--by Louie Opatz, MBA freelance writer
The Minnesota amateur baseball season can be exhausting: many teams start practice soon after New Year's and play dozens of games as the calendar marches from April to the state tournament in September.
With that many innings under their belts, players would be forgiven if they needed a break to rest, relax and see their families.
But for many Minnesota town ball players, the offseason simply presents another opportunity to play more baseball — albeit in a far sunnier locale, as part of the annual Roy Hobbs World Series in Fort Myers, Florida, which features more than 200 teams and 4,000 players from across the United States and the world.
"Once baseball's in your blood, you just want to keep playing," said A.J. Hadley, an infielder for the Class 'C' Elrosa Saints who played for the Minnesota Web Gems in the Veterans Division in his first World Series, from Oct. 21 to Oct. 30.
Less than a month after the Saints were eliminated from the Class 'C' state tournament, Hadley was lacing up his spikes again, ready to embrace the chance to play during a time of year when most Minnesotans are unpacking their choppers and readying their shovels.
"In Minnesota, we have four months at it," Hadley said. "Any opportunity to head south and play more baseball in some green grass is an opportunity you can’t turn down."
The Roy Hobbs World Series comprises seven age divisions, from the Veterans Division — 35-and-over — to the Forever Young Division, which features players over the age of 75. Though Hadley himself isn't 35 yet, but each team in the Veterans Division is allowed to play a handful of position players between 30 and 35 — but no pitchers.
The Web Gems were one of at least nine Minnesota teams spread across the seven divisions, and two teams — the Minneapolis Millers, in the 45-and-over AA Masters Division, and the Minnesota Bees, in the 60-and-over AAAA Classics Division — captured their division's championship.
The Web Gems, Millers and Bees were joined by the Minnesota Bulldogs, the Minnesota Bandits, the Minnesota Goats, the Minnesota Saints, the Minnetonka Mustangs and Team MaxBat, all of whom represented Minnesota and showed the Sunshine State that the Upper Midwest has some terrific baseball to offer.
"I'm very proud of amateur baseball in Minnesota — there's nothing like it in the United States," said Jim Anderson, who's played in the series for 13 years with his team, MaxBat, and who plays on two senior-league teams in Minnesota. "I think (the Roy Hobbs World Series) is a great way to showcase what Minnesota amateur baseball is all about."
Anderson, 48, has played in the Roy Hobbs World Series every year since he's been eligible. He finds that the competition and the camarederie are what keep him coming back.
"It's just great: people are down there to play ball. You're with like-minded individuals," Anderson said. "You want to win, but there's more to it than that. There's nothing else: a lot of people go down without their families. Your team becomes your family."
This world series, Anderson had the misfortune of suffering a tournament-ending calf injury as he tried to stretch a base hit into a double. But, despite the pain and frustration, the injury provided Anderson with another example of the tight-knit RHWS atmosphere.
"I tore my calf running to second, and I had four players from the other team come over and put their hand on my back and ask me if I'm OK," Anderson said. "It's just different. People cared about me."
Players like Anderson and Hadley are also enticed to play in the Roy Hobbs World Series by the premier playing surfaces. For nine glorious days, these amateurs get to play at the state-of-the-art spring training facilities of the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox.
"As someone who plays typically only on fields in the Twin Cities, the spring training fields are pristine," Anderson said.
Because the Red Sox' jetBlue Park shares the exact dimensions of Fenway Park, the amateur participants also get to share the professional's experience of getting a would-be home run robbed by the Green Monster or turning into a measly double in its cavernous centerifeld.
"That green monster is 37 feet high. It really is a monster," Hadley said. "And you hope you don't hit one to right-center, where it's 420 feet."
One of the other perks of playing at such well-maintained fields is that, for players like Kimball's Scott Marquardt, they don't have to worry about doing any of the maintaining — unike at home, when dedicated players are never too far from a rake, pre- or post-game.
"You just go there, you show up, you warm up, the field is down and prepped for you, you play, you leave, someone else takes care of the field and you go to the beach," said Marquardt, who played with Hadley on the Minnesota Web Gems, which featured numerous players from Central Minnesota, including several members of the Class 'C' champion Raymond Rockets.
RHWS participants not only play on major league-level fields; they also play a major league-level schedule — at least for a week.
Hadley said he gained an appreciation for the major leaguers who grind through roughly a game a day for six months.
"You're thinking, 'I can play one game a day,'" Hadley said. "... You actually learn to respect those guys doing it day in, day out, 162 games.
"We're not all exactly well-conditioned athletes," Hadley continued with a laugh. "By about the sixth or seventh game, your legs start to go. It's a meat-grinder, that's for sure."
Some of the series' amateurs haven't always been so: in his 13 years, Anderson has played against or watched numerous professionals — everyone from former Rockies slugger Dante Bichette, Red Sox pitcher "Oil Can" Boyd, Royals pitcher Bret Saberhagen and diminuitive football star Doug Flutie.
The competition level at the tournament runs the gamut, from ex-stars like Bichette to those who don't quite look the part.
"There's such a wide variety of talent down there," said Marquardt, who was playing in his fourth series. "... You've got ex-major leaguers and 300-pounders who look like they play softball."
"You could see anywhere from a 75-year-old pitcher to the last guy we faced, who was throwing 87 with a nasty slider," Hadley said.
More than anything, the motivations for this trio of Minnesota amateur ballplayers — and most of those who ventured south in November from the Land of 10,000 Lakes — were pretty straightforward.
"It’s fun to play with palm trees in the background, going to the beach after games and watching the sunset, having a beer," Anderson said.