Spending much of his time soothing clients’ stock market fears in his daytime job as a financial advisor at Edward Jones, new Duluth Marshall baseball coach Nick Garramone was hoping to get away from the current fiscal crisis with some quality time on the diamond.
But due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the spring prep sports season in Minnesota is suspended until further notice.
“It’s really unfortunate for every kid involved,” Garramone said. “These kids need baseball as an outlet, and with everything we’re seeing in our country and our city, what better outlet is there than playing baseball?
“But if it doesn’t happen, we have to swallow our pride and do what’s best for the safety of our world.”
Garramone isn’t alone. Joe Wicklund, his predecessor at Marshall for the past six seasons, was recently hired at Duluth Denfeld, while Billy Tafs nabbed the opening at Hermantown. All are coaches without a team as baseball, along with all extracurricular activities, has been shut down by the coronavirus.
Whenever play resumes, the three new coaches will lend interesting storylines to a sport that is seeing a renaissance in the Northland.
“It’s an interesting scope of changes here locally in baseball,” Garramone said.
Wicklund coached Marshall to a Class AA state championship last season — Duluth’s first in 69 years — while Denfeld enjoyed its first state tournament berth since 1954.
Wicklund worked full time at Marshall until 2019 before taking a job as the communications director for the city of Hermantown. That new position meant coaching the Hilltoppers was no longer viable.
“When I worked there full time, it wasn’t a problem coaching baseball at 3:30,” Wicklund said. “But when I took a job outside of education, that wasn’t as easily accomplished. Logistics were part of what had me make a change.
“I was faced with the choice of not coaching at all or seeing if it was possible to (coach at Denfeld).”
Wicklund says Denfeld’s flexibility with scheduling practice times and games led him to apply for that position.
“I wanted to coach at Denfeld when that became an option,” he said. “I think there’s some incredibly special things happening on the west side of town and, in my small way, I wanted to be a part of that.”
Despite the heartache of leaving a team he built into a state champion, Wicklund says he was thrilled that Marshall chose Garramone as his replacement.
He credits Garramone with helping revitalize youth baseball in town with the Duluth 709 organization.
Garramone, a 1998 Denfeld graduate and a former player and coach at Wisconsin-Superior, also applied at his alma mater, saying “baseball is a part of who I am.”
He coached the Western Duluth intermediate team to a state title in 2017 and coached some of the current Marshall players in the 709 organization, which pools together children from around the city to play recreationally and on traveling teams.
“Every kid that wants to play casually gets to do that and every kid who wants to play at a high level can do that, as well,” Garramone said.
Though he takes over a defending champion, Marshall graduated plenty of talent, including a pair of Division I players in All-Area Player of the Year Ben Pedersen (Missouri) and Peter Hansen (Bradley).
That doesn’t dim future expectations, according to Garramone.
“Those guys have laid a tradition and a foundation for what to expect at Marshall going forward,” he said. “Big shoes to fill from that senior class, but I am really looking forward — whether it’s this year or next — to getting out there and competing.”
Likewise for Tafs, a 2003 Hermantown graduate, who has been best friends with Garramone for a long time. He played at UWS while Garramone was coaching.
“It will be a friendly deal, but when we are between the lines the friendship part will disappear in a hurry,” Tafs said of the budding rivalry.
Tafs, who works as a financial advisor for Edward Jones in Cloquet, returned home a year ago after a decade away. He worked for Furniture Row in the Midland/Odessa area in Texas, along with stops in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Columbia, Missouri. His involvement in baseball was limited as a fan during that span.
The former VFW coach in Hermantown returned to coaching at the youth level with Garramone last summer.
“I’ve always loved baseball,” Tafs said. “Nick and I coached a 14-and-under team together as part of the 709 organization last year. It was like riding a bike. It made me realize how much I had missed it the past 10 years. Then Hermantown came along and it’s a dream opportunity for me to go home and rekindle all those relationships with everybody.”