Doug Wolter: History is still important in amateur baseball
Amateur baseball goes way back in Minnesota, where small towns gather around the sport in summer. Maybe not as much as it's happened in the past, but communities still need it and appreciate it.
A film called “Town Ball” is being shown intermittently on the television station that carries Minnesota Twins baseball. I watched it over the weekend and was taken back to an earlier time.
We have the book, “Town Ball,” at The Globe. It was written several years ago by Armand Peterson and Tom Tomashek, and it’s a colorful recounting of amateur baseball as it’s been plied in Minnesota throughout the decades.
The film is a sweeping narrative, complete with panorama views of the state’s most celebrated ball parks and interviews with former players who wax poetic about the way of life they plugged into when they were young and free -- one of them, in fact, a former teammate of mine while I tested my middling talents with the Worthington Community College team back in the day.
There was a time when amateur baseball loomed large almost everywhere. When the old-timers tell you whole towns turned out for the games, they weren’t kidding. In 1946, for instance, 10,395 spectators showed for the Southern Minny playoffs, according to the “Town Ball” authors.
Amateur ball was an “event” in the early days. Town pride was a big factor in the attention it captured -- that, and the fact that there wasn’t much else to do in the otherwise sleepy small communities where it was played.
These days, at least in these parts, amateur baseball isn’t quite the ticket it was decades ago. There aren’t quite as many fans at the games, and there aren’t nearly as many spine-tingling moments on the field that townspeople talk about weeks later.
But it’s still important. When players, current or retired, talk about the amateur ranks today, they’re often talking about the tradition itself. They’re anxious to keep the ball rolling, to maintain the sport and its long historical line. Someone’s father, or grandfather, played amateur baseball. It must be kept alive so that their son or grandson will get the opportunity.
As I watch the Worthington Cubs continue the tradition in 2019 that was begun before their grandfathers were old enough to play, I am on the one hand thankful that the history is maintained. And on the other hand I am sad, because it hasn’t been pretty this year.
At the moment, the Cubbies are 0-11. They are self-managing themselves, and it shows. They need an older non-playing leader -- someone with bonafide baseball acumen -- to mold them into a unit. They have many good players on the team, several who played on the Worthington High School team, who swing lively bats.
Pitching and defense have been the Cubs’ downfall, however. There seems to be no pitcher on the team capable of shutting down an offense, and they are inconsistent with their strikes. When rivals rally early for four or five runs in an inning, the whole team seems to wilt.
In the field, errors are common. It’s not entirely the Cubs’ fault. The infield is uneven and hard, and bouncing balls careen over infielders’ shoulders with more bad hops that you can shake a stick at. At times, the players look like matadors at a bullfight.
The games drag on. Nine-inning amateur baseball games can last more than three hours when there are too many long innings. It’s almost a relief when it’s over.
But there’s another side to this, and that is that the games are being played. That’s really the most important thing. There have been gaps in the Cubs baseball history. The team disbanded before coming together again in 2002, and there have been a couple of other times since then when there wasn’t a team. Yes, there aren’t as many fans at the games since the Cubs’ heyday, but you might be surprised how many people would miss them if they just called it quits.
Amateur baseball survives. The team will win yet.
Then again, winning isn’t everything -- at least in amateur baseball -- no matter what Vince Lombardi once said. The old baseball ghosts hover over the local fields expectantly; we must not disappoint them.
Can someone explain?
And finally, to conclude, just a few other thoughts to get off my chest:
Here’s one for the “things I don’t understand” category. Why do major league baseball baserunners miss bases sometimes? I saw a player a few days ago (I don’t remember which game) completely miss third base on his way to home plate. Wasn’t even close. How does that happen? Cmon. There’s no excuse for missing a base. Nobody can be that uncoordinated. It’s like missing the toilet.
The Minnesota Twins’ All-Star contingent consists of Jorge Polanco and Jake Odorizzi, and there’s a lot of talk about the unfairness of it. The Twins have shocked the American League with their amazing first half of the season, and the word being thrown around is the usual one -- “snubbed.” There indeed could have been one or two more Twins legitimately selected, but let’s be honest. This is the season for snubs. Lots of teams believe they’ve been snubbed. Truth is, the MVP of this Twins team couldn’t have been selected anyway. It’s the first-year manager, Rocco Baldelli.
I miss those days when the Minnesota Vikings held training camps in Mankato. The camp will open July 26 for its second year in Eagan, and recently the team announced special rules for autograph seekers while setting terms for $20 reserved seats, etc., etc. Something called “Helmet Hike” will be introduced this year, which means that a few kids will get the chance to carry players’ helmets from the locker room to the practice field. It all seems very organized, but I remember the day when Mankato training camps were (to my recollection) more spontaneous.