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John Gilbert: Real baseball remains an attraction even for aging wannabe

No, we didn't win the championship. We came in third in the Class B men's senior (35-and-over) amateur baseball state tournament with a scintillating 2-1 victory over St. Louis Park in a Sunday game at Belle Plaine. It wasn't the World Series, bu...

No, we didn't win the championship. We came in third in the Class B men's senior (35-and-over) amateur baseball state tournament with a scintillating 2-1 victory over St. Louis Park in a Sunday game at Belle Plaine. It wasn't the World Series, but it was our world series, because we're all over 35. Some players are even in their 60s, still hitting, throwing, running -- and breathing, sometimes while committing those other acts.
It is baseball. Real baseball, for aging ballplayers either real or imagined. Maybe you were a once-was, or a never-was or even a never-will-be, but a wannabe -- any of those categories of the mind -- but real baseball makes you an everlasting teen-ager. I never got enough baseball, as a kid playing for Paul Modeen at Portman Square in Lakeside, at Duluth Central, for the Zenith City American Legion team, or in the fast-paced Park National League in Minneapolis during college years. When I heard about this over-35 baseball league, I was immediately drawn to it.
The rules are modified. Instead of nine innings with three outs, or seven innings, this league goes nine innings with two outs an inning. And each hitter starts with a 1-1 count, meaning it takes three balls to walk, two strikes to sit down. That may sound a little weird, but it works to keep scores reasonable and game times manageable. Instead of three-hour, 14-11 games, we have two-hour, 4-2 type games.
There are probably 30 teams playing in various leagues and divisions in the Twin Cities, down the River Valley area to Belle Plaine and St. Peter, and up in the northwestern part of the state from Brainerd to Alexandria. I put my own team together, the Shoreview Hawks, and we've had some memorable years, whether good, bad or mediocre.
A year ago, while splitting my residences between Duluth and Shoreview and writing a feature story on Stephanie Fritch, the outstanding pitcher for the Esko Ice by way of Duluth Central, her father and I started talking baseball. I mentioned to Gary Fritch how I was still playing, and he was lured to our next game the following weekend. Fritch went 6-0 for us as a part-time, drive-in pitcher last season, losing only in a state tournament game.
Now, while moving to Duluth full time, I would love to see a similar league put together in the Duluth area next summer, but in the meantime, I became aware that this might well be my final year running the Hawks, unless I choose to commute for twice-weekly games. So, without any Cal Ripken fanfare, I secretly considered this might be my "farewell tour."
As luck would have it, the arm still worked from shortstop or third base, or occasionally the mound when our top two pitchers weren't around. I suggested that it must be an effect of global warming that caused my glove to be farther from the ground when I reached down for a grounder, but most satisfying was that my bat found the ball more frequently than ever, and I surprised myself by hitting .400 throughout the season.
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Two weeks ago, we had rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat Montgomery 8-5 in our first state tournament game at Belle Plaine. Then we trailed 3-0 again against the Minneapolis Brewers before rallying to tie the game in the seventh, and we won 5-3 on a dramatic 2-run homer in the last of the ninth. I was on-deck when a slim, young, 36-year-old named Jason Hillstrom lined a home run over the right-field fence at Union Hill. The ball disappeared into a large field of tall cornstalks, just like in Field of Dreams, and I was thrilled for Jason, and our team, and I put on hold my eagerness to come through under pressure.
A misalignment of teams in our B division meant a weird three-team draw that allowed one beaten team to be seeded back into the B semifinals. Strangely, that meant we had to come back on Saturday to play the same Minneapolis Brewers we had just defeated. We were as flat as they were fired up, and we fell behind 5-0 in the first inning and 8-0 in the third. We rallied, but lost 8-5. A bitter loss, because that result superseded our elimination-round victory over the same team, which seemed unfair, and besides, we were hoping to play an old nemesis, St. Louis Park, in the final.
The good news was that St. Louis Park had been upset in the other bracket, so our third-place game was the perfect ending. Their pitcher, Derek Swenson, was as fast as anybody we faced all season. Gary Fritch was pitching for us, and the game boiled scorelessly through six innings. When you play enough, you get good feelings about how things will go, sometimes, and sometimes you come up with the key hit or the big play to win a game. When you also are the manager, you have difficulty separating your personal focus from trying to focus on everybody in the team structure. In the first inning, I somehow beat out a checked-swing grounder to third, and that was our team's only hit through six innings, and I could feel good things coming.
In the top of the seventh, Park got two singles before Fritch struck out a man. With two on and two out, I was hoping the next guy would hit it to me. He hit a little soft line drive, and I retreated from shortstop onto the grass in shallow center, and I leaped for what would be a certain catch. But there was no feeling of the ball hitting the Wilson. If my jump wasn't high enough, obviously gravity now has too great an attraction for my body -- surely another global warming effect. The ball fell in for a hit, and we were behind 1-0.
In the last of the seventh, Dick Seymore got a single for us, Dick Christopher was safe when his hard fielder's choice grounder was booted. Jay Befort begged to pinch-hit. I wanted to use Steve Agard. Steve is a 64-year-old University of Minnesota professor and a left-handed hitter with a great eye. Jay is right behind me, climbing through the 50s and so certain each year will be his last that we now hold the "Annual Jay Befort Retirement Party" every year at the tournament. This was the eighth. So I gave in. Jay struck out. Fritch, however, came through with a hard grounder that was booted, and we scored the tying 1-1 run.
Hillstrom, our best hitter, was walked intentionally to load the bases. More significantly, in my competitive little mind, it was to bypass him and get to me. I got the count up to 3-and-2, and, just like Jay, it was the perfect scenario for the veteran to come through, big time. I was pretty sure Swenson might try to get me on an outside curve ball, but instead, he fired a good, inside corner fastball, and, just like Jay, I swung hard and missed. End of inning, 1-1.
Fritch mowed down Park, and it was the last of the ninth. Christopher came through with a leadoff single, and this time I did send Steve Agard up to pinch-hit. Sure enough, he waited for his pitch, then lined a shot off pitcher Swenson's shin for a key hit. Up came Gary Fritch, batting ninth, and having pitched a big-time game, spacing seven hits, walking one and striking out 13 -- with only 18 outs available. Fritch hit a sharp grounder to short, and Park's shortstop couldn't handle it. The ball glanced into the outfield, and Christopher roared around third and scored the winning run in a 2-1 thriller.
Sure, it would have been satisfying if I had come through with the big hit or the key play. But there are two reasons it was far better this way. First, the bottom four slots in the lineup came through for both our runs. And second, when the juices flow and you imagine coming through under pressure, it's gratifying to realize that there's always next year.

John Gilbert is a sports writer for the Up North Newspaper Network. He can be reached by e-mail at john.gilbert@mx3.com .

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