Commentary

Sota's game: Baseball at its best

Minnesota's baseball culture extends far beyond next week's All-Star Game

Updated: July 14, 2014, 8:20 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

When people think of Minnesota, they generally think of snow, cold, winter, Prince (not the Fielder type), mosquitoes, snow, ice, Garrison Keillor, snow, cold, Bob Dylan, hockey, snow, ice, "Fargo" ... and did I mention snow and cold and ice?

Yet despite its northern latitudes and cold, lengthy winters, Minnesota has a baseball culture and history as strong and vibrant as anywhere in the country.

"It's kind of ironic that in a northern state, where you think hockey would be the dominant sport, baseball has a prominent place here," St. Paul native and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor says. "I'm not sure where that tradition began, but I know the Twins coming here in 1961 was a huge part for me as a young kid developing the passion. We have a lot of ways we show that we love baseball, whether it's showing support for the Minnesota Twins or enormous youth programs, high school programs and American Legion programs. And then, even when you're done playing, you join your amateur town team and you play baseball until your 70s. It's just a great phenomenon.

[+] EnlargeTarget Field
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltNeither snow nor snow nor even more snow stays the Twins from their appointed nine innings.

"People gravitate to this game in Minnesota."

Do they ever. The Twins were the first American League team to draw 3 million fans -- they did it a full decade before the Yankees did -- and some of those amateur town teams Molitor mentions occasionally draw crowds larger than the home team city's entire population. Why wouldn't they, though? Minnesota has been the site of some of the greatest baseball you can ever hope to see, including the greatest game in World Series history: Jack Morris' 1-0, 10-inning shutout in Game 7 in 1991. Morris pitched it just miles from his boyhood home.

Molitor, Morris, Dave Winfield, Joe Mauer, Kent Hrbek, Terry Steinbach and 2014 All-Star Glen Perkins were born and raised in Minnesota. Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella and Duke Snider played minor league ball in the state, although they were born elsewhere. Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven played with the Twins. And the Twins have won two World Series, in 1987 and '91, the memories of which can still warm the heart on the coldest night in January (or April).

All this baseball in a state where the winters are so cold and long that the Twins started a game in subfreezing temperatures this April, and the independent St. Paul Saints will hold a polar vortex snow globe giveaway night in August.

Perhaps that's exactly what makes baseball so precious here.

"It signals the coming of spring and summer, and that's what we look forward to up here," Twins reliever Caleb Thielbar says. "Spring and summer are always nice seasons up here. It's kind of the thing to do in summer. You got rid of winter, now you can go outside and play on the fields."

Perhaps no one epitomizes the state's love of the game better than Thielbar, who grew up in Randolph, a small town of roughly 400 people 30 miles south of the Twin Cities. He played town team ball while he dreamed of a major league career. He kept those dreams alive by playing for the St. Paul Saints. And now he pitches for the Twins, the team he and his parents grew up rooting for.

Like so many Minnesotans, he's got baseball in his DNA. His father, Calvin, played and coached baseball; and his mother, Janet Johnston Thielbar, played varsity baseball in high school, as well. And she did it back before Tatum O'Neal showed the boys how it's done in "The Bad News Bears."

"My Dad just looked at me and said, 'Do you really want to do this?'" she recalls. "I said, 'Yeah, you know how much I love baseball, Dad.' 'Then go ahead and do it.'"

As I said, the summer game has a powerful pull in this winter state. It's the perfect place for next week's All-Star Game and festivities.

1910 MinnesotaMark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesTown ball is not a recent phenomenon in Minnesota. This game in Herman took place in 1910.

GRAHAM: I'm looking for a place to play. I hear that throughout the Midwest, they have towns with teams. And in some places, they'll even find you a day job so you can play ball nights and weekends.

-- A young Moonlight Graham explaining why he is hitchhiking in Minnesota in "Field of Dreams"

In the movie "Field of Dreams," Joe Jackson, Swede Risberg and the other long-dead 1919 Chicago Black Sox emerge from an Iowa cornfield and walk onto the diamond that Ray Kinsella has built so they can resume their baseball lives. Those ghosts didn't play on a Minnesota ballfield, but the real-life Risberg did. After commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned those Sox from the major leagues, Risberg moved to Minnesota and played for the town team in Rochester (home of the Mayo Clinic, where Lou Gehrig was diagnosed). And it's quite possible Risberg occasionally walked onto the diamond from a real cornfield.

There are 300-some town teams in the Minnesota Baseball Association, and many of the ballfields they use are so beautifully surrounded by corn and other crops during summer's peak that they could have served as the set for "Field of Dreams." One of them is Jack Ruhr Field in tiny Miesville (population 125), situated just a few miles from Thielbar's home. Beyond the outfield fence are acres of corn, and when his Randolph Railcats town team played against the Miesville Mudhens, Thielbar would recreate "Field of Dreams" by walking out of the stalks.

[+] EnlargeCannon Falls Bear
Jim Caple, ESPN.com Rich Burr and Keith Meyers of the Cannon Falls Bears still play for the love of the game.

"If you ever take off and get outside the Twin Cities metro area and see these beautiful town team ballparks, it's the most fascinating thing in the world," says Steinbach, now the Twins' bench coach. "You play the game, and as soon as the game is over, the catcher starts taking care of home plate. He gets a little clay and gets home plate all nice and level. And the pitcher starts working on the mound, and the infielders are sweeping the dirt off the grass so they have a nice edge. And someone is driving the tractor.

"It's amazing. And these parks are beautiful."

Among the most sublime is John Burch Park, which borders the Little Cannon River in Cannon Falls (population 4,083). This park is also just miles from Thielbar's home, and his father used to play for the local team. Third baseman Rich Burr is in his 24th season with the Cannon Falls Bears, and that doesn't count the many years he served as a batboy for the Cannon Falls team Caleb's father played for.

"I've spent every summer of my life down here at this ballpark," Burr says. "You run into a lot of people, cross a lot of paths and hear a lot of stories."

Burr is a data scientist for a seed company. But when people ask what he does for a living, he replies, "I'm a baseball player and I work during the days to support my habit."

Perkins, the Twins' closer, played town ball, as well, for the Lyon's Pub team in Minneapolis. "I was never of age, so I never went to the bar," he says. "We would just meet at the field, at Parade Stadium, our home field in Minneapolis. It's down there by the spoon with the cherry on it. You almost look directly to where Target Field is now."

[+] EnlargeCaleb Thielbar
AP Photo/Craig LassigCaleb Thielbar, now with the Twins, has played baseball in Minnesota at nearly every level imaginable.

And now he and Thielbar pitch there.

Growing up in New Ulm, Minnesota, Steinbach played for his local team, New Ulm Kaiserhoff, and occasionally competed against the nearby Stark township team, which for years was composed entirely of one family of dairy farmers, the Helgets. Vic Helget threw a 90-plus fastball when he was in high school, and Steinbach says everyone encouraged Vic to play professionally, "but he couldn't leave the farm."

It's hard to resist the pull of town ball. Steinbach played 13 seasons in the majors, made three All-Star Games (and was named the game's MVP in 1988), reached three World Series (won one), called Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco his teammates and Tony La Russa his manager, and earned millions of dollars in salary.

So what did he do when he retired from the majors? He went back to play town ball again for Kaiserhoff.

"I don't want this to come out wrong," Steinbach says. "But you really found the true love of baseball there. Because the butcher, the baker and the farmer are working a 40-hour-a-week job, and yet twice or three times a week, they show up at the ballfield. And they play as hard as they can. They're as committed as they can be. They're dedicated.

"For me, it really solidified what baseball is all about. ... It was baseball at its best."

In "Field of Dreams," Ray Kinsella's father asks, "Is this heaven?" Kevin Costner replies, "No, it's Iowa." But Ray's dad is almost right. Baseball heaven is in Minnesota. Although Steinbach's GPS is ever so slightly off. Baseball at its best is in St. Paul.

SnoopyJim Caple, ESPN.com Charles Schulz grew up in St. Paul. Why wouldn't there be a Snoopy statue outside Midway Stadium?

CHARLIE BROWN: Rats! I'll never be a big league player! I just don't have it! All my life I've dreamed of playing in the big leagues, but I know I'll never make it.

LUCY: You're thinking too far ahead, Charlie Brown. What you need to do is set yourself more immediate goals.

CHARLIE BROWN: Immediate goals?

LUCY: Yes. Start with this next inning when you go out to pitch. See if you can walk out to the mound without falling down.

-- From "Peanuts," by Charles Schulz

Chick Gandil was born in St. Paul and grew up to become a major leaguer and the ringleader behind the 1919 Black Sox scandal. St. Paul has been making up for him ever since.

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer and Paul Molitor
Jim Caple, ESPN.comA couple of Minnesota baseball greats are memorialized on the Cretin-Derham scoreboard.

The city atoned big-time on Oct. 3, 1951, which was the day Bobby Thomson hit his famous home run in Manhattan and Dave Winfield was born in St. Paul. Not only was that a perfect day for a baseball player to be born, but Winfield once told me he had the perfect name as well -- "Win" and "Field." He grew up hitting his own early home runs at Oxford playground in St. Paul. Jack Morris, meanwhile, intimidated batters with his velocity and intensity at the city's Highland Park. Molitor and Joe Mauer agonized pitchers with their hitting prowess at nearby Cretin-Derham Hall High School. Their names are prominently displayed on the scoreboard.

And there, at the corner of Macalester and Randolph, is a sandlot where Charles Schulz once threw a no-hitter, though the night his team lost at another diamond was a more powerful and lasting memory for the Peanuts creator and lifelong baseball fan.

"We got beat 40-0," Schulz, who was born in Minneapolis and grew up in St. Paul, told me once. "We never had a chance. Forty to nothing. I've never forgotten that."

Well, 40-0 is nothing compared to the losses of 123-0 and 200-0 (to an expansion team!) that Charlie Brown's team suffered among the hundreds upon hundreds of baseball-related Peanuts strips Schulz drew, almost all of which centered around losing. A line drive disrobing Charlie Brown's body is as vivid and familiar a baseball image as Willie Mays reaching up to catch Vic Wertz's drive in the 1954 World Series. The only number lower than Charlie Brown's winning percentage is his batting average. Even Charlie Brown's favorite player, Joe Shlabotnik, was so hapless that he not only was sent to minor league Stumptown after batting .004 but also misspelled his own name when he autographed a baseball for Charlie Brown.

[+] EnlargeDave Winfield, Jack Morris & Paul Molitor
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltWhat do Dave Winfield, Jack Morris and Paul Molitor have in common? Among other things, they were all born in St. Paul.

Schulz found humor in losing again and again and again because, he told me, "Victories are fleeting but losses are something we always live with."

That is probably especially true when you are banned from the game for life for purposely losing, as Gandil was. Fortunately, some of St. Paul's other baseball offspring have fared a little better on the diamond than Charlie Brown and Joe Shlabotnik.

St. Paul is the only city that can claim two members of the 3,000 hit club, Winfield and Molitor, who followed very similar paths to Cooperstown: youth ball in St. Paul, success at the University of Minnesota, and then great major league careers that included World Series championships in Toronto and stints with the Twins.

"For me, Dave instilled hope," Molitor says. "I had the baseball dream before [Winfield's influence], but to see him as a kid, play a little bit of Legion ball, see him at the U, to follow him along the same path and to see him have the success he had, it was like, 'Yeah, maybe it isn't as far-fetched a fantasy as it had been.' He was like a bridge for me. Like, this could happen."

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
AP Photo/Jim MoneIn 2001, a kid named Joe Mauer didn't have to travel far from his St. Paul high school to see the team that drafted him No. 1.

Morris and Mauer might one day join Winfield and Molitor in Cooperstown to give St. Paul four Hall of Famers. Which prompts the question: How can a community produce so much baseball talent when it endures winters so cold and long that Molitor remembers having to break up ice on the ballfields?

"One thing, for Minnesota in general, is I don't think players reach their potential until they get older," Mauer says. "Here, you don't play baseball 12 months out of the year -- which I think is a good thing. In any sport, I think kids can get burned out, and you might know exactly how high a kid's ceiling is. Kids in Florida and California have a lot of games under their belt, and you kind of know what you're going to get. But players up here have high ceilings, and maybe that has something to do with it."

Maybe. But it doesn't explain why so many great players have come out of St. Paul, while across the river, Minneapolis has produced very few players of note.

"We don't get too boastful about that," Molitor says. "I've heard a lot of different theories. How St. Paul tries to promote the competition at younger ages and Minneapolis is very proud of its tremendous parks and the other things they do recreationally. But St. Paul has produced some pretty good players, no doubt about that.

"I can't tell you exactly the reasons. Someone said it might be the water."

Or maybe St. Paul just provides goals a little loftier and less immediate than walking to the mound without falling down.

Dave StevensAP Photo/Tom OlmscheidDave Stevens was born without legs. Didn't stop the St. Paul Saints from letting him play back in 1996.

CRASH: My Triple-A contract gets bought out ... is that it? Well f--- this f---ing game! I quit, all right? I f---ing quit.

CRASH exits the manager's office and stands in the clubhouse briefly contemplating his career. Then he returns to the office.

CRASH: Who do we play tomorrow?

-- Crash Davis learns he's been sent to the low minors in "Bull Durham"

A steady stream of Christmas carols -- from "Deck the Halls" to "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" -- plays over St. Paul's Midway Stadium speakers. Groundskeepers, dressed as reindeer, drag the infield. Employees, costumed as elves, help a young fan literally steal second base. And in that familiar red suit and those black boots, Santa Claus takes the microphone behind home plate and belts out -- what else? -- the national anthem.

It is Christmas in July Night, just another creative promotion for the St. Paul Saints, the independent team whose motto is "Fun is Good."

Minor league ball was already enjoying a resurgence in 1993 when Mike Veeck started the Saints with partners Bill Murray and Marv Goldklang. But they took it to a different, far more entertaining level by helping create the independent leagues we now see across North America. Prior to the Saints and what was then the Northern League, your career was pretty much over if a major league organization wouldn't sign you. There were no other options.

Veeck and the Saints changed that, providing a team for first, second and last chances.

Midway Stadium became the Statue of Liberty of baseball, taking the poor, the tired masses of players yearning to breathe major league air. When the Orioles called up Julio DePaula this week, he became the 20th former Saint in the majors. Among those 20 who began or resurrected their careers in St. Paul are Darryl Strawberry, Rey Ordonez, J.D. Drew and Kevin Millar. (Jason Varitek also signed with the Saints to boost his negotiating leverage after the draft.)

The equal-opportunity Saints also signed Ila Borders and made her the first female starting pitcher in pro baseball.

[+] EnlargeStrawberry
AP Photo/Andy KingDarryl Strawberry got one of his many comeback chances with the Saints.

One season, the Saints featured Strawberry, Jack Morris and a man with no legs -- Dave Stevens, who pinch hit for Strawberry. "It seems like a good year for dreams," Veeck told me that summer.

The Saints' players have to live on those dreams because the $800 minimum monthly salary for a rookie doesn't cover much. Thielbar says he made $900 a month with the Saints in 2011, when he commuted from his parents' home in Randolph, about 45 minutes away.

"Being close to home was pretty essential for me," he says. "I don't know if I could have made it any other way there."

Kerry Ligtenberg, who grew up in nearby Cottage Grove and graduated from the University of Minnesota, played for the independent league Minneapolis Loons for two seasons before he signed with the Atlanta organization. He replaced Mark Wohlers as Atlanta's closer in 1998 and saved 30 games. Injuries took their toll, though, and Ligtenberg wound up back in independent ball with the Saints in 2009. He's now their pitching coach.

"I look back and wonder if it was all real," Ligtenberg says. "Because it was tough, but I was also at the right place at the right time and I finally got some opportunities that I took advantage of. The guys here are pitching because they want to keep playing."

It would be fitting if the Saints had a catcher named Crash in the lineup. They don't, but they do have one whose name is almost as perfect: Jake Taylor. Seriously. Jake Taylor. He has played for four independent league teams, and yes, he gets a lot of comments about the name.

"They say, 'Did you start catching before or after 'Major League'?"

Just as important as the opportunities the team provides for players is the way the organization makes minor league baseball fun. The Saints never emphasize baseball, according to Veeck: "We just said, 'We'll service you to death and make it fun.'"

[+] EnlargeBorders
AP Photo/Jim MoneIn '97, the Saints made Ila Borders the first woman to pitch in a regular season minor league game.

Among this year's promotions at Midway Stadium are Silent Night (featuring Mime-o-Vision in which mimes perform instant replays), Nerd Night, a Zombie Baseball Crawl and Charlie Brown Bobblehead Night. For each home game, an opposing player is selected as the official K-Man of the Night -- if he strikes out, the fans receive coupons for free Killebrew root beer. Each year, the Saints have a pig mascot -- this season's is named Stephen Colboar -- that delivers the game balls to the umpire.

For some games, they even have a nun giving massages in the stands.

"There's a small-town feel here," says Josh Krobow, a 35-year-old fan wearing a St. Paul Saints jersey and a Twins cap. "People have fun at Twins games, but you can see the fun at these games."

The Saints have been so successful in their two decades that they will move into a $63 million ballpark in downtown St. Paul next year, leaving what Veeck calls "one of the homeliest ballparks I've ever seen."

Midway Stadium is located in an industrial part of the city, and trains constantly pass by just beyond the outfield fence, sometimes three trains at once. The 32-year-old ballpark has only six small restrooms, and the cement-floored clubhouse is so cramped that the team trainer had to set up the massage table in the dugout at the Christmas in July game. (No, the nun did not provide the massages.)

The stadium's issues become apparent later that evening. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the Saints trailing 10-5, the lights suddenly went out. The game was suspended until the next night ... which was a salute to the 20-year anniversary of the release of "Forrest Gump."

MetrodomeJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesIt wasn't perfect, but the Metrodome was loud and it was dry and it was welcoming.

THE VOICE: If you build it, he will come.

-- The Voice instructs Ray Kinsella in "Field of Dreams"

To be fair, St. Paul doesn't have a monopoly on Twin Cities ballplayers. Perkins grew up in nearby Stillwater, and Hrbek grew up in the southern suburb of Bloomington. The old Metropolitan Stadium was so close to Hrbek's home that when the Twins played a night game there, "I could see the glow of the stadium outside my window."

The Twins moved from the old Met to the Metrodome in 1982. A decade later, the old Met site was replaced by the Mall of America, where you can buy All-Star replica jerseys and caps for $100 and $25, respectively. The Met Stadium seat where Harmon Killebrew's longest home run landed is mounted on a wall, and home plate's original spot is marked near the SpongeBob Square Pants Rock Bottom Plunge roller coaster.

[+] EnlargeHouston Jimenez and John Castino
AP Photo/Jim MoneOne of those special Metrodome moments: a Dave Kingman pop-up never came down. Houston Jimenez and John Castino might still be waiting for it.

Time flies. That Bloomington site has been the Mall of America longer (22 years) than it was the Twins' home (21 years).

Located on the southern edge of downtown, the Metrodome was a legacy to the days when fiscal responsibility and practicality were as important as luxury suites. Built at a cost of $68 million -- which would be roughly $175 million today -- The Dome provided a roof to keep the weather away from the Twins, the Vikings, the Timberwolves and the Golden Gophers. Everyone played there, from Kirby Puckett to Mick Jagger. Mauer not only won batting titles there but also quarterbacked his high school team in the state championship game in the Metrodome.

"There was a lot of stuff that went on in that building -- and at all times in the day," Hrbek says. "It wasn't just 10 o'clock and the Twins game was over. Teams would come in at 11, high school and college teams, and they would play all night in that place. It was a pretty impressive building for what it looked like and all the knocks it got.

"You talk to a lot of people, and anybody probably from 40 years old down can tell you they might have played some sport in there. A soccer game, a football game, a baseball game or something. They have a memory of that."

The Twins left after the 2009 season, and sadly, the Metrodome was torn down this past winter to make way for a $1 billion single-sport stadium for the Vikings.

"I thought about going there to see it torn down. But in the end, I didn't want to," Hrbek says. "There are too many good memories there for me, you know what I'm saying? There are a lot of bad memories, but we had a lot of happy times there."

The city auctioned off many items from the Metrodome -- including the plastic tarp "hefty bag" that served as the right field wall -- but Hrbek didn't bid on any of them.

"I have the sign that hung over my locker," he says. "Everything else is in my brain."

Mauer & PerkinsBrace Hemmelgarn/Getty ImagesWho better to cast the first 2014 All-Star ballots than Minnesota natives Joe Mauer and Glen Perkins?

GRAHAM: This is my most special place in all the world. Once a place touches you like that, the wind never blows so cold again.

-- Moonlight Graham talking about his hometown of Chisholm, Minnesota, in "Field of Dreams"

The old Met and the Metrodome each hosted an All-Star Game. In 1965, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal pitched from the Met's mound while Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew homered into its vast bleachers. Two decades later, the Metrodome hosted the first Home Run Derby (yet another Minnesota contribution to baseball), while Molitor, Morris and Winfield made St. Paul swell with pride because they all made the American League team.

This year's game is at Target Field, one of the game's most beautiful ballparks. The stadium offers a gorgeous view of the Minneapolis skyline, along with a wide array of wonderful and distinctively local concessions such as wild rice soup, pork chops on a stick and fried cheese curds.

How could there be a better place for the Midsummer Classic? Target Field even has self-serve beer stations.

Baseball's finest players will be there, including Derek Jeter in his final All-Star appearance. All the Twins and Minnesota legends, from St. Paul's Molitor to Panama's Carew, will also be on hand. (If only Charlie Brown could pitch the Home Run Derby.) Perkins will be available in the bullpen. Tens of thousands of Minnesotans, including several of the Cannon Falls Bears, will cram into the ballpark. Many more will watch from their homes, the Thielbar's among them. And Minnesota will add another layer to its rich baseball heritage.

Hmmm. Let's hope it doesn't snow.

Target FieldAP Photo/Paul BattagliaNext week's All-Star Game will be played in Target Field, one of baseball's most beautiful ballparks.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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