March 24: Why Baseball Matters

Championships come and go, but Tommie baseball endures

My earliest childhood memories revolve around baseball.

A child of the ’60s, I spent summer afternoons at Gainey Park near our home in Owatonna, playing in pickup games as soon as enough neighborhood kids showed up at a field formed into a perfect wide V by two streets. A long fly ball to left would land in Selby Avenue or someone’s yard, but a shot into foul territory down the first-base line would scoot across Lemond Road into a cornfield, and we would trudge the rows and hunt for the ball.

Before dinner, my dad and I often played catch in our front yard, flipping the ball back and forth to warm up. He tossed grounders, first to the right and then to the left, mixed in a line drive or two and lobbed pop flies over my head. Some balls fell just beyond my reach, but I stabbed others with a last-minute dive or cradled them into my glove while looking over a shoulder, ala Willie Mays.

After dinner, dad turned on the radio on the kitchen counter, fiddling with the tuning knob to make sure WCCO-AM came in just right and cranking up the volume so he could hear Herb Carneal and Halsey Hall call the Twins game from wherever he chose to sit. This was long before cable television networks had emerged to bring you every game, and only a handful were broadcast on WTCN-Channel 11, so the radio was our reliable connection to the park.

Several times a summer, I jumped into the back seat of a car and rode to Bloomington with dad and his buddies to see a night game in Metropolitan Stadium. I always brought my glove (caught a foul ball once), always kept score (made up my own scorecards), always had a Frosty Malt (cost a quarter) and always fell asleep on the way home (what kid wouldn’t?). I favored twi-night doubleheaders – twice the action, hot dogs in between games and staying up after midnight.

While this preoccupation with baseball may give you the impression I was good at the game, I wasn’t. I was just an ordinary player, but that didn’t make any difference. I thought I was good, and that’s what counted. As I pretended to be Harmon Killebrew launching a homer or Willie Mays chasing down a fly ball or Camilo Pascual snapping off a curve, or as I listened to Herb and Halsey describe the action, I fell in love with a game the pundits call our national pastime.

Forty-plus years later, I still love baseball. I rarely play in a pickup game (a thing of the past), I don’t play catch in the yard anymore (my kids grew up and moved out) and I don’t listen on the radio unless I’m in the car (I prefer a high-definition, flat screen TV). But I still go to games as often as I can because of what baseball taught me as a kid – and is still teaching me today.

Baseball taught me all kinds of values. The value of teamwork – I could be a great hitter or pitcher, but unless there were runners to knock in or fielders to catch the ball, I wouldn’t succeed. The value of discipline – to run out routine grounders and pop-ups because you never knew when one might be bobbled or dropped. The value of fundamentals – of doing the little things right, time after time, to achieve consistency. And perhaps most importantly, the value of never giving up – of knowing there was always a chance to win as long as your team had one last “ups.”

Shared values on a team lead to trust among players, and with trust comes a bond that perseveres through good times and bad, success and failure, wins and losses. Baseball more than any other sport best reflects those values, that trust and that bond – and in the process it helps to teach us how to be better human beings who appreciate the simple things.

I have a t-shirt, received as a present many years ago, imprinted with the words: “Baseball is Life: The Rest is Just Details.” While obviously overstated – even this baseball junkie would be the first to admit his life would go on fine without baseball – the words suggest the importance of an avocation and how one can help you deal with more significant issues in life.

My avocation since returning to campus as an employee nearly 20 years ago has been Tommie sports, especially basketball and baseball. I love sitting a few rows behind the team and watching the ebb and flow of a fast-paced basketball game as long, of course, as we are hitting 50 percent of our shots, playing solid defense and committing few turnovers. But as March Madness melts away, as it sadly did this year on March 4 when both Tommie basketball teams lost opening-round NCAA playoff games, my attention turns fully to baseball.

From the beginning, this season promised to be different than any in my memory because of the retirement of Dennis Denning after 15 years as St. Thomas coach. I admired the way that Dennis coached the game – his execution of Xs and Os, his uncanny ability to make the right decisions at critical times and his emphasis on the values I cherish. Teamwork. Discipline. Fundamentals. Never giving up. Dennis embodied those values better than anyone I knew and instilled them in his teams. They meshed perfectly last May when the Tommies, facing six elimination games in the regional and national tournaments, kept battling back and won the NCAA Division III title 3-2 in the 12th inning of the best college game I’ve ever seen.

At his retirement press conference in December, Dennis talked about the importance of not setting out to win a national title but of following “the path” to get there. His perspective – that as a coach or a player or even a fan, you need to savor every moment of every step – came across as common-sense wisdom. It also was an insightful final message for the 2010 Tommies: You’re good; you’re among the best, in fact. But don’t set a goal of winning a national championship; set a goal of enjoying the path.

As I stepped onto the makeshift practice field inside the Concordia University football field “bubble” last month, I wondered about that path and how the Tommies would follow it under interim Coach Chris Olean. I also wondered how Olean would hold up under undeniably high expectations.

“Pressure?” he said. “Let’s see. We won a national title last year, I’m succeeding a legend and we’re rated pre-season No. 1 in the country. What pressure?”

We laughed, and he pledged to carry on the winning tradition and have fun at the same time. As I watched his players work through their drills that day and later interviewed the team’s leaders, I was struck by their maturity and their resoluteness. They know they have big bulls-eyes on their backs – that everyone they play will give a little extra and put their best pitcher on the mound because they want to beat the No. 1 club in the country. They also know they’re good. “We’re confident, with a little bit of swagger,” said senior rightfielder Matt Olson, who was Most Outstanding Player of the Division III tournament. “Not cocky, but confident. We know we can go out and compete with the best teams in the nation, and that we have what it takes to win.”

As serious as Olson was at the moment, he also talked about the sheer joy of playing the game. So did every one of his teammates. That’s why they’re willing to practice at 6 a.m. in a high school gym. That’s why they grind through repetitious drills – hitting and running and throwing, over and over again. That’s why they play a game at 9:45 p.m. on a Saturday when their friends are at a party or a movie. They play because they love baseball, and they intend to enjoy every step of the path.

That was quite obvious the afternoon of March 17. Astronomers and meteorologists may say spring began at 12:32 p.m. March 20, but the vernal equinox came nearly 72 hours earlier for the Tommies. At 3 p.m. St. Patrick’s Day, our Boys of Spring stepped not along a parade route or into a bar to drink green beer, but onto Koch Diamond for the first outdoors practice of the season.

The sun was out, the temperature was in the low 60s, the field was in remarkably good shape and the spirits were high. Everybody had an extra bounce in his step and a big smile on his face.

Including me. As I stood in the outfield to interview pitcher Bryce Gapinski, I kept an eye on centerfielder Matt McQuillan as he gracefully chased down fly balls, tracing the ball as it flew off a bat high into that bright blue sky before nestling into his glove

Almost the same way those balls dropped in my glove more than 40 years ago, I joked to myself as I walked off the field. I kept looking back at the team. It was tough to go back to work. Finally, I bounded up the steps to the parking lot and took off.

I’ll be back soon, ready to settle in behind home plate and help the umpire call balls and strikes; ready to cheer a line drive to center, nod at a masterful changeup for a called third strike and marvel over a beautifully turned double play; and ready to relive my earliest childhood memories.

They’ll always revolve around baseball.

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