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Doug Wolter: Amateur baseball without Wilmont isn't the same

This time of year, under normal circumstances, the little town of Wilmont, situated on County Road 16 in the northern part of Nobles County, enjoys its seasonal moment in the sun. But there is no season in the sun this year for the Wilmont Cardin...

 

This time of year, under normal circumstances, the little town of Wilmont, situated on County Road 16 in the northern part of Nobles County, enjoys its seasonal moment in the sun.

But there is no season in the sun this year for the Wilmont Cardinals baseball team, which has disbanded after decades of providing area residents with some of the best amateur baseball played for miles around.

It’s a hard pill to swallow. Wilmont was one of the founding members of the First Night League which, in 1949, was the first Minnesota amateur league to schedule all of its games at night under the lights. In time, the Cardinals became recognized as one of southwest Minnesota’s most successful teams. They enjoyed a run of eight state tournament berths over a 12-year period through 2013.

That was only three years ago. Today they don’t exist. And the future of Butz Probst Field is being debated.

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Former players are deflated.

“When we first heard this spring what was happening, it was a complete shock,” said Sam Baumgartner on Monday afternoon. “I guess it was a day we thought might come, but we were hoping it wouldn’t happen. It’s really just kind of sad to see it go the way it has.”

Baumgartner is a 24-year Wilmont baseball veteran who retired after the 2009 season as player-manager. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Bob, who played on the state tournament team of 1969.

It’s a fact of life that amateur baseball teams don’t always last. Sometimes they disband for good; sometimes they disband only for a few years.

The Worthington Cubs are a case in point. The amateur team broke up for a few years (for various reasons) until coming together again recently. And now, ironically, the Cubs are one of the First Nite League’s best teams, and (more irony) some of their current players are former Wilmont Cardinals.

Not long ago, Worthington and Wilmont were arch-rivals. Part of the rivalry was stoked by the fact that Wilmont’s roster (which was typically more impressive than Worthington’s) consisted of players that otherwise might be Cubs.

These days, most of the teams that for decade upon decade were staples of southwest Minnesota amateur baseball -- the Pipestone A’s, Hadley Buttermakers, Luverne Redbirds, Heron Lake Lakers, Jackson Bulls, Lakefield Horn Frogs, Adrian A’s, etc -- continue to run and throw and sweat in the summer sun. Who would have thought that Wilmont would be out?

When I asked Sam what happened, he responded in a way that I had heard many times before, from other guys. He said the players got older. Their bodies coaxed them into retirement. Wives and families required greater commitments. There wasn’t enough new players to replenish that good baseball stock.

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That’s the way ballplaying traditions often end. But that doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

“It’s such an amateur baseball town. I still can’t believe it’s happening,” said Sam. “We have an empty, hollow feeling.”

It may be presumptuous, however, to close the book completely on Wilmont amateur baseball. Recently the town assembled for a city council meeting to discuss the future of Butz Probst Field, and my sources tell me that there’s still plenty of support for it.

Before the meeting, rumors flew, indicating that the field might be plowed under or converted into a plot for new homes. But hold the fort.

I’m told that at the council meeting, called simply to allow citizens to brainstorm on the subject of the field, there was ample support articulated to keep it standing. True, one of the light towers that was hit by a car has to be taken down, and the old grandstand needs work. But it seems crystal clear that townspeople still have feelings for the ol’ ball field.

Oh, and one more thing: I was also told that a new T-ball program was started in Wilmont this year that brought in 75 participants.

By the time those T-ball players are old enough to re-start the Wilmont Cardinals, many years will have passed. But it would be well worth the wait.

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