Patrick Reusse
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WILLMAR, MINN. – Brooks Lee had batted .343 in a western collegiate league during the summer of 2019, then headed to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo to play baseball for his father. Larry Lee had been the Mustangs coach since 2003.

Brooks entered the brief, unofficial fall workouts and scrimmages and, in October 2019, he tore a hamstring and knee. He rehabbed energetically and early in the 2020 season, he managed to make a couple of pinch-hitting appearances in the Mustangs' first 16 games.

And then the pandemic shut down the season.

"I was going to the Cape Cod League that summer [2020], and then that was canceled," Lee said. "Next, I was going to Alaska, but that team didn't play, either.

"I needed to play somewhere. I had two at-bats in a year. I was coming back from a bad knee injury. I had to play games, as many as possible. I was told, 'There's a spot in the Northwoods League.' And I said, 'I'm in.' "

Even then, the team recruiting Lee from California to the Midwest was the Eau Claire Express. And then the Express elected not to participate in the post-COVID schedule.

The camaraderie of summer college ball was demonstrated by this:

Dale Varsho, a league staple running the Express, told Ryan Voz, co-owner and chief recruiter for the Willmar Stingers, that there was a very good shortstop in California who still needed a team.

Voz called. Brooks Lee came. He batted .345 in 36 games. Two years later, drafted by Twins … No. 8 overall pick.

"We had another player drafted that high — Hunter Dozier, the outfielder a decade ago," Voz said. "We have nine Stingers who have made it to the big leagues. Unless someone gets there in the next couple of years, Brooks will be No. 10.

"Great kid, too. Jay and Sherri Black were his host family. They rave about him."

How did an athlete who grew up in California, a former surfer, find happiness on the prairie in Willmar?

"I really enjoyed it, including the quieter pace," Lee said. "My Willmar family, Jay and Sherri, were great. They've been helping players for a few years now. It's a true commitment for four months every year."

Lee was in Fort Myers, Fla., with the Twins rookies on Thursday when this phone interview took place. The Blacks were in attendance here for a 7 p.m. game with Mankato.

Sherri was informed Lee had vouched for her cooking. "I know he liked my ribs," she said. "We were told that he's going to be with Cedar Rapids in A ball next week. We're going to head down there to see him."

They will not be arriving in the vehicle that Jay provided for Lee's use in the summer of 2020.

"It was a 1998 Ford Expedition, and it was the worst," Jay Black said. "I had to remind him, 'Brooks, don't turn on the air conditioner. Everything will go out.'

"I've upgraded since then. This year's player beater had air conditioning."

Baseball parties

Voz's first contact with the Northwoods League came in 1998, as an intern for Joel Sutherland at St. Cloud. He had a long stretch with the Alexandria Beetles after that.

Voz and Marc Jerzak were partners to land and finance an expansion team for Willmar in 2010. At a population of 21,000, Willmar competes with Wisconsin Rapids as the smallest among the 21 cities in the Northwoods. That won't change when Minot, N.D., joins in 2023.

"We get 900 or a 1,000 people a night," Voz said. "Our theory is that we're giving 36 parties for 1,000 in 2 ½ months."

The Stingers have added to the good mood by going 23-4 in the second half and clinching a playoff berth Saturday night. A 12-game winning streak has been included.

"That streak was awesome; I'd never been on a team where every time we absolutely needed it, somebody, anybody, would get a big hit," said Joey Walls of Long Beach State, the Home Run Derby champ at the recent Northwoods All-Star Game.

Nolan Kemp, just out of Chaska High School and headed for St. Thomas, was added two weeks ago as older pitchers started reaching innings limits (many set by college coaches) and returned home.

"I'm the kid to them. Some of the players call me 'Baby,' but they also will do anything to help you," Kemp said. "This gives me a better idea of what a pitcher will face in college."

Summer ball in Willmar? Extra small for college ball, and still going after 13 years.

"Lots of promotion, good baseball, loyal fans, and the Willmar business community … that's what stirs the drink," Voz said. "We have things going every night thanks to the businesses.

"An important thing is when our players get back home — and coaches, family and friends ask, 'How did you like that place … Will-MAARR?' — that they will say, 'It's Willmar and it was great.' "