|Baseball the way it ought to be|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
Miles: 348 (Murdo, S.D., to Stark, Minn.); total miles: 1,771; moving violations: 0; hours driving since Murdo: 6; hours of sleep: 6; one stop for a tour of the Mitchell Corn Palace, an auditorium with colored corn cobs lining the walls in mosaic patterns -- only in the Midwest (Mike Miller, the Orlando Magic's first pick in the 2000 NBA draft, played here in high school); Diet Pepsi: 3 units; facial hair: thick stubble (and I need a haircut, too); "Grapes of Wrath" cassettes: 3 (the Joads struggle to find work in California); miles to go: 1,500 (approximate) ...
STARK TOWNSHIP, Minn. -- My tour across Interstate 90 began at Seattle's $517 million Safeco Field, passes through 88-year-old Wrigley Field and ends at the official U.S. historic site of Fenway Park, but this is the real heart of baseball.
This is the diamond that is truest to baseball's roots -- and truest to America's, as well -- the sandlot that best captures what baseball always should be, this little ballpark right here amid the crops of a little southwestern Minnesota township so remote that when I asked how to get here from I-90, I was told, "Take highway 60 to Windom, then take 71 to highway 14 until you get to Sleepy Eye. When you're in Sleepy Eye, ask for directions."
This is Stark Ballpark, home of the local amateur team, the Stark Longhorns. Tonight the Longhorns play host to rival Sleepy Eye (is there a better town name anywhere?) in what could be the season's final game. The winner goes on to a playoff with the Essig town team for the right to represent the East Tomahawk League in the Minnesota state amateur tournament. The loser puts away the bats and balls and says goodbye to summer.
That's why even if Bud Selig and the league murder the Twins in two years, baseball would live on in Minnesota. They have been raising baseball on these Minnesota fields for more than a century, and they aren't about to let this precious crop die.
This is home to the C league of Minnesota townball, where you find the smallest towns and the most farmers. The men work in the fields and in the towns (in professions ranging from advertising to computer startups) during the day, then gather by home plate and play baseball in the evening. Although there are tales of star players long ago being paid under the table, no one plays for money here today. They play for better reasons -- out of a love of baseball, a sense of community, family and friendship.
Stark's team used to play in a pasture, but two bachelor farmers donated the land for the current field in 1954, and the town team has been playing here ever since, hard between County Road 24 and the crops growing beyond the outfield fence. It's a lovely little field that means so much to Myron Seidl that he spent his honeymoon here -- "We got married on Saturday, and there was a game the next afternoon," explains his wife Cathy, who cooks hamburgers in the concession stand -- and he mowed it in his suit and tie before his oldest daughter's graduation.
"I watched Dad stomp on the mound, pack it with dirt and mimic a windup to see if it felt right," she wrote in a touching letter that lobbied for Seidl's selection to the state amateur baseball Hall of Fame. "It just didn't feel right, so he walked over to his S10 pickup truck and drove it on the mound and began shifting back and forth over the mound while his head hung out the door making sure the tires packed the mound in just the right places."
Work a field that carefully long enough and the infield dirt not only gets under your fingernails, it gets in your blood.
Consider Terry Steinbach. He grew up in nearby New Ulm and helped the town team to the state title before going on to a 14-year major-league career that included an MVP award in the All-Star Game and a World Series ring. And when he retired from the majors, he did the only thing that made sense. He returned to New Ulm and played for his old team.
And this is the way their children will play, as well. The ballpark also serves as the diamond for the local youth leagues, and as soon as the game ends, the kids take over the field.
Stark is so small that it doesn't even officially qualify as a town. It's just a 6-mile by 6-mile township of maybe 400 people, mainly farmers. There are several hundred fans at the game tonight, filling the grandstand behind home plate and standing along the left-field line. It's like a game in Montreal, only with no dome and more enthusiastic fans. A refreshing breeze carries the sweet scent of hamburger frying in onions from the nearby concession stand, where you can buy a burger and the local beer for $3 ... total. Acres of soy beans (last year it was corn) grow hip-high beyond the outfield fence. The crowd stands and faces the U.S. flag fluttering in dead center when the national anthem plays.
The only thing missing is Garrison Keillor's voice.
Of course, he had to drive 14 miles to pick up his mail every day, but that seemed like a small price to pay for the privilege of playing for Stark.
With a brilliant orange sun setting on the horizon, Stark takes a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning when pitcher Brad Mathiowetz singles home a run with two out. The crowd cheers loudly, already anticipating the next day's possible game against Essig. If Stark wins, it will be host for the game because the team that draws the most fans during the season gets to be the home team, a simple and sensible method for determining home field advantage. "Isn't it amazing that the East Tomahawk League makes more sense than the major leagues?" a fan asks.
Indeed. I wish commissioner Bud Selig, union head Donald Fehr and everyone else with a say in baseball's labor war could be here to see this.
"They were hard-headed players, and you had to work twice as hard to play with them," Seidl says. "But they were better than anybody else. They deserved to be the ones playing, even if their last name wasn't Helget."
Oh, they were good. Dale Helget caught in the Red Sox organization for several years and Vic Helget was a fantastic pitcher. Steinbach caught 20-game winners such as Dave Stewart, Bob Welch and Bob Radke, and he swears that Vic threw harder than all of them, even harder than Roger Clemens.
And dedicated? Whew. The Helgets were dairy farmers, which is about the most demanding, unforgiving job there is. Those cows must be milked twice a day, morning and evening, every day, no matter what, and, by God, the Helgets milked them by hand! If there was a night game, the Helgets would milk the cows and then race to the ballfield. If there was a day game, the Helgets would play and then race home for the evening milking. And if there was a day game that went into extra innings, well, then the Helgets made damn sure they got that winning run across home plate. Duane and Darrel said they never called a game due to cow-milking but came close a couple of times.
Do you think the Helgets would go on strike over revenue sharing?
The great Stark Helget line sort of broke up in the late '80s, and that's a sad story. After sitting out a summer, Vic Helget wanted to play for Sleepy Eye, and there were enough bad feelings about the whole matter that the Stark team refused to give him his release to do so. The dispute went to the state board, with Helget testifying against Helget, and eventually Stark relinquished and let Vic go. Gradually, most of the remaining Helgets retired or left to play with other teams as well.
It must have been like the Brooklyn Dodgers moving.
When I describe this as the breakup of the Helget family, Duane snaps, "We weren't a family, we were a team." The way he says it, it's unclear which of the two -- family or team -- represents the stronger, more important bond.
That's all Duane will say on the subject though, because even 15 years later there still is too much bad will and hurt feelings. "It will never go away," Seidl said. "It will go right to the grave with some of them."
This is Duane's first season in the stands. He retired as a player last year after more than 30 years on the field (the last few years with another team). He is 53, and there were just too many games in the suffocating heat, too many aches and too many nights dipping his howling elbow in ice after he pitched. At the time, it seemed like the right decision. But tonight, Duane looks out at the field, watches Stark squander a bases-loaded opportunity and says, "I hate myself for not playing this year."
The Longhorns' season is over, but it's still a beautiful night. The temperature is warm, the humidity is low, and there is enough of a breeze to keep the mosquitoes away. The season ended with a disappointing loss, but hamburgers are on the grill and beer is in the ice bucket. The children play on the field, while the adults sip their drinks in small groups and talk about the glories of baseball. And there is always next year, and the first indoor practices are only about six months away. This year was great and next year could be even better. Even Duane talks about playing again.
Why not? This place is magic. Don't believe me? Then here's another story.
Jared Visker plays on the New Ulm team, but he came over to watch his friends play tonight. He played baseball at Baylor, where his roommate was Kip Wells, who served up Barry Bonds' 600th home run just the night before. "He called me from San Francisco on his cell phone today, and there was all this noise in the background," Visker says. "I asked him what the noise was, and he said he was standing in line for the cable car. He said there were like a hundred people ahead of him. I told him he didn't need to wait in line, all he had to do was tell them he was the guy who gave up the bomb to Bonds, and they would let him go right to the front."
Can you believe it? I'm at a ballfield in the middle of nowhere, and the player next to me is best friends with the pitcher who just served up Bonds' 600th home run. But that's not surprising. Stark is the heart of baseball, after all, so it's only natural that there is an artery from here to the best player in the game.
"It's the atmosphere I love so much," Seidl says. "Not many people can make the major leagues, but you can live out your dreams here, too. You can live them on the amateur level -- there's nothing wrong with that. Baseball is the only sport like that, the only sport that gives you a second and a third chance.
As Seidl says this, his two youngest daughters, Emily and Elizabeth, grab a bat and ball and run onto the field. And they begin pitching to each other out here, under the lights, under a sky full of stars, amid the rich Minnesota farmland.
Oh, by the way, there is yet another ballfield just down the road from a stretch in Leavenworth. That park is a lot like this one, only there is a cornfield past the center-field fence and a small cemetery beyond the backstop. I've seen that same arrangement at several Minnesota ballfields -- crops, diamond and graves -- and I find it very fitting.
Life on one side, death on the other, and baseball separating the two.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.