Many times people are asked what makes the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Tournament so special. Many times people stumble for a few seconds. It's on the tip of the tongue, but it just doesn't roll off.
It is because the perfect words do not exist. It is a feeling. Athletic Park public announcer Ron Schmit said it best in an e-mail two days after the final pitch was thrown in the 2021 Class B Tournament in Chaska.
It's more than fun. It's more than family. It's more than community.
"Plenty of community activities can be described that way. There is something different with baseball; something ancient and seemingly hard-wired into us. Maybe that's why the perfect answer eludes us. Sports are as old as mankind. Every culture, throughout the ages, has participated in sport, and where there is sport, there are spectators. Spectators cheering, hoping, supporting, booing... sometimes too intensely! It is part of the human condition and has always been thus," he said.
A St. Paul kid, town team baseball was something I was unaware of until my first job as a reporter in Renville County. The summer of 2005, many nights were spent at the ball parks in Bird Island and Sacred Heart.
I met people; and I became one of them.
My passion for amateur baseball in Minnesota fueled only greater in five years while working in Hutchinson. Good friends became great friends. A teammate became a groomsmen in my wedding. After years away from the game, I returned to the field in 2009 for one season.
I collected four hits, made two starts at designated hitter and primarily was used as a batting practice pitcher. I played one inning in the field, a night game against Brownton, scooping a low throw that got to me so fast to this day I'm still not sure how I made the play.
One batter later, a pop up was lifted down the first base side. I reached up and squeezed my glove tight. Clank. The ball hit the top of the dugout. I had been out of the game so long that when I looked up I saw two or three baseballs.
That was it. That was the moment I said let someone else where the No. 19 jersey.
What I gained that season, though, was a passion. Not for the game, that was already deep inside of me, but for the ball parks, for the competition, for the camaraderie.
That state tournament experience in Arlington that lasted nine innings -- Chris Rupert and Ryan Seifert dashing away the Hutchinson Huskies' dream that season for eventual champion Shakopee -- it was only the beginning.
I have returned to the tournament many times since. Sometimes as a reporter, sometimes as a fan. Town ball has taken me from the Crow River Valley League throughout Carver and McLeod counties to Litchfield, Cold Spring, New Prague, Hamburg and Green Isle, Springfield and Milroy, Dassel, Maple Lake and Delano, and to Joe Schleper Stadium in Shakopee.
I have spent much of my "final day of summer" on Labor Day at the ball park in recent years, covering the now four-time state champion Chanhassen Red Birds. Sad to see the season always end.
So, why did town baseball stick with me? Well, I'll let Ron Schmit answer that one.
"Town ball brings that to a very personal and intimate level. It's not some mega-millionaire playing for the team that can pay him the most; it's your kid, or one of his friends. It's your neighbor or a general contractor in town; it's the high school coach, or a co-worker; it's the dude from the auto parts store, or a college grad that works at the local bank. We know these people -- we are these people -- and when these ordinary folk step up and do extraordinary things, it's a wonder to behold," he said.
20,000 was the number.
Minnesota baseball fans, you gave me, and the Waconia-Chaska-Hamburg tournament committee 21,000, and boy do we thank you.
Chaska alone had crowds close to 2,000 on Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. Cars parked wherever they could fit, on 1st St. all the way down to Chestnut, and filling up the adjacent lot to Schram Haus with three shuttles bringing fans right to the gate.
All that was missing Saturday night was a ferris wheel to complete the carnival-like atmosphere when St. Patrick and Young America met, followed by New Ulm and Milroy.
One thousand burgers sold. Something like 400 orders of cheese curds. The empty boxes alongside the beverage truck certainly told the story on beer sales.
WCH21 gave us three weekends of entertainment, three weekends of intrigue. Walk-off hits and no-hitters.
Memories were made for all ages. A hope for what's to come in 2022 -- will this be our team's year -- in Faribault, Dundas and Miesville.
There's no better way to bid farewell to the 2021 baseball season than through the words of Michael Dahl and Goodnight Baseball.
Goodnight, diamond. Goodnight, grass. Goodnight, home plate where each runner ran past. Goodnight, bat. Goodnight, mitt -- that reached up high and caught a fast hit.
Goodnight, popcorn boxes under the stands. Goodnight, mascot and goodnight, fans. Goodnight, friends. Goodnight, cars. Goodnight, stadium, under the stars.