Craig Pexa is many things to the baseball community in Cologne.
He's the manager. He's the groundskeeper, the designer, the builder. He's the chef in the concession stands.
He's the father. He's the husband. He's been the heart and soul of Hollander baseball for many years.
Never, though, was he solely responsible for keeping a traveling trophy at home based on a beer chug. That was scene June 22 with visiting Spring Hill, a 7-7 tie after eight innings, neither team with any pitching remaining. The game to be decided on what manager could finish his Coors Light fastest.
Pexa won the competition, but with part of the beer ending up on his jersey, a friendly coin flip was the final factor. Cologne players cheered as the outcome came out their way.
Then the real fun came.
After discussing 2020 plans with the Spring Hill manager, Pexa was asked to stay on the field. Jason Kuerschner, Cologne Baseball board member, over the PA system, called out to Pexa letting him know family and friends went behind his back.
"You're inducted into the hall of fame this year, buddy," the words of Jason Kuerschner, Cologne Hollanders board member, over the PA system. Pexa was announced as an inductee to the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame for 2019.
Seventeen nominees from across the state, five selected, including Pexa.
Pexa, his coaching helmet still on his head, shook his head. Then covered his mouth with his left hand. All the emotions flooding him as the crowd cheered.
"I was shocked, humbled, honored. I tell people, this is not me. I don't look for stuff like this. The ball field is something I take care of," Craig Pexa said.
Grabbing the trophy, tapping his right hand on his heart, blowing a kiss to his wife, Pexa exited to the dugout where he was greeted by the players. Anthony Brenner, longtime Hollander, brushed a tear away from his eye before shaking Pexa's hand.
One by one, a big thank you and congratulations, all in one.
"A few of us got choked up pretty good. He'd never expect someone to vote him like that. That's a big reason why it was kept a secret. If Jason had said something to him, he would have said 'no, no, no.' He would never ask for credit for the fence, the decks, the dugouts. All things he hand built. But he deserves this so much," Cologne catcher Tim Swanson said.
AT HOME IN COLOGNE
Pexa moved around as a young kid, the family settling in a house at the edge of town in 1972, just off the turn north to Waconia near Benton Lake. His family owned a restaurant in town, rooting the Pexas in the Cologne community.
Baseball ran in the Pexa Family, which included four boys. A Norwood Young America Central High School graduate and current school board member in District 108, from the start, it was evident Craig was going to be a coach.
His first coaching position was in high school, managing a little league team. He joined the Hollanders first as a player in 1976, then took over as coach many years later. After a few years away from the team, to coach his son, Brett, and run the Legion program, he returned to the dugout six years ago.
"I remember being a little, little kid, always being at the ball park. Watching town team games, being around the dugout. It was always baseball," Brett Pexa said.
Once lights were added in 2014, Craig Pexa was able to juggle the schedules, coaching both Legion and the Hollanders.
With the three kids -- daughters Kendra and Rachel -- grown up, the oldest expecting in November, Brett is also engaged, most nights end up at Fritz Field. If not coaching, Craig and his wife, Kristi, are in the concession stand.
It's been a labor of love.
"I was ecstatic. So thrilled for him, so proud. He's put in a lot of work at that field," said Brett Pexa, newly hired as an Assistant Professor in Athletic Training at High Point University in North Carolina. "To see that field bare bones (after the tornado), and to see it now, it's incredible to see how it's been built up. He'll never credit for any of it. He had such an instrumental role in making sure everything was pushing through at the right time length."
AT THE BALLPARK
For every project that has been completed in the last 20 years at Fritz Field since a tornado ripped through Cologne, Pexa has had the next one in mind.
In recent years a new wooden fence was put up, dugouts were redone, the third-base hill was upgraded with safer stairs and railing along with fencing and a retaining wall. Cologne partnered with the city to add lights for night games.
Previous work included stadium seats from County Stadium in Milwaukee being brought in for the grand stand.
This year, a deck was added in front of The Shack, the field's concession stand.
"Even now, he built that new deck and he already has plans to extend that out. He has plans for a new scoreboard. It's so fun to see where that field has become," Brett Pexa said.
Most of the projects, Pexa has a hand, or hammer, in it all. The ball park on the hill, known for its beautiful sunsets and award-winning cheese curds, has turned into his new baby.
"Back in 1998 when the VFW stuck a bunch of money into the field. Put in the retaining wall, leveled it off, put grass in the infield, we said as an organization we're going to keep this going. We're going to make this better year-by-year. Take our time, funds are limited. The City has been great the last five or six years. They see us as an asset to the community, not a liability like some people thought at one time," Craig Pexa said.
The work does not go unnoticed. What Fritz Field has become does not go unnoticed.
"As much as we talk about the field and how good it is for Cologne, across the state of Minnesota, definitely the Crow River. I was in Phoenix working Spring Training for the Texas Rangers and I met a kid from Minnesota. A younger guy. I think he was from Plymouth or Wayzata. He asked me where I was from and I told him, 'Cologne.' He said, 'Wow, that have a nice baseball park out there.' To meet a guy from Minnesota, in Arizona of all places, to know where Cologne was, to know the baseball park, was pretty impressive." Brett Pexa said.
A fine May afternoon, two high school games scheduled at the Cologne park, Pexa was flipping burgers and throwing fries into the deep fryer.
His bubbly personality on display for every customer who came to the window.
He talked about the 2019 Cologne team, the addition of new pitchers in Christian Johnson and Torben Urdahl. After making the move up the Crow River League standings in recent years, how this year may be the one Cologne gets back to state -- its last appearance in 1972.
Pexa's the guy players like playing for, and in turn bring their friends to play with. It's a big reason why the Hollanders are a team on the rise, entering July with eight league wins in 13 contests, including a season sweep of one of the Crow River's top teams, Plato, 12-3 and most recently 8-6 on June 30.
"He has very high baseball knowledge. Very competitive, likes to win, but mostly will do anything he can for the kids to have fun as a family. He used organize out-of-town trips for the teams. We used to go to Omaha, to Kansas. Today we still go up to Spring Hill," Swanson said.
"Last weekend, after a game, Christian says, 'It's different playing baseball with you guys and Craig.' I've never had a coach call everybody into the dugout and tell them to pick a number out of a hat and that's the position you're going to. Having a 35-40-year-old left-hander at second base. That's just the stuff he does. He makes it fun," Swanson said.
"We did it in Legion once and it was fun. The late Donny Stoddard of Arlington or Gren Isle was umping, and he said two things: the guy in front of me can catch, and the guy throwing to the catcher is in the same area code. I enjoy the game, I've been doing it for a long time. It's not just the coaching thing. It's everything. How long I will coach? That's up for question. My wife thinks I should have stepped down after last year, but when she watches us, how we're competing, and the enjoyment I get out of it, it's hard to argue against it. It's a time commitment though."
Swanson, now in his sixth year with the Cologne team, grew up around Pexa. His brother, Tyler, played with Brett in youth ball, often coached by Pexa.
The manager, along with his father, Mick, another proud Hollander supporter and part of the heart and soul of Cologne Baseball, are a big part of why he keeps coming back every year.
"My dad played for 20-some years. He's at that age where he needs something to do. He comes to every single game, takes tickets, does all that stuff. Still tries to coach me. Him and Craig are good buddies. Those two keep me coming back. We have a family. Craig, Carter Clemensen, those guys are from Cologne. Kind of fun to say you're from town, you play for Cologne," Swanson said.
Cologne, visiting Carver on Sunday, July 7 at 1 p.m., hosts Jordan and Montrose-Waverly on July 9 and 11, both at 7:30 p.m.
Other home dates in July are Carver on July 14 (6 p.m.), Henderson on July 19 (7 p.m.) and Brownton on July 21 (2 p.m.).