The nine-person board for the Minnesota Baseball Association went through an upheaval in late April. To a degree, it was a spinoff on a national political debate:
Were governors such as Tim Walz overstepping with their pandemic restrictions, a view promoted often by Donald Trump, or were shutdowns (including sports) the only way to deal with this COVID devil in its early months among us?
Board president John Richter and secretary-treasurer Dave Hartmann resigned in reaction to this in-fighting. Richter was due to retire in October. Hartmann sided with Richter in the opinion that town baseball not occur outside official state edicts.
Fred Roufs, in his 26th year on the board, was seen as a compromiser and became the new president in early May. Mike Nagel was elected secretary-treasurer. The board waited for two-plus months to name replacements for Richter and Hartmann as it worked through the pandemic politics.
Fairmont celebrates the Class C title. (Nick Gerhardt/ScoreMonster, photo)
On June 10, when the weekly COVID briefing from the Walz administration did not include a specific date for baseball to resume, the board met on a conference call and gave permission for its 235 teams in Classes B and C teams to start playing “exhibitions’’ as of Friday – June 12.
The Stearns County League had a full schedule posted on Twitter for the weekend the next morning. The first two games were played in Elrosa and St. Martin. I went to both and saw several masks at those two games: four on catchers, two on solo umpires, and the women behind the counter at the St. Martin concession stand (Elrosa’s wasn’t open).
“How is this all going to work out?,’’ you wondered, watching the first of the renegade games that had been authorized by the MBA board.
Twelve days later, on June 24, the Walz administration authorized the resumption of baseball, with crowd restrictions and other precautions, and the exhibitions became games.
And the final answer on townball -- tradition, determination and a bit of defiance vs. the pandemic -- was arrived at on Monday, on a cold, rain's-coming midday at the ballpark in Springfield:
“It turned out better than we could have imagined,’’ Roufs said. “This was by far the most-stressful year of my 26 on the board, and at this moment, it also is the most-rewarding.’’
Roufs was on the phone as Fairmont was building an early lead that would turn into a 12-0 rromp over St. Patrick in the Class C final.
Originally, Springfield was supposed to be the “third site,’’ after the two New Ulm ballparks --- Johnson Park and Mueller Field. On June 21, the New Ulm baseball association announced it was going to host the Class C and B tournaments as planned. This came after getting approval from the city council by a 3-2 vote.
On July 25, New Ulm's city council took up the issue again, and without public comment ,voted 5-0 to withdraw permission for the ballparks to be used. The reason given was an uptick in what had been Brown County’s very low COVID numbers.
“The New Ulm council changing its decision cost us a month,’’ Roufs said. “Knowing it had been 3-2 and there was pressure to take another vote, we did start looking at preliminary plans a few days before the second vote.
"Remember, we would be losing two of our three ballparks if New Ulm pulled the pin, so we had to know what options might be out there for us.
"Through it all, we didn’t want to be the board that failed to hold a state amateur baseball tournament. We’re set to hold the 100th state tournament in 2023, and we wanted that to remain the case.
"The state tournament was first played in 1924. It was played during World War II. It was played when the polio outbreak was at its highest in Minnesota in 1946.
"We felt that with our outdoor game, with crowds of 250 or less and other guidelines, and with committed players and groundskeepers and fans in small towns and bigger towns all over Minnesota … that a summer without a state tournament was just not going to happen.’’
Springfield, also in Brown County, never wavered. “We checked with them early in the week that New Um dropped out, and the Springfield people told us that its city council had said, ‘Play ball,' '' Roufs said.
The home of the Yankees in Milroy became the co-host with Springfield for the 48 Class C state qualifiers over the three weekends leading to Labor Day. Shakopee stepped in and agreed to host the 16 teams for the Class B tournament over the same weekends at its terrific Joe Schleper Stadium.
That wrapped up Sunday with Chanhassen winning a third straight B title, 4-3 over the Moorhead Brewers. The Fairmont rout in Class C gave the Martins a third state title and their first since 1959.
Fairmont's first came in 1930. Ninety years ago, and a vivid reminder as to why pushing forward meant everything to this board: maintaining a tradition that in numbers of participating teams is unique to Minnesota.
It is also our summer nod to Smalltown, Minnesota.
“Fairmont was too much for them today, but we had St. Patrick in our C title game,’’ Roufs said. “That's amazing. St. Patrick is a dot on the road. They have a ballpark without a grandstand. People come and bring chairs to sit on the rise, and they get a beer and a cheeseburger, and the kids chase foul balls as if they are after gold, and the ballpark is owned by the Catholic church.
“When St. Patrick wanted to resume playing, it went to the church board to receive permission. Of course, the church board and the council and the baseball board are the same people. But that’s what we have in Class C baseball:
Roufs paused and said: “We had to play.’’