By Casey Drottar
Even two weeks ahead of opening day, Andrea Brommelkamp had no trouble predicting what the return of Cedar Rapids Kernels baseball would look like. The team’s senior director of tickets and group sales knew how important the long-awaited moment would be for everyone, from the stands to the front office.
“It’s going to be super emotional,” Brommelkamp said at the time. “We’ve been through so much in the last year. I wouldn’t doubt if there are lots of people crying, not only from a fan aspect but probably from our staff.”
Not one inning of Kernels baseball had been played in Cedar Rapids since 2019. A COVID-19-driven halt to the minors left Veterans Memorial Stadium as nothing but an empty landmark for months. The time since was filled with an ongoing pandemic, layoffs, fears of losing MLB affiliation and a devastating derecho.
The Kernels view themselves as a community staple, but the pain and hardship they suffered throughout 2020 left many around the area fearing for their future.
“I refer to it as the largest sports bar in town, with really good live entertainment,” general manager Scott Wilson said of his team. “You’re just paying the cover charge to come in and hang out with your friends, hang out with your family.
“You didn’t get that for a year, and I think fans looked at that and were like, ‘Man, are they going to get back?’”
That doubt never crept into the stadium offices. Even with a short-handed staff, even with season prep including the restoration of a derecho-destroyed right field, the front office remained determined to bring the Kernels back in 2021.
And on May 4, 610 days after Cedar Rapids’ last game, fans finally walked through the gates again. The outfield lights were illuminated, the scent of ballpark hot dogs filled the air, players lined a diamond nobody had stepped on in over a year. The Kernels had made their triumphant homecoming.
The baseball community in Cedar Rapids has been through a gantlet, the pain from which has been felt from many angles. The Kernels’ return won’t erase everything that has been endured, but it can be an escape from it. One that wasn’t readily available when needed the most.
For some, opening day represented a climax of countless hours of backbreaking work. For others, it was a reminder of the absences still experienced from the pandemic’s aftermath. But for most, the return of the minor leagues in Cedar Rapids brought a new understanding of just how much this team means to the community.
And for Brommelkamp, it represented a prediction coming true.
“I’ve cried multiple times tonight,” she said during the Kernels’ opener. “We have had multiple hugs. It’s just that release, to be back to doing something that feels normal. I think this will be really good for a lot of people.”
Casey Drottar is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @CDrottar19.