John’s Journal: Spring Sports Held Outdoors? Yes, In Southeast Minnesota
Softball, Track And Baseball: “It's Cold, But It's Great To Be Outside”
Posted: Monday, April 3, 2023 - 10:27 PM
I awakened Monday morning without any concrete coverage plans. That was because under the current weather conditions in Minnesota, there was little chance that anything was happening outdoors. My own yard was evidence of that, with snow everywhere after the latest storm dumped inch after inch.
Everything changed at 8:06 a.m. A message from the Pine Island Baseball Twitter account carried big all-caps news: “GAMEDAY UPDATE!!! PLAY BALL!!!! VARSITY AND JV BOTH WILL PLAY IN LAKE CITY TONIGHT AT 5:00!!”
I had been watching the status of that game for a day or two, realizing that southeast Minnesota had not received any April snow over the weekend and competitions just might be possible. After seeing the baseball game would happen, I looked at some schedules and zoned in on two other events, a softball game at Dover-Eyota and a track meet hosted by Plainview-Elgin-Millville.
Assuming that the roads would be clear (which they were), I decided to visit all three Monday events -- softball game, track meet, baseball game – as a memorable way to observe my first day of 2023 spring outdoor competitions.
I left home at 3:42 p.m. and returned at 8:36 after visiting Eyota, Elgin and Lake City. I drove 177 miles, spent 3½ hours on the road and enjoyed every minute. I saw cows and horses, with the bovines outnumbering the equines at least 20 to 1. There were no farmers in the fields, but that will come. I don’t think it was any kind of immediate weather omen, but inside Bennett’s Eyota Market the sound system played “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”
When I backed out of my driveway, I had to do a slight maneuver to get around a tall pile of snow left by the fellow who had plowed the driveway over the weekend following eight inches of heavy, mean snow. As I drove south from my home in the Twin Cities suburbs, the amount of snow decreased. Entering Olmsted County on U.S. Highway 52, there was almost no snow … other than in some ditches and shady spots near trees. Southeast Minnesota is a rarity right now; games can be played outdoors while the rest of the state waits and waits for snow to melt and ground to dry.
In Eyota, where the Dover-Eyota Eagles were hosting Pine Island in a softball game, the field was playable despite being at the base of a hill. The saving grace? The field is in an open area on the edge of town with full sun exposure.
A pretty good-sized pile of snow hugged the hillside as a dad and a small boy – wearing a winter jacket with the Batman logo on the back – held hands and walked from their car to the field. Some fans had their dogs with them, which is as normal as it gets.
The temperature was 48 degrees in Eyota and people were bundled up, sitting in lawn chairs and on bleachers, some with blankets over their laps.
Eleven miles north of Eyota, the track meet was taking place in Elgin. It was 46 degrees, the ground was muddy in places, there were small mounds of snow, but the meet went on. The first sound I heard when I stepped out of my car was the starters’ pistol. The breeze had picked up and gained steam from earlier in Eyota, and it had a bite to it.
A customer walked up to the concession stand, saw some familiar faces inside and said with a smile, “Is it warmer in there?” The answer: “Maybe a smidge because we’re out of the wind.”
Another 26 miles to the north, the Lake City Tigers hosted Pine Island in the first baseball game of the season for both teams. In fact, the Pine Island Panthers had not even practiced on grass before Monday.
“We have not been outside other than just in the parking lot,” said Pine Island coach Dan Drazan. “We played some catch in the parking lot and took some fly balls out there. But that's been it. We’ve done nothing on the field.”
Their field, in fact, was underwater and absolutely unplayable. That’s why the Panthers were designated as the home team for the game in Lake City; it had been originally scheduled to be played in Pine Island.
The Lake City baseball team had been outside once prior to Monday. Last week they spent some time one day on the outfield grass at Bill Kieffer Field, but stayed off the dirt. Lake City coach Logan Thomas said Monday’s game was possible thanks to groundskeeper Jim Klennert, who worked wonders.
“Jim works hard on these fields and they drain really well,” Logan said. “He was out here bright and early this morning getting it ready. He works really hard for us to get out here and he makes it look awesome.”
Monday’s game was not a sure thing until 8:30 that morning, when texts went out like warm-weather breezes, informing the players that the game was on.
“We got the text and we were all hyped, we all had high hopes,” said Lake City senior catcher Riley Forbes. “It felt good to get out of the gym and get some fresh air.”
Coaches, administrators and others in southeast Minnesota know how fortunate they are to be able to play outside; they see the weather conditions in other areas of the state. Talking about northern Minnesota, Drazan said, “I saw the forecast for the rest of the week up there, and I feel bad for them.”
If he followed the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s District 4 Twitter account from western Minnesota, he might have seen this sobering post from early Monday afternoon…
“**Sound of Minnesotans collectively sighing** We know you're tired of winter (so are we), but more is on its way and it's important to be prepared. Use all the tools in your toolbox (511mn.org, weather apps, local media) to make good travel decisions this week.”
The scene in Lake City, with 43-degree temps, was nowhere near as bad as in most of the state. Fans wore winter coats and blankets, sure, but the environment screamed baseball. Two little boys played catch, players shouted encouragement from the dugouts, a fan yelled “Good eye!”
The grass was greening up, the infield dirt was dry and smooth. The only aspect of winter on the diamond was in right field, where there appeared to be a white warning track. That was the only spot where snow remained – other than on the steep hillside of big bluffs beyond the outfield -- and it was part of the pregame discussion between the umpires and coaches.
“The field is in good shape,” said home plate umpire Jeff Nolte of Pine Island, whose partner was Tony Lehman of Red Wing.
As for the snow in right field, “We talked about it before the game,” Nolte said. “If a fly ball landed in the snow, it would be a ground-rule double. If a ball rolled into the snow, we would use our judgment.”
No judgment was needed because the baseballs had the good sense to stay away from the snow.
The game in Lake City ended at 6:54 pm. Players shook hands with their opponents as well as the umpires. Then both teams gathered together, the Panthers in right field, the Tigers in center field. Coaches offered encouragement, discussions commenced, and both teams ended with an all-hands-in-the middle declaration on the importance of team.
“It's cold, but it's great to be outside,” said Thomas, the Lake City coach. “I was giddy all day.”
--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]