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Softball: Reunion is heavy on memories

Members of the Steffl family, including (from left) Jake, Sarah, Pat and Tom will take part in a thoughtfully-arranged fast-pitch softball exhibition at Centennial Fields in Worthington.

WORTHINGTON -- The fast-pitch softball game due to be played Saturday at Centennial Fields in Worthington isn't likely to be well-attended by fans. It isn't going to be stocked with players in the prime of their athletic careers.

You're not likely to see serious confrontations with umpires. Or a take-out slide at home plate.

But it doesn't matter.

The 11 a.m. game between a team that doesn't really have a name (call them the Old Guard) and another team that ... well, doesn't really have a name, either (call them the Young Punks) contains a significance that is not easily explained.

It's about stepping into the past. It's about making new memories. It's about remembering those who have passed on.

On Saturday, a collection of mostly old and retired players who at one time played for the Worthington Welder's Supply team led by Tom Steffl will take the field opposite a collection of mostly young players who -- when the Welder's Supply outfit was in its heyday barnstorming throughout the region in serious weekend tournaments --were too young to play, and in some cases, too young to fully understand the lure of a game that made their fathers and uncles forego fishing expeditions, put family vacations on hold, and made their wives feel neglected.

It started a couple of years ago as an idea. Nate Steffl, Tom's son, and Dan Viessman, son of former Welder's Supply leftfielder Bruce Viessman, began brainstorming with Andrew and Robert Vaske, sons of another Welder's Supply player, Greg Vaske, about what they could do to conjure up some fast-pitch magic.

"We got to thinking it'd be fun to take on the old guard," said Nate, who was too young to play when his dad's team was together.

From that humble beginning emerged the very first Old Guard/Young Punks exhibition in 2012, when mostly old fast-pitch players enjoyed a friendly game with their kids. They played one fast-pitch game and one slow-pitch game.

But it was more than that. The idea became something of a memorial.

Tom Steffl's brother Dick, a one-time regular Welder's Supply member, died about three years ago. Another former player, Mike Ahrens, died last year in April. Tom and Dick's father, David -- who was well-known throughout southwest Minnesota as a men's fast-pitch organizer and tournament host -- died not long after Dick. David's wife, Mary, who ran the concession stand during Worthington tournaments that David put together, died last June.

Having another tournament -- or an exhibition in this case --is "a nice way to play and remember," said Nate.

Besides that, it was also a way (or at least an attempt) to revive softball in Worthington.

Thirty years ago, fast-pitch and slow-pitch softball kept Centennial Fields hopping throughout the summer. That is no longer the case as, for whatever reasons, the summer game is enticing fewer and fewer advocates.

Tom remembers when, in the mid-1980s, there were "110-plus teams" playing in Worthington. "It's terrible to see softball fields in this town not being used," he says today.

It's impossible to predict today whether Saturday's two-team exhibition will grow into something more substantial, but that remains the hope of the organizers. This year, they hoped to get four teams to commit, and until earlier this week they thought they had at least three teams ready to go.

That didn't happen, but Nate isn't ready to concede that a real tournament might not yet take shape in the future.

Nate, now 25 and a Twin Cities resident, has surely grown from the young boy who, during his father's heyday, was only old enough to watch. Or to retrieve foul balls for a nickel. Today, of course, he's graduated from T-ball and plays softball with other grownups.

He was on the field last year along with his brother Jake and sisters Abby and Megan, and the children of other former Welder's Supply regulars. But he's not to old to forget how it was when he was little.

He still remembers running after those foul balls. And he remembers his grandmother, who stocked the concession stand with some of her own home-made food products, happily manning the little wood shack behind home plate. And he still remembers his grandfather, David, riding around the fields on his golf cart to check up on things.

All those memories, and perhaps more, are reasons why Nate Steffl and others like him dare to dream.

"That's kind of what we wanted to do," Nate says now, "just play a game that a lot of people here haven't seen for a while."

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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