--by Louie Opatz, MBA freelance writer [PHOTOS: Pearl Lake | Union Hill | Cannon Falls]
At their first major league baseball game, most young fans stand in awe of the elite athletes in front of them and head home dreaming of baseball stardom.
Not Todd Mueller.
When Mueller attended his first big-league game at Metropolitan Stadium, his mind was on the ground, not up in the clouds.
“I remember looking down at the field and just marveling at these patterns in the grass and wondering how they did that,” Mueller said. “I’d go home and I’d criss-cross the lawn with our lawnmower in our lawn, and it never had the same effect.”
Mueller didn’t want to bash home runs like Harmon Killebrew or fan batters like Jim Kaat: he wanted to prepare the field like Dick Ericson, the Twins’ former groundskeeper and member of the MLB Groundskeepers Hall of Fame.
When Mueller was young, he thought, “’Oh man, if I could just be on that (water) hose line, my life would be complete,’” he said.
Though he never did find his way onto a grounds crew, Mueller has finally found a way, all these years later, to pay homage to his love of a perfectly-manicured baseball diamond.
Earlier this year, Mueller released “Town Ball Parks of Minnesota,” a 235-page book filled with sparkling, high-resolution photographs and myriad stories about 27 of the state’s finest ballparks and some of its most compelling characters, from Arlington to Waseca.
The goal of “Town Ball Parks” is to spread the word about these oft-hidden gems sprinkled across the state, Mueller said.
“It’s my hope that this book would get people who didn’t know anything about town ball to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this state has so many ballparks,’” he said. “These are state treasures and they should be unveiled to people who don’t know anything about it.”
When he began the writing process, Mueller initially focused only on the top parks based on their size, style and features.
“But after visiting these diverse parks,” Mueller writes in the book’s introduction, “the reality was that the love of the game transcended the size of the ballpark or the quality of the field.”
The story became less about the physical features of a certain stop on Mueller’s town-ball tour and more about “our fathers and their fathers and the incredible dedication these men have to the game they respect and love,” he writes.
This shift in focus is evident throughout “Town Ball Parks of Minnesota”: each of the 27 ballpark write-ups features not just photos and information on the park’s dimensions, capacity and amenities; they also shine a light on the characters that make these parks special — characters like Chaska’s Dale Welter, Hinckley’s Gary McFerran, Miesville’s Dan “Moose” Carey and Granite Falls’ Bud Blindt.
Mueller, who is retired from a career in communications and marketing, initially planned to let the photographs of these Minnesota treasures — which were taken by Mueller and principal photographers Patrick Kelley and Wayne Davis — do the talking in his first book.
But as he continued hearing such wonderful stories on his travels across Minnesota, Mueller knew he had to include them in “Town Ball Parks.”
“Just tell stories: that’s what I really tried to do throughout the book,” Mueller said. “They’re just a compilation of stories.”
Between the snapshots of Minnesota’s finest and most idiosyncratic diamonds, Mueller sprinkles in short profiles on characters like Midway’s Randy Burkman and former major leaguer Dana Kieker, as well as vignettes on the state’s most distinctive team names, an umpire’s perspective and a detailed breakdown of how to mow patterns in the outfield grass.
After visiting more than 125 baseball parks, Mueller has a few favorites: Cold Spring, Jordan, Belle Plaine, Dassel, Chaska and Cannon Falls come to mind for the writer as some of Minnesota’s finest diamonds.
But for a more out-of-the-way experience, Mueller suggests Martin Schmidt Memorial Park, the home field of the Pearl Lake Lakers in Marty, Minnesota, that the author describes as his “ace in the hole.”
Martin Schmidt Memorial Park’s defining feature is its lack of one very prominent feature: an outfield fence. Instead, the intersection of County Roads 8 and 48 function as the fence: if it hits the road in the air, it’s a home run; if it hits the gravel shoulder, call it a double.
“To make things even more interesting,” Mueller said, “the last 10 feet as he backpedals, the outfielder has to navigate a five-foot-high berm — not to mention trying to avoid getting hit by a car.”
Pearl Lake’s field boasts the kind of unusual, singular feature that Mueller looks for in a fine Minnesota diamond.
“I like any asymmetrical field; the funkier, the better,” he said.
But a fine Minnesota field needn’t have lights on its playing surface, like Dassel or Jordan, or staggering jumps in its dimensions from field to field, like Belle Plaine.
For Mueller, you just know a premier park when you see it.
“If you scan from left to right and the word ‘Wow’ comes to your lips, you’ve got something special,” he said.
For more information on “Town Ball Parks of Minnesota” or to purchase a copy of Todd Mueller’s book, visit www.townballparksofmn.com.
TONIGHT! (July 28) Todd Mueller and Town Ball Parks of Minnesota will be featured on Fox Sports North's Minnesota Twins pregame show starting at 5:30 p.m. Following this interview, Todd will be signing books in the Town Ball Tavern.