By Nick Gerhardt
Faribault’s Bell Field is one ballpark that hearkens back to the heyday of amateur baseball in Minnesota and city of Faribault is making sure it remains an attraction.
The history of the park is naturally linked to the Faribault Lakers and both have experienced ups-and-downs since the opening of the park in 1949.
Bell Field was opened May 25, 1949 before a crowd of 2,000 people. The park came in response to changing times and included lighting since a year before Faribault and Waseca were the last two teams in the Southern Minny League without lights.
The upgrades landed Faribault the 1951 state tournament, which drew 20,003 fans. But the attendance levels started to decline and by 1963 the Lakers disbanded.
But the team wasn’t gone for long. Faribault fielded a team at Bell Field, which used to hold tryouts for the Cincinnati Reds, just five years later and returned to the state tournament in 1973 and 1975.
But a little more than 30 years later the Lakers were once again on the brink of folding after the 2008 season.
In 2008, the Lakers didn’t have enough players for a playoff game. Faribault was put on probation for the 2009 season. The Lakers requested a move to Class C and received it the following year, taking residence in the Dakota, Rice, Scott League. The town of 23,352 had trouble fielding a team. But Charlie Lechtenberg and Ryan Archambault took over managerial duties in 2010 and started recruiting at the youth level. Lechtenberg coaches the Faribault High School team the Faribault American Legion team. The recruitment effort and some divine intervention helped lead the Lakers to the state tournament in 2014 for the first time in 24 years.
It also helped that pitcher Matt Lane moved to town. Lane, a former minor league pitcher with St. Louis Cardinals affiliates, came to town in 2014 as an assistant pastor at Peace Lutheran Church and gave the team a big time ace. Lane went 6-0 last year with a 1.57 ERA in 63 innings with 73 strikeouts. He allowed five runs, four earned, in three starts at the state tournament this past year and struck out 24 in that span. Lane also drove in seven runs and went 6-for-17 for a .352 average in four games.
The Lakers returned to the Class C state tournament this season after a run to the semifinals in 2014 and a first-round exit in 2015. Faribault lost in the 2017 quarterfinals to Lake Henry but there’s enthusiasm abound at Bell Park in Faribault these days.
“Baseball is kind of coming back in Faribault,” Lechtenberg said. “It’s definitely helped with the success we’ve had in Faribault. People are starting to notice and take care of it.”
It’s been almost 20 years since the park, which sports iconic ivy on the outfield fence, has seen major upgrades like it’s seeing now. The park got around $125,000 in renovations in the early 2000s, according to Faribault Parks and Recreation Director Paul Peanasky said. The city approved $233,000 of work this year to Bell Field mainly to get into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but also in part to make it easier for fans to attend games.
“This is one facility that hasn’t been touched,” Peanasky said.
The ADA work includes a ramp to the grandstand and ADA seating options. Concrete sidewalks and a paved driveway have been added as well. Work to add to the aesthetics of the field are planned. A wrought iron fence is in the works for the entrance of the park for more curb appeal. Bell Field is a park that sees a lot of use throughout the summer and has long been overdue for some upgrades. In addition to serving as the home for the Lakers, the Faribault Flames, the over-35 baseball team, the Faribault American Legion baseball team, the Faribault VFW baseball team, the Faribault High School baseball team and the Bethlehem Academy baseball team all play there, not to mention other various youth baseball events.
The field has seen upgrades through the years with a new infield coming about 10 years ago, Lechtenberg said. He helps maintain the field and worked to put in a new mound last year to get the playing surface in shape. Padding is getting added to the backstop as well.
Lechtenberg and assistant coach Chris Reuvers also have plans to revitalize the concession stand and the grandstand will feature a veneer brick in the future, too.
Lechtenberg has visions of putting in a bid for the state amateur tournament in the future. The Lakers put in a bid last year but didn’t get it, though an effort to get a bid is still on the minds of those in Faribault.
Adding a player like Lane and a move down to Class C has revitalized baseball in Faribault but it’s also been a lot of behind the scenes work by Lechtenberg and others. The work of improving the field and growing the team has started to pay dividends.
“Matt Lane, that’s been huge. He brings his whole congregation,” Lechtenberg said. “People come out when you’re winning. All of a sudden people are talking about it.”