could one day see them fulfill their lifelong dream of playing under the lights of a major league ballpark.

I spent my 2nd consecutive MiLB opener at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids. The Kernels actually started out the season on the road, and the home opener was Monday against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. This also meant I was spending my 2nd consecutive MiLB opener rooting for the road team from my home state of Wisconsin. I arrived at the ballpark about a half-hour before the first pitch to make sure I could collect the Veterans Memorial Stadium 10th Season t-shirt they were giving away to the first 1,000 fans. The good news was that the crowd was only about 1500 so there were plently left, but the bad news is that they only had Adult Small left. I took one anyways - maybe I'll lose 30 pounds someday, who knows. I also collected the customary Opening Day magnet schedule. Looking around the park this year, there is nothing really new to report. There was a slew of new outerwear in the team store, and they added a roof over the beer stand in the Randy Kuehl Pavilion - that's about it. Parousing the gameday program, many of the promotions seem to be the same too: Star Wars Night, Jimmy Buffet Night, etc. It seems clear to me that after the Kernels got their new ballpark 10 years ago, they were going to be content with the way things were for awhile. This is the 3rd year I've been to a game at the Vet, and for the 3rd straight year nothing is different. The Kernels have a nice, relatively new park, a good team and fan base, and a slew of great theme nights - I guess with over 100 years of baseball tradition in Cedar Rapids, that's about all you need.

I got my beer wrist band and went with a Leine's Red and a pork tenderloin sandwich for dinner. After trying almost every single food there over the last couple years, this is probably still the best menu item. For those who don't know, the pork tenderloin is pretty much Iowa's state food, so if you can count on one food being done right at any restaurant or venue, it will be the pork tenderloin. I decided to splurge the extra $3 from my typical GA ticket to sit in the 4th row right behind home plate, which proved to be crucial because I now had protective netting in front while I concentrated on not getting mustard from my sandwich on me for the first inning. The T-Rats spoiled the Kernels' home debut with a 3-1 victory, and as a Brewers fan I was very happy with what I saw. Wisconsin played stellar defense, had pretty good pitching, and had many sound fundamental at-bats. My only criticism is that they don't have a lot of team speed. The Kernels, on the other hand, had erratic pitching, particularly their starter who walked 6 and hit a batter. The strength of this team is again supposed to be pitching but I wasn't impressed with what I saw tonight. Offensively, they hit a lot of balls right on the screws but were robbed time and time again by an outstanding Timber Rattler infield. The Kernels' lone highlight was a 405-ft bomb to dead center by Travis Witherspoon, who also collected a single and a walk. Carlos George was the star of the night for the T-Rats, going 2-3 with a double, walk, and 2 RBI out of the 9-spot, and more notably making at least four amazing defensive plays at shortstop that I can remember. As I said, the entire infield defense was pickin' it all night. The top prospects at this level for the Brewers were Reggie Keen and Cody Hawn, and they had one hit apiece. Another player I saw at the Rising Stars Game for the T-Rats was the starter Tyler Thornburg. He struck out 5 in 3 innings of work, and then gave way to Dan Britt who gave up 1 hit in 4 innings of relief, and Brian Garman who shut the door with a 4-out save. It was a good showing by the Brewers' A-affiliate, and I also look forward to rooting for the home team down in Cedar Rapids sometime soon.

Brewers 5-5 (3 @ Pirates, 3 @ Nationals)
Reds 7-3 (3 @ Padres, 4 v. Pirates)
Twins 3-6 (2 v. Royals, 4 @ Rays)

Erik - 2
Peter - 10

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