'Town ball' baseball a prized tradition in Minnesota

Baseball is still a treasured past-time in Town-ball-crazed communities throughout Minnesota.

As the sun painted a blue-and-purple backdrop behind Minnetonka High School's immaculate Veterans Field on Tuesday, Minnetonka Millers manager Kevin Hoy sat contently in the dugout, spitting tobacco into a white Styrofoam cup every so often while his team thrashed the Minneapolis Lakers.

About 32 miles to the south, a couple dozen people crowded into the cozy, chain-link-fence-adorned Don Giesen Field in the unincorporated community of Union Hill to watch their beloved Bulldogs outlast the Mongtomery Mallards.

And more than 200 miles north of there, a group of weeklong warriors known as the Bemidji Mudcats traveled to Grand Rapids and put on a hitting clinic.

Statewide amateur baseball is nothing new in Minnesota. Nor is it exclusively germane to the Land of Lakes.

But few places in America boast a summer diamond landscape that allows a father and a son to share a dugout with a former minor leaguer and a current small-college standout, all while providing a weekly rallying point for their community.

From the rural plains of Austin to the suburbs of Minneapolis to the lake country surrounding Bemidji, they play.

"Pretty much everyone has a team, a ballpark, a story," Millers shortstop Joe Shallenberger said.

Town ball, they call it.

Other states have their own, successful versions of it. When it comes to talent and popularity, top-flight summer leagues like Cape Cod and the Northwoods trump it.

But thanks to a rich baseball history that dates back to the game's infancy, the diamond diversity present here features a flavor that's distinctly Minnesotan.

Present in the past

As early as the 1850s, two decades before Major League Baseball came into existence and right around the time Minnesota gained statehood, it was a tradition for families to hop into their horse-drawn buggies on Sunday afternoons and head to their local baseball field for a game against a neighboring town.

To you and me, it'd look like nothing more than a pickup contest.

But by 1902, many communities had organized official squads comprised of young locals. The Pioneer Press and Dispatch newspaper helped organize the first amateur state tournament in 1924, and a niche baseball subculture was officially born.

Legion and later varsity high school competition eventually came along. So did two world wars.

But through the continued construction and upkeep of municipal stadiums and dedication of resources, time and -- most of all -- sweat to their baseball programs, towns around the state continued to promote the amateur game, or some semblance of it; for a few decades, some teams actually paid their top players.

In 1946, the modern version of the Minnesota Baseball Association was formed. Four years later, there were 103 amateur baseball leagues and 799 teams under its jurisdiction.

Aspiring youngsters, college players looking to stay sharp between seasons, former high school, collegiate and minor leaguers -- all found a place to exercise their love of the game during the summer months.

The game's growth is encapsulated in the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, nestled on the second floor of the St. Cloud River's Edge Convention Center, which overlooks the Mississippi River. Kirby Puckett, Harmon Killebrew and the Twins teams of 1965, 1987 and 1991 are enshrined among the hall's professional segment.

But taking up much more space is a host of town-ball heroes, names you've never heard of like Clarence "Ole" Bloomer of Waite Park, Steve Helomovich of Marble and Milton Schilling of Litchfield.

And every summer, men like Shallenberger vie to one day see their face on a plaque alongside them.

Big and small, young and old

With the decline of rural populations and the best college baseball players now choosing from a handful of higher-profile summer leagues, Minnesota-exclusive amateur baseball's participation has declined since its golden age in the 1950s and 1960s.

But three classifications, 299 teams and a thriving state tournament every summer don't exactly represent a dying pastime.

"I grew up with it, so I didn't know any different until 10 or 12 years ago when I started realizing 'hey, this is pretty unique,'" said Hoy, the Minnetonka manager whose program has won 11 Class A titles in the past 16 years. "Every podunk town has a team. ... There's a crap-load of baseball in this state."

The MBA divides teams into Class A, B and C based some on size of community but mostly skill level and geography. Top-tier, Minneapolis-St. Paul metro teams make up Class A, featuring many athletes that either played in the minor leagues or currently play for one of Minnesota's smaller-division NCAA or NAIA schools.

Some Class A squads are simply put together to get some live pitching and hacks in during the summer. Others, like the Millers and the $4.5 million stadium Hoy was instrumental in getting built, display a bit more passion.

"It's fun to kind of still test yourself to see what you're able to do," Shallenberger said, "but more than anything it's just about coming out to the park and playing the game that I love and still being able to do it with some of my close friends."

Now a 33-year-old schoolteacher and assistant baseball coach at MacAlester College in St. Paul, Shallenberger played for the St. Paul Saints for a year-and-a-half before opting to seek another professional path and get his baseball fix with the Millers. The Twins drafted his teammate, Joe Abellera, in the 21st round of the 2004 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, and he spent three years in Fort Myers before going into sales.

But he didn't hang up his spikes or glove.

"I get to come out and act like a kid and be a kid for nine innings," Abellera said.

There aren't as many stories like that in Class B, but most teams feature at least a couple college players that are home for the summer.

But Class C, which includes about 250 teams, provides the purest definition of town ball.Current high school players balance their amateur schedule with legion baseball, learning behind their brothers, cousins, neighbors and, in some cases, fathers who have been playing for their town team for years.

"You could find a 15-year-old kid and a 50-year-old guy on the same roster," said MBA board member Fred Roufs. "There's a lot of family tradition in the amateurs."

Take fellow board member Dave Hartmann, whose father was a product of Minnesota amateur baseball's peak years in the middle of the 20th century.

Hartmann's brother, Brian, earned state championship MVP honors in 1996, breaking the tournament's home run record while playing for Hamel. Their other brother, Mike, won the same award in 1992 as a member of Red Wing's team.

"I think it's generational," said Dave Hartmann, who played for Arlington with his brothers during the 1970s and 80s. "You see that throughout every small town in the state."

Point of pride

Minnesota town baseball hasn't gone without its fair share of recognizable names, including Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach and relief pitcher Caleb Thielbar. Steinbach spent some time with New Ulm's Kaiserhoff organization before signing with the Cleveland Indians, then returned to his hometown when his major league playing career was over.

And before he was making the jump from the St. Paul Saints to the big league club across the river, Thielbar pitched for the Randolph Railcats during the 2008 state tournament.

That event took place in Chaska and Shakopee. The Class B and Class C tournaments move from site to site annually, usually splitting games across two communities.

Teams first have to make it out of their respective league tournaments, then through regionals and sectionals. Twelve teams qualify for the Class A tourney, eight for Class B, and Class C features a 48-game, single-elimination mega-bracket.

The state tourneys begin the second-to-last week in August and culminate on Labor Day.

"We just keep playing baseball until the state champions are left standing," Roufs said.

Maple Lake and Delano will host this year's B and C tournaments, with the A championship returning to Red Haddox Field in Bloomington.

Landing the event has become a great source of pride in baseball circles around the state, with the MBA only awarding the tournaments to facilities that are in prime condition.

"I live in New Jersey for five years, and I've got to tell you, when I bring friends of mine and come back here to see and to visit, we've been around showing them various parks, and they're awestruck by the level of playing field in this state," Hartmann said. "It's really kind of prideful on the small towns with what they have in terms of facilities and upkeep of maintenance centers."

And the seats don't sit empty.

On the big-city level, Minnetonka's lucky if it draws 100 for a weekday game but has had more than 1,000 for special games against the traveling U.S. Military All-Stars and Team USA's 19-and-under squad.

And on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon in one of Minnesota's rural towns, chances are half or more of the population is out at the ballpark.

"In a lot of towns, that's all they think about," said Maple Lake Lakers player/manager Chad Raiche, who expects somewhere around 15,000 people to roll through town during next month's state festivities. "It's all they have. Around here, we always look forward to Sunday afternoon games.

"That's just what they do."

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