Amateur Baseball: Amateur baseball in SW Minnesota: As solid as wood
WORTHINGTON -- Once upon a time in amateur baseball, everybody used aluminum bats.
Pitchers cringed in fear of balls coming back at them five times faster than they could throw them to the plate.
Purists in the stands cringed at the sound of the "ping." It sounded so unsatisfying.
Team managers shrugged, acknowledging that at least the aluminum bats lasted longer, which was good for the budget.
Players (most of them, at least) smiled. They could hit the ball farther and harder with the more generous sweet spot that aluminum provided.
Alas, the "good ol' days" are gone in Minnesota amateur baseball. For about a dozen years now, thanks to a ruling by the Minnesota Baseball Association (MBA), metal has been replaced by wood. And, to hear local amateurs talk about it today, it suits them just fine.
"I think wood bats keep it more competitive," said Scott Bahr, general manager of the Jackson Bulls and president of the First Nite League and Gopher League. "It made it more of a real baseball game. And it's shortened up the game a bit, which is good for the fans."
Fifteen or 20 years ago, amateur baseball runs were easier to come by. But now, 16-13 games are less common.
And since it's harder to score runs, said Bahr, pitchers' careers are being prolonged.
"You can stay competitive by throwing strikes," he explained.
Another season of amateur baseball is well under way in southwest Minnesota, and the leagues appear to be as solid as the sound a wood bat makes when it strikes ball.
One of the First Nite League teams, Fairmont, placed second in the state tournament last year. Today, there are seven teams in the First Nite League and eight in the Gopher League. The Worthington Cubs, who did not field a team for several years in the 2000 decade, are back. The Lakefield Horned Frogs have been added. The Gopher League added the Milroy Irish, Tracy Express and Minneota Mudhens in the last three years. The Mountain Lake Lakers don't have a team this year, but hope remains that they'll be back in the fold soon.
With summer now here, fans will have plenty of opportunities to hear the old-time traditional wood bat sound throughout the region.
Josh Wasmund, player-manager of the Worthington Cubs, says the development of composite wood bats have benefited the game. The newer wood composites don't break as easily as the traditional wood bat. They don't offer quite as much pop as the old-style bats, either, but they still sound like the old wood bats and when you find the sweet spot the ball still travels just as far.
The Cubs have a mixture of traditional bats and composite wood bats. Regular wood bats can cost as little as $30, he said, and the more expensive ones can cost more than $100. Composite bats go for about $130. Wasmund is still using the composite he used four years ago.
Said Wasmund: "I haven't used an aluminum bat for so long now, I couldn't tell you the difference any more."
"The composite, you get the wood bat sound," Wasmund explained, adding that some of the composite bat handles are made of fiberglass, and when you hit the ball wrong it sounds like broken glass. Regardless, he's not interested in going back to aluminum.
"I think, even the feel. When you make contact with the wood bat, it feels more natural," he said.
Cubs 'pretty solid'
The Cubs entered weekend play with a 1-5 record, but three of those games were lost after they had leads going into the ninth inning. Wasmund, a 10-year veteran of amateur baseball in his second year of managing the Cubs, nevertheless says his team is "pretty solid everywhere."
Pitchers Adam Munkel, Nate Jensen, Mitch Jensen and Ethan Duffy have all shown, according to Wasmund, "that they can pitch in this league." Munkel entered the weekend having not allowed an earned run in nearly 20 innings.
Munkel and Mitch Jensen were the team's top hitters a year ago. Outfielder Cody Melendrez has come up with some big, timely hits this year.
Wasmund maintains that the Cubs need to be better as a team coming up with clutch hits. But he also knows that most of the team's players are in their first and second years as amateurs.
"On the field, they know what to do. It's just about learning amateur ball, with the wood bats. It seems like most of them enjoy the challenge (of wood bats), because you have to get good contact so they don't get weak hits as much," Wasmund said.
The wood bats may serve as an equalizer for competitiveness around the league. Bahr says that both leagues are competitive from top to bottom, and no one team dominates like they sometimes did in the past. He credits the current crop of managers for holding the league together.
"They're real, real good baseball guys. And because of that, the teams really stick at it. Most people don't realize that it's a lot of work to manage a team," said Bahr.
If only half of the area's amateur baseball managers are as dedicated as Wasmund, the league's future will be set for years to come. Married and with three young children, Wasmund has had surgeries on both his shoulders. He dislocated his left shoulder sliding in a slow-pitch softball game and later dislocated his right in a baseball game. He had his first surgery in the fall of 2009, "then did the right one right after it," he said, "so I wouldn't miss any baseball."
The young husband and dad says he plans to continue right on playing.
"I think the only thing that'll stop me from playing will be watching him play," he says, pointing to his 4-year-old T-ball player, Gage.
As for the Cubs, Wasmund maintains his optimism.
"I think we're going to have fun (this summer)," he said. "We have a really good group of guys this year. I think we can compete in the playoffs."