Baseball Is Forever
By John Gilbert
Look around, there’s probably a high-octane American Legion baseball game you overlooked, at a ballpark near you. But look fast. Legion teams are already in state tournament elimination tournaments as July ends.
Seems like we’re barely into actual summer, and the actual summer American Legion baseball season is ending for about half the remaining teams, every day. Legion baseball is one of the best-kept secrets around. You rarely find the results in any newspaper or on television sportscasts, and there doesn’t seem to be any valid reason for the scarcity of information. Apparently, there isn’t much of a network set up for reporting the results to the media, and the media is just going along with the rest of us, recovering from Windchill season just in time to back off a bit and relax for Dog Day season.
For those lucky enough to chase down the occasional high school baseball game that was played in this area in the Northland springtime, the intensity and the skill level of the ball games was impressive. Always is. It’s one of the more remarkable sports achievements in Northeast Minnesota that baseball is as good as it is, considering how short the season is. When that too-short high school season ends, the Twin Cities teams, with their “southern” exposure to warmer temperatures earlier, dominate the state tournaments. After that, the high school players branch out and play for whatever American Legion post is nearest. Think of it as Little League for teenagers.
High school players up to age 19 are eligible, and the competition is usually very good. Especially in the Northland, where it seems as though the players are so eager to celebrate the arrival of warm weather that they play with a little extra fire. Last week I drove around trying to find a Legion game, just to see where we were at. I drove past Hermantown’s field — no game. I drove past Proctor’s field, same thing. I drove down by Wade Stadium, and the Huskies were out of town and nothing was going on.
Heading for home, I drove up 40th Avenue East and, sure enough, there was action at Ordean Field. Or what used to be Ordean Field, and is now probably Duluth East/Ordean Field, or something like that. One team was wearing red, but it wasn’t East. It was Superior, which always seems to be in blue, but not this time. Their post is named the Reds, and it says Reds on their jerseys. The other team was in black, and that was the nucleus of the Duluth East team, playing for the Lakeview Legion post.
Lakeview had a big day, winning 5-0 in the first game, and coming from a deficit of 2-0 to win 4-2 in the second game. Tournament play came next for Lakeview, which was to become the No. 2 seed for the district event. The Superior guys also were heading for tournament play, on the Wisconsin side. In Legion ball these days, they have Division I for the bigger programs, and Division II for the smaller areas. Both tournaments are double-elimination and end before the end of July.
Years ago, the Duluth area was hotly competitive in American Legion baseball. I grew up living outside the East End of Duluth, in Lakewood, and I could catch rides with my mom to Portman Square, on 47th and McCulloch, every day and spend those youthful days practicing baseball and making up pickup games till she could pick me up in late afternoon. Getting older, after the sixth grade at Lakewood School, we were bused into town, but not to nearby East; there was talk East was overcrowded, but we knew the upper-class East folks didn’t want these country kids coming in and infiltrating. So we were bused to Washington Junior and then Central High School.
It made for an interesting situation for a baseball kid, like me. All summer, every summer, I played with the kids from East, who became close friends, and we played our best against the kids from the downtown — the Central area kids — as well as Woodland, the West Duluth Cubs, Morgan Park, Esko, Cloquet, Two Harbors and Silver Bay. But our prime rival was the downtown kids, with whom I later went to junior high and high school, and they also became good friends.
By the time we got to high school, I continued to play for the Zenith City American Legion Post with the Lakeside and Lester Park kids I’d played with all my life, while the kids I knew in high school grew up to play for the David Wisted Post. That meant I played for Central, against my summer buddies from East. Made for some great rivalry games, because the talent level of the two areas was pretty even.
In Legion, our home games for Zenith City were at Ordean Field, which was an oddly shaped facility with a long, angular grandstand, and then a vast open field that actually had two softball fields in the outfield, one in left and the other, which seemed about a block away, in right. The entire infield was grass, except for the pitching mound.
One of my personal sports thrills was that our Central team, under new coach Jim Norwick, won our league championship. We had some great players: pitchers Dan Howard and Rich Tanski, catcher Bill McGann, third baseman Dick Holte, Mickey Farrell and Larry Greenberg at second base, a herd of good outfielders, led by Dennis Morgan, and I was at shortstop. Not much of a hitter in those days, but I had a pretty good glove and a real live arm. We beat my buddies from East, and went on to win the District 26 title, although our optimism was short-circuited when we ran into an Eveleth team with a fireballing right-hander named Roy Nystrom in the Region 7 tournament.
When summertime came, I switched allegiances again, and rejoined the Zenith City Legion team. We had some good players, like future UMD hockey and football star Dick Fisher, another UMD hockey player in Bill Savolainen, heavy-throwing pitcher Larry Conrad, and a couple of secret weapons. Morgan Park had run out of bodies and couldn’t field a full team, so John Gornick and Jim Udevich were allowed to drive all the way across town and join our team at midseason. Udevich was a solid-hitting outfielder, and Gornick was a multi-sports star and an outstanding left-handed pitcher/first baseman. We opened the season at Ordean, against Wisted.
The Wisted guys, my high school teammates, were flushed with confidence, and big left-hander Dan Howard was out on the mound, where he would spend his summer upgrading his potential as a future Gophers pitcher. We got through the top of the first, and came up to bat. At Central, I didn’t hit much, but I learned a lot. Among the things I learned was that Dan Howard was really fast, but his curveball was an off-speed rumor. Didn’t matter, because he could blow down most foes with fastballs.
I stepped into the batter’s box, and ignored the heckles from my Central buddies. In my mind, I knew Dan Howard was going to throw fastballs — especially to me, his light-hitting former teammate. So I dug in, and convinced myself that there was no need to be intimidated. He’d fire a fastball, and I’d either miss it or hit it — but for sure, I’d swing. First pitch was a missile, and I swung from the heels. My reaction time was not as quick as Dan Howard’s fastball, but I made solid contact for a late-swinging shot — to my surprise, and to the Wisted players‘ universal shock. The ball sailed off into right field, down the line for a clean, opposite-field double. Or maybe a triple. It was a long time ago.
Seems to me we lost that game, although I can’t remember. I do remember growing up a whole bunch with that one swing. A lot more than I would have had I swung and missed at that pitch. That instant maturation pushed me to a really great summer, and my batting average rose on a direct parallel with my confidence. It worked in the field, too, because at shortstop I felt like I could catch up to any grounder hit between second base and our third baseman, and my favorite play was to backhand a hard hit ball deep in the hole, and rocket a throw across to nail the batter at first. I was by no means a standout; just an emerging player who loved the game.
I got better, in later years, and played Park National ball in Minneapolis, and later organized an over-35 team that I still operate today. The high point of that long-ago Legion ball summer was that Gornick emerged as a true pitching standout, and we kept winning, until we won the district tournament championship. Yup, we beat Wisted, along with tough teams from Esko and Cloquet.
We didn’t have enough depth to go very far toward the state tournament, but that didn’t matter. For years, every time I ran into any of my old Central buddies, I could heckle them about being the only player who played on championship teams for both Central and Zenith City.
All of those memories came back in the last week, because of two circumstances. First, my senior men’s team in the Twin Cities only had nine guys so I played as an aging veteran on the 35-and-over outfit down at Edina. We rallied from behind to win 8-7 in the final inning. One day later, I stood behind the screen at the all new and magnificently redesigned Ordean field, watching this year’s American Legion teams battle as they headed for tournament play.
The parallel between the teenagers and the old guys playing the same game is riveting: Kids of all ages can play baseball, and keep on playing it, and a few never get enough of it and play far beyond their physical abilities.
Vikings Camp Opens
Almost as if to punish the Minnesota Twins for such a struggling, lackluster season, the Minnesota Vikings will certainly remove a lot of pressure on the Twins when they open training camp. The Twins came out of the All-Star break with a 10-game homestand, and promptly showed how tough it is to beat a hot team driving toward contention when Tampa Bay came to Target Field and swept the Twins.
But the Cleveland Indians also were hot and in contention, and the Twins knocked them off, two out of three. The Chicago White Sox came to town next, and pretty well extinguished any Twins hopes for contention.
Despite all the whining and suggestions of trading away any player of value — a ridiculous practice at best — Twins observers seem to have forgotten that Joe Mauer, still the man of this club, has to take it slow to come back from a strained oblique muscle. That’s an injury that inflicts great pain as a response to any movement or twisting action, such as hitting, throwing or running. When he gets back into the lineup, things might look a lot more pleasant for the mainly punchless club.
Ah, but the Vikings.
I have not been this optimistic about the Vikings since the days when Brett Favre was a surprise acquisition and led the team to its best season in a couple of decades. Going into this summer’s draft, I said, and wrote, that the player I thought the Vikings should draft was Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. With a decent defense, and an improved offensive line and receiving corps, plus the inimitable Adrian Peterson, the Vikings were OK with Matt Cassell at quarterback, backed up by Christian Ponder.
But I had watched Bridgewater lead Louisville to a superb season last year, and was impressed with his quickness, his play-calling instincts, his running ability, and his ability to throw short and long, hard and soft, and almost always the right one at the right moment, under pressure. Despite some critics, the Vikings did make a trade and take Bridgewater at the end of the first round. Given a chance, I think Bridgewater gives the Vikings the same sort of high-octane offense the Seattle Seahawks, or the San Francisco 49ers, or several other rejuvenated contenders have because of casting their lot with talented young quarterbacks.
Bridgewater doesn’t have to be as great as I think he is to succeed, not as long as he can hand the ball off to Adrian Peterson half the time. Even then, he’ll make the Vikings a division contender. And if he is as elusive and clever as I think he is, the Vikings could win the division. You read it here first, Packer fans!