By Nick Gerhardt
To say Eric Steinhoff left a mark on the Dakota, Rice, Scott League would be a gross understatement. Oftentimes he made sure he was known.
Steinhoff, a bit of a merry prankster at first base for Veseli, routinely handed out business cards with his contact information, an eagle and a flag printed on it to those who reached base via a base hit or walk. It became his calling card during his nearly 25-year career in the DRS, as well as the times he returned foul balls from opponents during warmups with his signature if they reached the dugout.
Steinhoff announced his retirement during the state tournament where he spent time as a draftee of Union Hill. His impact will surely live on for a long time through the players he played with and played against.
To sum up Steinhoff’s career shortly isn’t possible but in short, he made the game fun for all of those at the park each time he played.
“I’ve never met someone with more baseball charisma than Eric Steinhoff,” said St. Benedict manager Wade Olsen.
Olsen has managed St. Benedict for the past 10 years faced Steinhoff for nine of those years until Steinhoff joined the Saints this last season.
Steinhoff spent all but two years of his playing career with Veseli but in his final season he decided to pay homage to his grandfather, Ray, and dad, Tim. Steinhoff’s father and grandfather both played for St. Benedict. Ray actually helped build the park for the Saints. Eric wore No. 74 this season for St. Benedict -- the numbers his grandfather and father wore when they played for the Saints. It was a departure from Eric’s usual No. 27 with the Veseli Warriors.
Though the number changed, it was the same old Steinhoff in the field, the same man who has become known as one of the best storytellers and one of the best bats in the league.
Steinhoff has accumulated so many baseball stories through the years that a few years back he started a blog to document some of them but it turns out his start in amateur baseball is a story in of itself.
Steinhoff never played high school baseball after he forgot his gear for the first day of practice as a sophomore at New Prague High School. He had good reason for not bringing his gear, though the coach at the time didn’t accept any excuses. Steinhoff was in the midst of a civic class exercise where students had to simulate that they were homeless for a time. So in order to fulfill the classroom lesson he didn’t have any of his gear with him for baseball practice.
Instead he started playing with the New Prague Orioles back in 1993 but after a couple of years he decided to try playing with Veseli. Steinhoff took a year off prior to joining the Warriors and wanted to see if he could still play, he said. He could and led the team in batting average that season. It marked the start of a career that became less about stats and more about friendships Steinhoff formed throughout the DRS and even the state.
“Simply put, Eric is a class act,” said DRS President and New Prague native Mike Sticha. “I first got to know Eric when we were both much younger. He was the umpire for some of my Little League games. When I pitched, if a ball went out of play, he'd throw a new one back to me, but he'd mix in a curveball every so often and make me look foolish trying to catch it.”
Steinhoff became a familiar face at the state tournament throughout his career as a draftee.Veseli only reached the state tournament once in 2002 but the teams of the DRS that did advance to the state tournament routinely chose Steinhoff as a draftee, even if they didn’t need an additional player. Steinhoff got drafted by Union Hill, St. Benedict, New Prague, Faribault and Shakopee.
“Five years ago, St. Benedict decided not to draft anyone except me because I was just a guy to hang out with,” Steinhoff said. “The rest of the teams did that.”
Veseli’s 2002 run to the state tournament is the stuff of legends. It remains the team’s only trip to the state tournament. The Warriors advanced after beating Blue Earth in the region playoffs before embarking on a magical 27 innings. Veseli beat Gaylord in 13 innings after tying the game in the bottom of the ninth and then beat Le Sueur in 14 innings to clinch the region title.
The Warriors weren’t done yet with their run once they got to state. Veseli went on to beat Buckman, which finished second the previous year, in the opening game of the tournament.
“That playoff game there were over 600 people at Le Sueur,” Steinhoff said. “I walked into the concessions, I said you’re going to need more beer.”
There were a few trips to the liquor store to replenish the coolers and one trip even involved a police escort because the park needed more beer and it was after hours.
While that memory ranks at the top for Steinhoff in his career, it was often the battles with Lonsdale that he’s particularly fond of. Veseli and the Aces play annually on July 3 and July 4 and the Warriors never had a lot of success in those games. But one year Veseli earned a sweep against Lonsdale for the first time in nearly 20 years, Steinhoff said.
That sort of accomplishment was big news in Veseli, an unincorporated town just east of New Prague in southern Minnesota. The celebration included Warriors manager Chris Hertaus’ mother doing a polka on home plate.
“Only in Veseli” Hertaus said of the small community that is home to a population with a strong Czech heritage.
Aside from the rivalries and the great games, Steinhoff was a leader in the dugout and an asset for Hertaus.
“There was a hole in the dugout,” Hertaus said of last season without Steinhoff. “It’s not like he’s a small guy. His big body isn’t there. You’d have a question about a lineup or a ballplayer, he’d give you some advice. Stuff like that you miss. Eric’s been in the league for so long, other than the new players, he could pass on to the pitcher, ‘this is what you can do.’”
At 6 foot, 8 inches and 285 pounds, Steinhoff casts a large shadow on the diamond. Hertaus can’t recall a time Steinhoff missed a game or a time at the park when work needed to be done. If there’s one thing about Steinhoff that’s a constant it’s his loyalty and dedication.
When Hertaus’ brother died five years ago, Steinhoff went out of his way to bring his kids to the gym for basketball or some hitting with the team.
Steinhoff stepped up when longtime teammate Scott Johnson dealt with some medical problems. Johnson played with Veseli for 28 years and retired in 2013 but formed a strong bond with Steinhoff during the time they played. Johnson and Steinhoff printed the business cards they gave out to opponents together. As medical bills piled up, Steinhoff set up a home run derby benefit for Johnson. Sponsors stepped in and provided $25 for each home run and the event has become an annual event.
“You can count on him for anything,” Johnson said.
Steinhoff plays over-35 baseball as well but says he’ll remain retired from DRS play, unless he can play a game with every team in the league.
“That’s one thing that would get me out of retirement,” Steinhoff said.
For now, he’ll help with preparations for the 2018 state tournament at the New Prague site and remain on the Veseli team board.