Legends Field is the beautifully renovated home of the Kansas City Monarchs of the American Association – an independent minor league for players not under contract with an MLB organization.

At Legends Field, the Monarchs play host to the Milwaukee Milkmen, Sioux Falls Canaries and Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks.

In other words, Legends Field is one of the last rungs on the professional baseball ladder.

For Matt Adams and Pete Kozma – two St. Louis Cardinals’ postseason legends– the ballpark nestled between Great Wolf Lodge and the Kansas Speedway is a sanctuary for baseball journeys that aren’t finished yet.

Prior to Kansas City’s 12-9 loss to the Cleburne Railroaders on Wednesday night, Adams was awarded the final spot on the American Association West Division All-Star team by fan vote, and he’ll represent the second-place Monarchs in Chicago on July 12.

He wasted no time celebrating.

Adams laced a two-run double to the left-center field wall in the first inning.

In the sixth, Big City roped a line-drive rocket off Railroaders’ starting pitcher Garrett Alexander that landed on the berm of Home Run Hill in right field – his 16th homer of the season.

Adams drew an eighth inning walk and scored on a base hit up-the-middle by Kozma, but the Monarchs’ rally fell short. Adams went 3-for-4 with three RBIs and two runs scored; Kozma finished 1-for-4.

Big City’s solo blast elicited a smattering of applause from a weeknight crowd thinned by the Railroaders’ big lead – but his smooth left-handed stroke and home-run trot will always bring Cardinals’ fans back to the autumn of 2014.

St. Louis trailed 2-0 when Adams clobbered a three-run homer off Clayton Kershaw in the seventh inning of NLDS Game 4 that stunned the most dominant left-handed pitcher in a generation and sent 46,906 fans packed into Busch Stadium into a frenzy.

“I just remember the 1-2 curveball popping out of his hand and making contact with it,” Adams recalled before taking BP prior to Wednesday’s game.

“And immediately putting my arms up in the air, but then realizing it was more of a line drive than a no-doubter. I saw (Dodgers’ right fielder Matt Kemp) going back on it…saw his reaction, saw the bullpen’s reaction.”

“Rounding the bases, just seeing the sea of red and the white rally towels just going crazy – loud. After I touched home plate, I had to go into the batting cage underneath the dugout and kind of calm myself down because we still had two innings to close it out.”

The Cardinals did close it out and Adams’ series-clinching swat ranks among St. Louis’ most dramatic playoff moments.

Many of baseball’s greatest players from Ted Williams to Mike Trout haven’t experienced anything like it – but when Adams watches the highlight of his greatest triumph, he sees something other than a crowning achievement.

“It shows me that’s who I can be again,” he said.

Adams and Kozma both played in the major leagues in 2021; Adams battled injuries but appeared in 22 games with the Colorado Rockies, while Kozma had a brief stint with Oakland and played 113 games for the A’s Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas.

They found themselves on the outside looking in during the offseason.

MLB locked-out the players and when an agreement was reached, spring training and free agency were crammed into one frantic month. The residual effects of COVID-19’s disruption and MLB’s restructuring of affiliated minor leagues also altered the landscape for many MLB and professional veterans.

“I think a lot of guys in this league, they don’t belong in independent ball,” Adams said. “The COVID year threw a wrench into all that. This is a true testament to baseball players that want to keep on playing the game that they love.”

“The competition here has been surprisingly good,” Kozma said.

Pete Kozma bats against the Milwaukee Milkmen. Photo by John Ellis, Courtesy of the Kansas City Monarchs

“For me it’s very similar to (affiliated) minor league ball, obviously it’s different than major league ball, but there’s going to be some guys that we’re going to run into – why isn’t this guy playing somewhere?”

Kozma was a rookie in 2012 when he capped the Cardinals’ improbable comeback in the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS with a two-run single off Washington Nationals’ closer Drew Storen. The Cardinals stormed to a 3-1 series lead in the NLCS before dropping three straight games and the NL pennant to the San Francisco Giants, something Kozma still laments a decade later.

“There’s no reason we should have lost – we were one win away and we were at home facing Barry Zito,” Kozma said.

“It was my first stint in the playoffs and one my first stints in the big leagues. A lot happening at that point, and it was tough to process at that time.”

“Kind of take it for granted because you don’t really know where you are – I hate to say that, like you take things like that for granted. I was 24 years old – so much I haven’t learned at that time. Experience helps in situations like that.”

The Cardinals let Kozma hit free agency after the 2015 season, and he played parts of three seasons with the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s.

The slick-fielding Oklahoma native spent the winter of 2019-2020 playing for the Perth Heat in the Australian Baseball League. He’s appeared in nearly 1,700 professional games and experience was one of the things that attracted him to the Monarchs.

Frank White – an eight-time Gold Glove winner with the Kansas City Royals – is on the Monarchs’ coaching staff.  Mike Henneman, a St. Louis area native that saved 193 games over a 10-year MLB career, is the pitching coach. Manager Joe Calfapietra has managed teams in independent baseball for more than 20 years.

Adams and Kozma are following the same routine that helped them reach baseball’s biggest stage – save for a daily Dutch Bros. nitro cold brew coffee after batting practice that is a favorite in the Kansas City clubhouse.

Adams also continues a Pilates regimen that trimmed weight from his body in 2017.

There is little video analysis and few detailed scouting reports at the independent league level, but Adams and Kozma have played enough baseball to rely on themselves for intel.

“Just seeing with my own eyes, that’s like my best guidance,” Adams said. “Going out there and trusting what I see and developing a game plan off of what the pitcher is trying to do to me that day.”

Adams’ 16 home runs are good for second in the American Association, one behind teammate Jan Hernandez. Kozma is batting .276 with 10 multi-hit games and his glove continues to sparkle in the infield.

Neither of the two Cardinals’ October heroes are ready to hang up their spikes yet and both expect to be in baseball for a long time.

“Tweaking little things, the mental part – it’s little stuff here and there, and that’s another reason why I’m sticking around the game and probably will be for the rest of my life, hopefully,” Kozma said.

“Because you can still give back to the game or give to somebody and they can take it and move it along.”

“My whole story is pretty unique and that’s what I love about the game of baseball – not one story is the same,” Adams said. “Coming from a small area of Pennsylvania, middle of nowhere – I feel like I can give back some of that, some of the knowledge that I’ve learned along the way.”

“When my playing days are over, I would like to stay in the game somehow, some way. It would be great to be able to put the Birds on the Bat on one more time.”

 

 

 

 

Andy Carroll
Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505