Weeds: Minor League baseball road trip

After the Metrodome was built, the forecast for the next 32 years was 70 degrees with a gray sky. A group of us made an annual road trip to Kansas City or Milwaukee where we took our chances with sun and clouds and all matter of natural phenomena. That fell by the wayside as we got busy with kids and such.

We decided to renew our junket this year. Only, we downshifted from the Major Leagues to the Minors. The Twins Midwest League team is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a reasonable day’s drive. It’s a team filled with highly touted prospects. Eight of them were recently named to the All Star team from the Kernels. Really, they’re the “Kernels.” How perfect is that?

Our retinue included the Estimable Mr. Schmid, Sleepy Eye expatriates Billy and Jay, and K. O., who has heard of Sleepy Eye. As we started out, I said to Estimable, a.k.a. Mike, that if Real Guys were going to drive 300 miles, they would be planning to kill something. The fish, fowl, and fauna of Iowa were safe with us. Well, except for any worms on the golf course that got in the way of one of my “drives.”

I said to Pam before we left that this trip was really a psychological journey: guys in their fifties going to worship at the altar of lost youth. With Minor League ball, you are much closer to the players. These were mostly 18 and 19 year old players in their second year of pro baseball. We were their age once. But after a couple rounds of golf, our group had a sore arm, a pulled muscle, and a stiff back.

Sleek, muscular, sinewy, these are among the best thousand or so baseball players in the world. Most are fast as deer, some have explosive power, some can throw a baseball 100 miles per hour. There are quite a few Dominicans on the three teams we got to watch. They signed contracts as 16-year olds, and then played a couple years on the island. Now they find themselves spending a summer in eastern Iowa. Talk about a cultural leap.

As impressive as they were, only a handful of them will ever play in the Majors. The Cubs’ team was staying in our hotel, near the ballpark. One morning I visited with one of their coaches. I asked about the kids that would not succeed. He said that in his years in ball, he found that most of the young men went on to be successful. A year or two of this life is a wonderful internship, even if it doesn’t end at Wrigley Field.

Our timing wasn’t the best. The Kernels are in the midst of a good season, but we saw them lose three straight. That’s baseball. The first night, 19-year old Puerto Rican pitching phenom Jose Berrios had his worst outing of the year, probably of his life.

Byron Buxton was the Twins first draft-pick a year ago and one of the top prospects in all of baseball. His game was oddly quiet while we were there. After a couple “oh-fors,” he got two infield hits and a doinker to right in our last night. Sitting a couple feet away from the warm up circle, you could certainly see his athleticism. The day after we got home he went 3 for 4, with a bases-clearing triple, and a catch that was other-worldly.

The Kernels were playing Quad Cities the first night we were there. By coincidence, they feature last year’s first draft pick; Buxton was second. Carlos Correa is a tall Alex Rodriguez-type shortstop who the Houston Astros picked. In the first two innings, he homered nearly out of the park, doubled off the wall with a “bang” that sounded like a bomb, and caught a line drive about 10 feet over his head. Oh my.

We had a New Ulm moment during the trip. The last night we were there, we were at a biker-cowboy-karaoke bar. (Remember, this is Iowa. And concerning the rumors of Brittany and me singing “I Got You Babe,” I am going with plausible deniability.) “Glen Campbell” was there singing “Wichita Lineman.” Afterwards, we ended up visiting with Glen.

When Glen found out we were from Minnesota, he said that he was born there, in a place called New Ulm. It turns out “Glen” is Vince Randles. His dad was Bruno Randles. Their family lived in New Ulm in the fifties. Folks of a certain age remember Bruno. I asked long time musician Roman Kahle, and he said, “Oh, yes, I remember Bruno. He was quite a fellow and could really play that trumpet.”

Through the magic of Google, I found out that Bruno was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, a child of the Depression. As a 17-year old, he was talented enough to play with a traveling jazz band. Bruno was the only white member of the band, and he came to despise the racism of the South. Bruno, himself, was even threatened by the Ku Klux Klan.

Randles ended up with his young family in New Ulm. In an era where local bands were filling ballrooms, he played with several including the Six Fat Dutchmen. Bruno also started his own band, the Jolly Brewers. Around 1960, the Randles moved to Cedar Rapids. Bruno’s wife died at the age of 48 leaving him to care for their ten children, and he took up several occupations to make ends meet.

Later in life, he ended up in Colorado as a cowboy/artist. There’s a book in here somewhere! He passed away there just over a year ago.

Vince told us that he was about five when they moved to Iowa. Years later Vince went back to New Ulm. Not knowing what he would find there, he had heard of Christy Hengel. As Vince drove through town, he found Christy’s little shop on Minnesota Street. His unannounced visit ended up being a wonderful afternoon that Vince remembers fondly. Christy even dug out an old photo of Bruno with several of his young children on a stage, and Vince was in it.

Rest in peace and Godspeed, Christy and Bruno.

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