By Joel Lidstrom, Caledonia/Spring Grove Legion Baseball Manager
Now that the Legion baseball season is behind us, the passage of a couple weeks has lent some perspective to what I knew would be an eventual tournament loss. Even though we were playing our best baseball at the start of the tourney, there are clubs out there with deeper rosters and who are supported by a much better baseball culture than we have in Caledonia. Still, to lose our final game against La Crescent because three players simply didn't show up was hard to stomach. As Matt Smith, the Winona varsity baseball coach, said to me, "Those boys need to be talked to about the meaning of commitment."
Nevertheless, it was a rewarding year with players' continuous improvement, exciting games, and something no one would have imagined—success in the district tournament with a legitimate shot at moving on to state.
Here are players' performances I'll especially remember from the season:
Kyle Jennings didn't collect a lot of hits this year, but the ones he got were critical. The first was in the Alumni game. (I know, that game is strictly for fun. But don't underestimate the confidence it gave our kids, knowing they outplayed college kids whose skills are still pretty sharp.) Late in the game our Legion squad squandered a lead that caused a serious momentum shift to the Alums. Against all hope, Jennings' two-out, extra-innings single set the table for Tanner Langen's heroic double to drive in Jennings for the winning run.
And as if that were a script to be memorized and repeated, it was in Lewiston, again the momentum having gone awry, again with two outs in extra innings and with the team's tournament life at stake, Jennings hit a ground ball into no-man's land between first and second, yet again setting the stage for Langen to double him in for the winning run.
Speaking of Langen, if there were an MVP of the season, it should be Tanner. His two tournament pitching performances against St. Charles might seal the deal, but when you consider his timely hits late in games where it was either an RBI or a loss, it is a no-brainer. Even in his pitching loss to the eventual district champion La Crescent, his tenacity in the face of certain defeat was inspiring.
Junior Legionnaires Derek Vonderohe, Brandon Robley and Austin Werner were years younger than most of their opponents, yet they played hard and gained the respect of our small baseball community. If there is a hope for summer ball beyond 14U in Caledonia and Spring Grove, we'll trust these three to lead the way.
T. J. Schultz is a quiet guy, but throughout the season, his bat and base-running inspired plenty of dugout chatter. While playing his customary excellent defense in center field, he complemented his .300 batting average with eight stolen bases and eight walks.
Harrison Speltz's presence is most commonly felt when he is swinging a bat. But no one who was there that evening in the rain in Lewiston will forget Harry's snow cone catch in the bottom of the seventh on what would have been the winning run having crossed the plate. Lewiston fans were infuriated at the "out" call, but Caledonia was jubilant as the teams played on to a ninth-inning Caledonia victory.
Joe Pettit is a lone survivor of Caledonia's extreme baseball attrition, where a connection to baseball culture has been all but severed. Once his classmates who played baseball numbered twenty; this year Pettit graduated as his class' only player.
Joe blocked balls in the dirt; he threw out players at first, second and third. Often the result was a close win rather than an unfortunate loss. And never did Joe call attention to himself. He was the quintessential teammate, always hustling, always doing for the good of the team. He will be missed on the varsity team, and we hope that he will return next year for his final year of Legion eligibility.
Kai Lidstrom's 16 innings of shutout ball against the "tough guys" of SE Minnesota baseball were awe-inspiring. While this writer can usually comment reasonably objectively on his son's outings, Kai's games against Lewiston were so emotionally charged that he cannot. Win or lose, a father is proud of his son; win under duress. and he feels the proudest - and luckiest - man alive.
Where do we go from here? Caledonia's baseball hope hinges less on current players - or even up-and-coming youngsters - than it does on finding a way to connect school ball to summer ball. That connection was severed long ago, and it has nearly destroyed kids' interest in baseball. As Aquinas coach Scott Bagniefski told me, "Continuity between school ball and summer ball is critical." When asked why, Bagniefski responded, "Because a summer program is designed to provide playing time, experience, and development for players of all levels, and especially varsity players."
It is time for Caledonia sports administrators to recognize that our future baseball success must be built upon involvement in Summer Rec and Legion ball. Without the development these programs offer. our young ballplayers, our recent accomplishments will fade, our children will continue to gravitate to simpler sports, and our school program will die. Baseball is the most complex and difficult of all sports; it's time we owned up to the fact, and made decisions to help it prosper.