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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Does Amateur Baseball Have A Future?

By John W. Dermody

Those of us who love amateur baseball get ticked off when we see things that threaten to weaken the sport or – on occasion – are blatant efforts by individuals in an attempt to enhance one team at the expense of others.

’Lord knows, the average “town team” has enough problems holding rosters together, recruiting home town high school grads to add depth, and raising funds that pay for bats, balls and umpires.

I am most familiar with the Countryside and Hi-10 leagues, although I get to see Lake and Pine and Resorters squads when it comes time for the Region 14C and 16C tournaments.
It’s not likely that managers or players are consciously trying to hurt baseball. Not actively or with malicious intent, anyway. But in their quest to finish on top, there are questionable moves made by a few.

How do you measure success?

We have known teams that look at a campaign as a failure if they don’t get back to the Minnesota State Class C Tournament.
In our immediate area, we have seen proposals – and some actual plans carried out – that have done nothing to help baseball. It’s my personal opinion that some of greedy squads have helped contribute to amateur baseball going backward from time to time.

Certainly, some of the most aggressive teams would use terms like “assertive” (in a CYA move) rather than admit to being diamond bullies. But they have stolen players when possible and manipulated other teams (and the schedule) by finding creative ways to gain more “W’s,” while giving foes more “L’s.”

They have been creative in trying to revise leagues. Unfortunately, those persons advocating such measures had some success and we saw teams either disband or go over to neighboring leagues. And those leagues were already stronger to begin with, as far as numbers were concerned!

Yes, some teams have become very discouraged over the last 10 or 12 years in this region. We saw the Hi-10 go from eight to four teams and the Countryside drop from eight to five. Can anybody say this has made sense?

A disgusting loss of area teams

Look at the teams that have been lost: Verndale and Wolf Lake went to the Lake and Pine, and Wadena has now combined with Deer Creek. Henning fell apart a few years back; the Detroit Lakes Angels were exhumed, so to speak, but only operated for two or three seasons. By now, they've been dead for 6-7 years. Back around 1990, however, the Angels were so strong they finished as runner-up at the Big Dance in Jordan and Belle Plaine.

It's no wonder that the old Henning Giants were erased. They fought the good fight for a few years, but other teams constantly enticed players to jump ship. Former Giants ended up at Fergus Falls for example.

And the Wildcats went from Corliss, to Perham (replacing the "junior" Perham Panthers that disbanded), and eventually on to Dent after the Ramblers folded. Clarissa was kicked out of the Hi-10 (okay…enticed to leave…) because they were a threat to win a regional spot as a Hi-10 rep each year.

As an aside, it is a shame the Ramblers threw in the towel. The Wildcats could have been a second Perham team, or a played at Dent as an addition to the Blue and Silver.

There has been so much BS and political crap that there has been an average of one less team playing each of the last few years. I guess it's a wonder more problems haven't resulted.

Vultures on the diamond

Every year at the spring planning meeting, some managers piss and moan about the condition of town team ball. And at least a few were exorcised over a recruitment letter sent out by one of the stronger teams. But nothing ever seems to straighten out guys who twist amateur ball to suit themselves.

When the Perham Pirates or Wolf Lake Wolf Pack in past seasons have tried to stretch the rules, most of the other teams have given up trying to fight back. How come so few contacts are made with the state association to lodge complaints?

We’ve seen cases where players allegedly lived in parents’ cabins within a 25-mile radius, or occupied an apartment in DL. Those were jokes. The Pirates got away with their ruse involving a pitcher from Moorhead but the Pack did not when they tried to put a pair of ringers on their roster a decade ago. In fact, at least one or two games were forfeited. One recruited player lived in Bemidji and the other was a North Dakota recruit who had some connection to WL residents. Apparently, he was going to coach kids for the summer, but he (nor the other) import had established legal residence.

These things will continue unless there is some self-policing.

Winning by implementation of some of the above-mentioned nasty measures isn’t the only aspect that should be examined when focusing on how to make amateur ball healthier.

Players don’t represent their towns

What about the composition of squads? How do you think the “foreign” rosters impact fan participation, ie. attendance?
Some teams don’t care…as long as they win. They would bring in Twins on “off days” if they could put local uniforms on them and call them “Biff Smith” and “Sluggo Liszchkowitz.”

For example, the Pirates’ roster has few Perham starters. Can anything be done about it. Probably not. Recently, in a game with Frazee, there were two or three “homies” on the field, depending on how you classified one player. And somehow, the Bucs had signed away a former Flame player. How the Frazee mangers released him is beyond my understanding! I guess they didn’t want to fight about it, yet they struggle with about a dozen players.

We’ve seen carpetbaggers forever; stretching the rules is not likely to stop. But it could be cut down. When the Pirates have 20-30 fans present, most are from the visitors’ support groups. But they don’t care.

Of course, local fans have become disinterested, saying, “Why go watch a bunch of guys from other places wearing OUR uniforms”?

Maybe such collections of diverse players should be called “The Traveling All-Stars.”

Give local talent a chance to play

Vergas has good crowds, as does Dent, and Frazee, with the latter team’s respectable following getting better. Along with Pelican Rapids, New York Mills and Bluffton, they primarily concentrate on local talent.

Yes, each probably has one or two from time to time from elsewhere. There are several Detroit Lake products represented on many different teams. We don’t in any way want to ban young men from playing…but not ringers. Too many lies have been told.

The current Wildcat team – in one sense – is a Perham squad transplanted to an adopted field. Most of the players are former PHS athletes, with many from the immediate Dent territory. I am not familiar with some of the other teams concerning their fan base.

The Pirates have implied that the young local athletes won’t play for them. Well, I wonder why? Those players go to Dent or Vergas because they don’t want to have to sit on the bench forever while the older imports play.

The rationale is that the team must win at all costs, apparently. The Bucs have said the lack of ability to recruit locally necessitates going after players from elsewhere.

Hey! How ’bout doing some remedial public relations with the home community? Mend your PR fences and concentrate on developing your own players. The Little League, Babe Ruth, Yellowjacket, and Legion programs are all working together on improving baseball.

Then the Pirates have done little to show those kids that they will truly get their swings and time on the field.

Back to town team values

Yes, I've been on my soapbox periodically because much of what has been done by amateur teams is not consistent with the old "town team" philosophy.

Teams go out and pull players away saying they will be important cogs in the diamond machinery. Then the kids sit on the bench unless the “old boys” group doesn’t show up.

Is that in the best interest of amateur baseball?

By signing young guys for MY club’s roster, I can keep them from beating my team. That approach stinks, folks.

I have a copy of a "recruitment" letter sent out this winter/spring by the Pirates. I don't know what the state organization would say about such a document. This displays a type of "Yankee" philosophy -- win at any cost.

As stated earlier, apparently some teams don’t feel successful unless they make it back to state each year.

In a way, Fergus Falls is guilty in a similar manner, although the Hurricanes have a good roster of home grown guys as a nucleus. Naturally, they pick off the best FFCC players, which is understandable, but in the past they have also raided the Pelican Rapids Lakers for additional manpower. They've even gone beyond that range a couple of times.

Manipulation, exploitation

Historically, Fergus Falls and Deer Creek manipulated the system by constantly delaying early season games because their college players weren't home, even though they had good players available.

The ’Canes have also “farmed” the Pelican Rapids field in the past. A current pitcher was allowed to join PR a few years ago, or perhaps he did so because the FF team was loaded and the ’Canes wouldn't give him a reasonable chance. They have position players right now who are former PR Lakers but they have also apparently been swayed by wanting to play for a "winner."

In other words, much of what has transpired in recent year has not helped amateur ball. How do greedy, “win-at-all-costs” managers think we will have a healthy environment for town teams if the strong collect the cream and the other squads get crackers and skim milk?

Officiating can be improved

Darwin Bachmann, the umpires' organizer-scheduler, needs to kick some officials in the butt.

He made a lengthy speech at the spring meeting about unfair criticism, harassment by fans, etc. Well, that's true -- and the players and managers should do something to recruit and bolster the umpiring ranks.

However, the Pirates played a recent game at Bluffton and no umps showed up; phone calls had to be made to substitutes. A few nights later, there was just one official for a Perham tournament game at Krueger Field, working the plate and hustling to make calls on the bases.

Those episodes are inexcusable.

Instead of more bitching from the blue zone, maybe some guys should be fined. Okay...that's a joke.

It is hard enough to get sufficient arbiters for games. Managers have to lean on unruly players – and nasty fans -- but umpires have to be responsible when signing on to work games.

What I'm saying is there ought to be some good heads put together to consider a multitude of problems long before the spring meeting.

I reiterate: Does amateur baseball have a future?

Yes, but only if we take steps to keep it as strong as possible. We must work to help teams continue operation and prevent manipulation and exploitation by clubs who believe winning is the only thing that counts. Gee, maybe we could even re-establish a team or two!

Baseball is an institution. It is more important than one player, a single team, or winning every year by using unfair, bullying tactics.

John Dermody is a freelance writer from Frazee. His "Diamond Dust Network" articles have appeared in various local publications over the past several years.

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