An ode to the steamroller

Russ Nixon and the author doing what they both loved doing – talking baseball.

By Todd Brommelkamp/KGYM Radio

After 30 minutes of searching, I found the photo.

Of course, it wasn’t where I thought it was. Having thought I’d just seen it, I rummaged through piles of papers and boxes of memorabilia in my basement. After taking a moment to ponder my own mortality and what would become of my “stuff” I momentarily gave up the search.

Five minutes later, digging through a box in our garage, the photo materialized. The lighting is awful, it’s taken from too far away and beyond blurry. Entire generations will grow up not understanding this is how the vast majority of pictures turned out in an era before digital photography and smart phones.

This was the photo I needed on the day Major League Baseball announced the minor league team I grew up following wasn’t welcome in its affiliated ranks anymore.

If a picture is worth a thousand words it would do more than any number of keystrokes possibly could to explain the type of connection to the game in places like Clinton, Iowa, Major League Baseball was forfeiting in the name of progress and cost-cutting. Mainly the latter.

Russ Nixon is the answer to a great trivia question, one that’s lost a little luster since the retirement of Bobby Cox in Atlanta. Who was the last man to manage the Braves before Cox took over the franchise and guided it to a decade-plus of dominance?

Nixon was a baseball lifer. He caught Hall of Famer Bob Lemon in Cleveland and managed Hall of Famer Tom Seaver in Cincinnati. When visiting the San Diego Padres’ Midwest League affiliate in Clinton during the 1995 and 199s seasons, he would also willingly allow a 16-year-old kid to bend his ear for an inning or two before turning his attention back to the players he was there to evaluate.

Growing up in eastern Iowa hours away from big league stadiums in places like Chicago or Milwaukee or St. Louis, Riverview Stadium in Clinton is where my love for baseball was truly cemented.

I grew up in nearby DeWitt. My parents took me to my first game there in 1988 back when the old Allied Steel plant, where my father worked at until it had closed in the mid-80s, still loomed just beyond the Marlboro Man in right field. Former big league reliever Rod Beck called Clinton home that summer, as did a few other future major league players.

The next year I snared my first two autographs. Catcher Scooter Tucker and side-winding reliever Steve Reed both eventually made it to The Show. The odds of that particular parlay are still hard to fathom. It’s a long way from Clinton to the majors.

Even longer now.

Major League Baseball says communities like Clinton, which lost their affiliated status today after 13 months of rumor and innuendo surrounding the takeover and reorganization of the minors by MLB finally came to fruition, are not losing baseball.

They’re not, though MLB doesn’t appear to have a plan for the two Iowa-based clubs that it cut from Minor League Baseball’s ranks (the Burlington Bees also were severed from the Midwest League along with the Geneva, Ill.-based Kane County Cougars).

But baseball is losing its connection to fans like me in those places. Or, better put, fans like me are losing their connection to MLB.

Adults and kids alike will no longer be able to turn on MLB’s television network and say they once saw Mike Trout play against the LumberKings as a member of the Cedar Rapids Kernels. They’ll miss out on the attachment of following players up the ranks to stardom  or, as is often the case, burnout due to injuries or lack of staying power.

In the movie “Field of Dreams” James Earl Jones’ character, Terrence Mann, delivers a powerful soliloquy about America’s pastime.

There’s a line I keep going back to over and over this afternoon.

America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.

Today, in communities like Clinton and Burlington, it was baseball that was the steamroller.

It’s hard not to feel crushed.