Rum River Bandits coach Koplitz elected to state hall of fame

Brad O’Neil
Forest Lake Times

The Rum River Bandits has a very successful season, and with 15 wins and a veteran team returning next year, manager Tom Koplitz feels the Bandits will be one of the favorites in the Eastern Minny in 2018.

Tom Koplitz

Koplitz recently learned that he has been selected for induction to the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame.

“This isn’t my honor, this is everyone that’s been connected to me through the years that’s helped to make this possible,” Koplitz said. “Baseball, more than anything else, is a team game.”

Koplitz’s roots in baseball run deep. He recalls receiving his first glove on Christmas Day, 1958, and heading outside for a game of catch in the snow. He started playing youth ball in 1961, first in Brainerd and later in Bloomington. Sometime in the early 1960s, Koplitz attended the state amateur baseball championship for the first time, and he’s been to nearly every one since.

The impetus behind his initial interest in town ball was his grandfather Wilbur, who was famous for being a town ball super-fan.

“He and my dad went to something like 40 consecutive amateur baseball tournaments,” Koplitz said. “They’d go to these little towns (that hosted the tournament) and rent a farmhouse for two and a half weeks. They’d drag me along — I grew up with town team baseball,”

Wilbur was recognized officially at the 1967 state tournament, when he was presented with a plaque naming him the game’s “Outstanding Fan.”

The Rum River Bandits with manger Tom Koplitz (back row, far right).

Koplitz would eventually build a long, ongoing career in town ball, though he would first make his rounds in the high school and college circuits. As a member of the Bloomington Lincoln varsity squad from 1968-70, Koplitz once led the Lake Conference in hitting. Moving on to Augsburg College, he was a four-year starter and contributed to the Auggies’ 1973 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship run.

Koplitz is a man with many baseball stories — in conversation he transitions smoothly from talk of his own career, to family memories, to recollections of Major League heroes and back again. What must be his best story, however, comes from that 1973 Augsburg championship season.

Early in the season, little Augsburg was pitted against the University of Minnesota, ranked No. 1 in the country and led by manager Dick Siebert, whose name now graces the university’s baseball stadium. Koplitz was given the honor of turning in the Augsburg lineup card at home plate, and was thus the first member of the team to learn that Dave Winfield would be taking the mound for the Gophers.

Winfield was just months away from beginning a 22-year Major League career as a power-hitting outfielder that would end in the professional Hall of Fame. In college, Winfield was a dominating pitcher, and he carried a perfect game into the last inning against Augsburg.

“I get up with two outs, and I said I’m not going down on a called third strike, I’m swinging,” Koplitz said. “Winfield hit my bat, basically, and that turned into a single to center.”

By the time he broke up Winfield’s perfect game, Koplitz had already opened his town ball account, playing with the Savage Pacers from 1971-74. Savage coach Bob Lattery was one of 40 people to submit letters recommending Koplitz to the amateur hall of fame, writing,

“Baseball needs more people like Tom Koplitz.”

Longtime North Branch coach and teacher Larry Schlagel, who often faced Koplitz’s Redbirds as a member of the Rush City Eagles, also contributed a letter.

“If you are looking for a man that lives and breathes baseball, (Koplitz) is it,” Schlagel wrote. “He will do pretty much anything he can to promote the game and help an athlete try to become the best he can be.”

After college, Koplitz’s career took him to Cambridge, where he helped to rejuvenate the Cambridge Redbird franchise in 1976. In 1982, he was part of the Redbirds’ first trip to the state tournament since 1926. The team earned a second state berth in 1985. The team made the short move to Isanti in 1989, where it plays to this day. In 1991, his final year with the team, Koplitz once again contributed to a state tournament run.

After that season, Koplitz stepped away from town ball to raise his three sons, Mike, Tim and Eric — and, naturally, to coach them on the baseball field.

“I coached them all the way up,” Koplitz said.

Although he was destined to become something of a North Branch nemesis on the baseball field in 2017, Koplitz established a career of service to the city in 1992 when he became executive director of Community Partnership with Youth and Families. The nonprofit organization, based out of the second floor of Trinity Lutheran Church near the North Branch campus, works to create programs that promote drug-and alcohol-free lifestyles among the youth in Chisago County.

Koplitz’s history of community service also includes the founding of Special Olympics baseball programs in Cambridge. Koplitz was named the state coach of the year in 1986 and coached Minnesota teams in tournaments at Louisiana State University and Notre Dame.

In 2007, Koplitz returned to town ball, helping to found the Rum River Bandits and serving as manager and occasional pitcher — in 2012 at the age of 60, he recorded a save. His three sons have also found a place in the Rum River lineup.

Koplitz proudly recalls organizing a Gloves for Troops drives to collect baseball equipment for soldiers serving overseas.

“The next summer (the soldiers) came to one of our games and presented us with a flag that flew over their base,” Koplitz said. “It’s one of the coolest things we’ve done.”

He also likes to tell about how he gave up the first home run in the Isanti ballpark to fellow Rum River coach Carlo Scardigli — and then hit him with a pitch the next time he came up. The Bandits hoped to make a run to state this season, but fell short. After beating Foley 6-1 to open the regional tournament, the Bandits dropped close games to Sartell 1-0 and Mora 2-0.

“We had a frustrating tournament; we played three games and gave up four runs, but won one and lost two,” Koplitz said. “(Against Sartell) we had a guy thrown out at home in the bottom of the eighth.”

Although the team won’t be going to state, fans are likely to see Koplitz in attendance, carrying on the tradition of a lifetime. They will definitely see him in St. Cloud on Sept. 16 when he will be honored at the hall of fame banquet.

Inductees are expected to give a short speech, which the gregarious Koplitz admits will present a certain amount of difficulty.

“They give you five to seven minutes to share your life story, but I could go for 45 if they let me,” Koplitz said. “I’d want to — I have so many people to thank.”

Brad O’Neil can be reached at [email protected]