Baseball is more than a game to these Cedar Rapids Kernels superfans

Joan Reinberg has been coming to Kernels games for at least the last 20 years, sitting in the same sear her uncle, Bud Curran, had. (Mack Liederman/MEDILL)

By: Mack Liederman

Medill Reports

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — It’s routine. They attend the church of baseball — almost religiously.

“Missed a game?” said Joan Reinberg with a chuckle as she leaned back in her usual seat on the main concourse at Veterans Memorial Stadium. “I don’t think I have in the last 20 years.”

It took a pandemic to keep Reinberg, 84, away from her beloved Cedar Rapids Kernels. She attended the entirety of the team’s first homestand, which marked the Kernels’ first games since a 610-day hiatus.

The return of Minor League Baseball means the Kernels’ most committed, tenured fans have not only regained their team, but also a way of life. Despite no games since 2019, more than 95% of season ticket holders retained their seats for the 2021 season, according to Andrea Brommelkamp, the team’s director of tickets and group sales.

Even without baseball, Brommelkamp and Reinberg stayed in touch during the pandemic, checking in over the phone, indulging in the occasional town gossip.

The team community holds “a special connection” for Reinberg. In the 1950s, her uncle Guy “Bud” Curran introduced the then-20-something Reinberg to the team. After he died in 2007, Curran’s regular seat became Reinberg’s regular seat. Right there on the main concourse, above the rest of the fans, just a little bit down the first-base line.

The ballpark, Reinberg said, brings her closer to her relatives. Baseball always has been about family. Curran worked as the team’s groundskeeper. Her late husband, Ernie Reinberg, was a season ticket holder, and her cousin Nancy Cram loved the Kernels too.

In a memorial before first pitch on May 5, Cram was honored alongside six other superfans who died before the team could return to play.

Reinberg wants the family pastime to live on. A love for the game is a gift of inheritance. With the Kernels back, she’s excited to bring her grandkids to games. Soon, her great-grandkids will come too.

“Eventually, they will be fans,” Reinberg said. “That’s right, it’s a family. The guys up there, I know all of them.”

The guys up there, Jim West and Tom Kelly, shared a fist-bump before settling into their usual seats on the concourse, a little up and to the left of Reinberg. It’s a straight shot above home plate. West watched closely as a Peoria Chiefs left fielder laid out for a diving catch.

“You’ll see plays here like that, that are just outstanding,” he said. “I mean, it’s just good baseball. It really is.”

Asking the duo why they love the game is a softball question. The answer is easy: They’re bona fide baseball buffs.

West has been attending Minor League Baseball since the late ’50s, when his dad took him to Midwest League games in his hometown of Dubuque. For 15 years, he has been going to see the Kernels, and now he’s back for more.

“I felt like there was no summer,” West said of his baseball-free free time last year. “To be in the stadium, to see everybody again, this is a big deal.”

In their seats, West and Kelly swapped stories and reminisced on players as far back as 30, 40 years ago. For them, part of the joy is in the hunt, spotting the next great talent before he reaches the major league.

“There was nobody better than Mike Trout when he was here 11 years ago,” Kelly said.

“We had Byron Buxton too,” chimed in West with pride.

Kelly’s memories of the Kernels go back to the early ’60s, when the team was still running through a gamut of nicknames: the Braves, the Giants, the Astros, the Reds.

During the pandemic, he tried to substitute the Kernels with his grandkid’s baseball games, but even they were limiting attendance at two seats per player. The return of the Kernels allowed Kelly to enjoy his more typical diet of baseball.

“I’ve been all over the Midwest watching the Kernels play,” Kelly said.

As the president of the Kernels booster club, Kelly used to organize field trips to road games in Waterloo, Dubuque, Clinton and Burlington. With MLB’s restructuring of Minor League Baseball during the pandemic, only the Quad Cities and Cedar Rapids teams remain within driving distance.

But that won’t stop Kelly and West from venturing out for some bonus baseball anyway. They just can’t get enough of the Kernels.

“I think most of the people that come here, they’re not like us,” West said. “We’ll be here all the time.”

Mack Liederman is a graduate student in the sports specialization master’s program at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Twelve students were in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines and South Bend recently reporting and writing stories on Minor League Baseball.