Wasn’t 2020 one of the most unusual years? During the early Covid shutdowns, when I was the only one in the office, I could drive the nine miles to work and not see another car on the road. I liked it. A lot. I’ve always been a bit of a loner, so the isolation didn’t bother me at all.
I also liked the slower pace of life that the shutdown thrust upon us. My wife and I were somehow able to watch several complete Netflix series. I lamented the passing of those who could not fight off the virus. I spent three miserable weeks myself in isolation in November, fighting the virus. During the summer of 2020, our local Northwoods League was the only baseball league in the United States still playing ball. They got the cream of the crop of college players and the level of play was excellent. My wife, who’s maybe a bigger baseball fan than me, and I found ample free time to attend games. Fast forward to summer 2021. The ample free time is gone as is the easy commute. Life is back to its harried pace. I miss the slower times.
We did find time to catch a few games this summer. We caught an early Northwoods League game at Waterloo’s venerable Riverfront Stadium, which has a serious Bull Durham vibe going on. The Park is a bit on the small side, 335 to the corners and only 375 to dead center. The field is immaculate, and the park is protected by 12-foot walls, which carry the advertising of many local businesses.
The competition wasn’t quite as good this summer, what with other leagues being in full swing, but it’s still decent. Most of the players are 18-to-20 years old. I didn’t see any future Pujols, Goldschmidts or even Bubba Starlings playing this summer. Just a bunch of young guys playing for the love of the game. I envied them. Someday soon, when these kids are 50, what are they going to remember? The summer they worked at the local elevator or the summer they spent traveling the upper Midwest in a rickety bus playing baseball? We all know the answer to that. I did spot a lone scout, sitting behind home plate, occasionally writing something in his notebook. He looked bored. Also in attendance is my friend Greg, who attends every home game and writes in his journal between innings.
The Waterloo pitcher hit the first two batters of the game, something I had not seen since I performed that feat way back in the day. My record was hitting the first three batters to start a game. The first was on purpose (sorry Jeff) but the next two were from teenage wildness.
The sun came out in the fifth inning and was a welcome addition. It was 2-for-1 drink night, which brought out a nice mix of young and old. The public relations department of the Waterloo Bucks does a bang-up job with promoting the team and making sure everyone has a good time. In between innings, they had kids throwing water balloons to each other, a hot dog eating contest, and a dorky dad dance contest. I could maybe win that. My wife cringed and said, “don’t even think about it.” The crowd sang a hearty “Take me out to the ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch. The 8th inning break featured two men spinning their heads on a bat then trying to run. They made it four wobbly steps before they collided with each other, drawing raucous laughter from the crowd. I don’t even remember who won the game, but a good time was had by all.
2021 was supposed to be the summer that we caught all the local minor league teams. Plans were made to see Omaha play in Des Moines and to catch the Quad City River Bandits in their excellent riverfront ballpark. As Willie says, it’s funny how time slips away.
During the last week of the season, we ventured to Cedar Rapids to watch the Minnesota Twins Class A team, the Kernels, play the Quad City River Bandits. I had hoped to see Asa Lacy pitch this summer, but his injury derailed those plans.
The game was held at Veterans Memorial Stadium, which is an awesome little park. I know terms like awesome and epic are thrown around so much today that they’ve almost lost their meaning. I mean seriously, was your weekend blowout at the local bar epic? Probably only in your own mind.
This ballpark though is awesome, and you can feel it as soon as you walk into the concourse. It seats 5,300 and includes ample standing room in the concourse. There are dozens of food and drink vendors, including a healthy supply of craft beer sellers. They even have picnic tables lining the left-field concourse, right next to the craft ice cream shop, which is great for the kids.
The River Bandits had already clinched the division title while Cedar Rapids was trying to hold off Dayton and Lake County for the final playoff spot.
The evening was absolutely beautiful, low 80’s, no wind. Perfect baseball weather. A flock of geese flying past the right-field fence reminded us that fall was not far off. This game was my first chance to see some of the younger Royals, prospects that hopefully will be in Kansas City in the coming years.
Lefty Anthony Veneziano, a 10th round selection in the 2019 draft, got the start for the River Bandits and he was lights out. He consistently hit 96 and held the Kernels hitless until a seeing eye dog single dropped in front of right fielder Nathan Eaton, who appeared to get a late break on the ball. For the night, Veneziano threw four innings, only allowing two hits while striking out five. I was super impressed with this young man and fully expect him to crack the Royals rotation in the next couple of years.
The Kernels countered with Aaron Rozek, a soft-tossing lefty in the mold of Jamie Moyer. Rozek was throwing an assortment of 74 to 79 mph breaking balls up there. The baby Royals tagged him for five hits in five innings but only managed to plate one run.
Once the starters departed, the fireworks started. Quad City manager Chris Widger countered with Anderson Paulino, who got absolutely torched. The Kernels tagged Paulino for six runs in 2 2⁄3 innings of laborious work, including a well-hit home run off the bat of catcher Alex Isola. Cedar Rapids followed Rozek with Carlos Suniaga and the River Bandits showed him no mercy either, ripping him for six runs in 1 2⁄3 innings of work, which included dongs by catcher Logan Porter, a sweet three-run shot, and one by shortstop Maikel Garcia. Garcia’s blast to left field left the park in a hurry bouncing onto 8th Avenue SW and into someone’s front yard.
Widger mercifully relieved Paulino with the highly touted Will Klein. Klein has a reputation as a strike-out artist and indeed, three of his four outs recorded were punchouts. But. There’s always a but, right? He only gave up one hit, but it was a huge one. Yunior Severino blasted a two-out, three-run shot over the right-center wall to send the home crowd into a state of rapture and saddle Klein with the blown save. The Bandits managed to plate a run in the 8th to make things interesting but went down meekly in the 9th making the final score, 8 to 7, Kernels.
I know it’s an insanely small sample size, but of the prospects it looked like Veneziano is a can’t miss guy. If the Royals have three or four better pitching prospects than this guy, then they’re loaded on the mound. He’s 6’6 and throws with an easy, fluid motion. His fastball has some serious pop, and he kept the Kernels off-balance all night. Klein has a huge arm, 121 strikeouts in just 71 innings. Very impressive. Will he be able to make the jump to the bigs? We’ll see.
Left-fielder Eric Cole looked solid, going 3-for-5. Maikel Garcia, with some additional development, could end up in Kaufmann someday as well. Nick Loftin, the 32nd pick in the 2020 draft made two costly errors on routine plays, which gave him a bad look for the game, but he does swing a solid bat. With some development, I could see him being a poor man’s Whit Merrifield.
For the Twins, their 2021 first-round pick Aaron Sabato looked completely overmatched against Veneziano, but so did everyone else. In his third at-bat, you could literally see the light come on and Sabato hit balls hard in all of his remaining at-bats. He should be in Minneapolis in a few years.
The same two teams meet in a five-game series, which started September 21st, to determine the Midwest League Champion. Minor league baseball continues to amaze me with the quality of play and the amenities that come with a very reasonable price. You gotta love baseball.