After 10 years, the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Tournament is returning to Meeker County.
Beginning this Friday, Watkins is co-hosting the Class ‘C’ tournament with Cold Spring; the Class ‘C’ tournament was last held in Meeker County in 2005, when Dassel co-hosted. It is Watkins’ first time hosting the state tournament and Cold Spring’s fifth.
Watkins Ballpark’s first game will be at 7:30 p.m. on Friday between Raymond, the Region 11C runner-up, and Maple Plain, the Region 12C fourth-place finisher.
The tournament runs from Friday until Labor Day, Sep. 7, when the final two teams will vie for the state title at 2 p.m. in Watkins.
This weekend is the culmination of a nearly five-year process that began when Watkins and Cold Spring submitted their bids to host in October of 2010, according to Watkins’ former player and manager Bruce Geislinger, who’s spearheaded the ballpark’s massive renovation project.
“I remember it was five years ago because I remember I said, ‘Oh, I’ve got five years — I’ve got plenty of time,’” Geislinger said with a laugh.
Geislinger and his company, Geislinger & Sons General Contractors, handled the improvements and have worked tirelessly to ensure that the renovated ballpark is state tournament-caliber for years to come.
“The ultimate thing, the reason I wanted to (host state) more than anything, is I wanted our ballpark to go to the next level,” Geislinger said. “And the state tournament has allowed us to do that.”
Geislinger estimates that, all told, the improvements to Watkins’ ballpark have cost between $280,000 and $300,000.
The money has allowed Geislinger and the Clippers to add new dugouts, fencing, bathrooms, scoreboard, a new infield, a paved parking lot, a concession stand and a new grandstand that holds 287 people. Party decks have also been built on the first and third base line, and the walls near the dugout and behind home plate have been lined with blue padding.
A ‘rich tradition’
Litchfield native Mike Nagel, who manages the Bird Island amateur team and is on the Minnesota Baseball Association’s state board, said that Watkins encapsulates what makes the state’s amateur baseball so great.
“They have a very rich tradition in amateur baseball … and I think it’s fun to have a small little community go ahead and turn their town into a baseball community for the month of August and up through Labor Day,” Nagel said. “The smaller towns make a much bigger deal of the tournament because they don’t have a lot else going on. When we hosted it in Bird Island (in 2010), it was a huge deal for the city and it will be for the city of Watkins.”
The 48-team Class ‘C’ tournament is the crown jewel of the three-class state tournament system and a boon for any town hosting it: last year’s tournament in Jordan and Belle Plaine drew over 13,000 fans across its three weekends, including 2,152 fans on its busiest day.
The influx of visitors to a small town is a huge economic boon for area businesses, Nagel said.
“The gas stations and convenience stores, the restaurants and bars, will do just a booming business,” he said.
Geislinger hopes that visitors to the redone ball field will make a point to return to Watkins and make it a true baseball destination.
“I think it’s a great thing for a community because now once they see us, all these people coming in the town of Watkins are going to get on the bandwagon and say, ‘let’s do this again,’” Geislinger said.
Nagel figures that, between paying customers and non-paying players and league officials, “you’re looking at at least 10,000 people being in your community, stopping in your community over the next three weeks,” he said. “They’re there to have fun and they’re going to spend their money. It’s a neat economic thing to do.”
Attendees of the state tournament will also be getting tremendous bang for their buck: adults will pay $7 for day-long tickets, students pay $5 and children under 12 are free, according to Nagel.
Nagel pointed out that the game-going experience is far cheaper than a Twins game — and the level of baseball is still high.
“It’s a very good value and the baseball is high quality,” Nagel said. “You’re going to be close to the field, you get to watch really good games and you can bring your family and afford to feed them and not have to take a out a second mortgage on your house.”
After years of hard work and renovations, Bruce Geislinger is ready for Watkins’ big weekend to begin.
“Number one, I’m relieved, because my life has been consumed by that ballpark for the last three years,” Geislinger said. “I’m relieved because I can’t do anymore, because it’s done.
“I’m also very nervous,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a really neat venue for everybody.”
For his part, Nagel doesn’t sound nearly as nervous as Geislinger.
“The Geislingers in Watkins are synonymous with baseball, and they have a lot of pride, and they’re going to put on a marvelous tournament,” Nagel said. “I have no concerns that it’s going to be a top-notch effort.”
Games to watch
Here are a few notable games involving area teams or area players to watch for during this weekend’s opening-round action:
Raymond vs. Maple Plain (7:30 p.m., Fri., Watkins)
The opening game of the tournament should be a doozy, as Region 11C runner-up Raymond (15-5) faces Maple Plain (14-18), who managed to win two play-in games to earn the No. 8 seed in the Region 12C tournament — only to soundly defeat No. 1 seed and perennial power Maple Lake 8-0 in the opening round.
After losing to Delano, Maple Plain went on to beat Mound 7-6 to earn a spot in the state tournament and survive a treacherous region; the Diamond Devils — what a name! — marched one of the toughest paths to reach the state tournament and are one of its best stories.
For its part, the Rockets had to win five games in a similarly tough Region 11C to earn the second-place spot.
The Rockets sport a roster loaded with Raymond and Willmar natives, giving them the neighborly community connection for Litchfield fans, but I’m rooting for this year’s Cinderella, the Diamond Devils, to win this game and make a run.
Sobieski vs. Spring Hill (1:30 p.m., Sat., Cold Spring)
Sobieski (21-6) is the reigning Class ‘C’ champion and took second in Region 8C this season to the powerful Nisswa Lightning.
The Skis rode ace pitcher Tyler Jendro — who set a state record with 41 2/3 innings pitched in the tournament, striking out 44 and walking three — to six tournament wins and last year’s title.
But the real draw of this game is the Spring Hill Chargers (14-10), who are the most devilishly good-looking team in the tournament.
(Full disclosure: I play for the Spring Hill Chargers.)
I’m looking most forward to this game, primarily because I’ll be playing right field in it.
But, in all seriousness, the Chargers are making their fourth state tournament appearance in the past five seasons and four Schoenberg brothers and three Terres brothers make up seven of the team’s nine starters, which is a pretty fun fun-fact.
Nimrod vs. Kimball (5 p.m., Sat., Watkins)
Nimrod (17-13) beat Midway 7-3 on Saturday to qualify for state, losing to Region 14C-winner Bertha to claim a second-place finish in the region.
The Region 14C runner-ups’ nickname is the Gnats, which is fun — and fitting, considering something like 50 percent of teams in Minnesota are nicknamed the Lakers and those little buggers love water.
The Gnats will face the Kimball Express (14-11), who beat Milroy 3-2 on Aug. 9 to earn a state berth.
Kimball, whose catcher is Litchfield resident Scott Marquardt, stumbled after qualifying, losing to state-qualifiers Watkins and Raymond last weekend.
The Express’ hats feature an oncoming train, giving them the clear advantage in a one-on-one mascot battle.
But who knows how it’ll play out on the baseball diamond; either way, the atmosphere should be terrific as the Watkins Ballpark hosts nearby Kimball, one of the Clippers’ fiercest rivals.