Since the Twins finished nowhere near the playoffs this year, the ball season is officially over for me. Not pulling the Homer Hankie from the sock drawer won’t taint the memories of a fun-filled 2011 on the diamonds.
I am one of those aging players who doesn’t know how to hang up the glove—and there are many of us. What made this summer special was juggling the schedule to play on two softball teams. One was sort of a reunion tour with a group of friends down in the New Hope City League. While the average age on that team was around 42-years or so, we still finished in 3rd place in the regular season and 3rd in the playoffs against much younger competition. Plus we knocked out three younger teams in a 48-team tourney played on a sweltering mid-July weekend.
The other team was the Cambridge Bar & Grill/Extinguishers squad playing in the local 35-Over league. With the league tourney rolling late into September, we kept avoiding elimination by coming up with stellar defensive plays—the hallmark of a solid team. In the final championship game, there was Neil Jennissen pitching masterfully on a night when the wind blowing in from right field had to be hitting 25-30 mph. Then there were infielders Tommy Foss and Dave Hanson leaping high to snare line drives for inning-ending outs with runners on base, and Chris Lindquist, Dean Schultz and our other outfielders ranging hard to make plays. Finishing as champions and having sponsor Loren Davis pop for a couple rounds back at the Bar & Grill was a perfect ending to the season.
But adding to the 2011 flavor was the incredible run by the Isanti Redbirds, all the way to the Minnesota Class C championship. As skipper Steve Allen relayed it, the ‘Birds had a get-together last winter where they made a focussed commitment to playing playoff-calibre baseball each night out for the coming season. That mind-set paid great dividends when the Redbirds—mixed with savvy veterans and young stars—survived a final elimination game against Forest Lake at regions, then they went 6-0 through the State brackets.
Steve popped by the office last week to drop off a beautiful wood plaque commemorating the championship, complete with a team photo and scores of all the State games burned into it. It was a gesture of appreciation for the coverage our paper had for the big run to the title. The plaque was an incredible gift and highly appreciated, but certainly not necessary. The real reward for making the two-plus hour drives to Glencoe and Brownton was being able to watch a close-knit baseball team playing great baseball on gorgeous smalltown parks while getting great stories for the paper.
While I was covering the Redbirds vs. Sacred Heart State game, I got talking with an elderly Glencoe man who was working the concessions. He spoke of the 55-Over retirement village in Arizona he snowbirds to each winter. That village connects with another one to form a 28-team softball league, with games playing over something like a five-month schedule, complete with a big tourney at the end. He fondly recalled last winter when a 94-year-old came out to play “just one last game,” getting the bat on the ball and trotting down the first base line.
That’s the draw of ball which you can’t completely explain. As an older player, you risk looking really idiotic blowing a hamstring by still trying to play “all-out.” But then there’s the opportunities to make good contact at the plate one last time, to get dirty making a defensive play or to still score from second base on a single. Those are the things which help make winter go by a little faster, knowing there might be one more season coming up on the diamonds.