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Downes feels remorse for former Atwater teammates

ATWATER - Justin Downes has thrown a lot of pitches throughout his baseball career. The last one he threw for the Atwater Chuckers amateur team was well out of the strike zone.

Downes, a former Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City High School star, was playing for two amateur teams at the same time this summer, a violation of the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball rules. He played four games for Atwater and five for Ipswich, a town near Aberdeen, S.D.

After going 5-for-7 in an amateur game against Aberdeen, Downes received accolades in the Aberdeen American News. The story was made known to an officer for the Cornbelt League, which Atwater plays in. No one from the Atwater team, according to Downes, knew that he had been playing in South Dakota.

"We had no idea he was playing there," said Atwater manager Tom Kingery. "As soon as we found out, we called the league secretary and asked that Justin's name be removed from our roster. I feel bad for our town. We've done a lot of work on our ballfield lately and we were getting some good crowds. And all of a sudden we are disqualified for nothing we did wrong."

The Cornbelt League ruled Monday night at its meeting in Willmar that Atwater would have to forfeit any games that Downes had played in. Of the four games he played, Atwater won two. But the state board, also meeting Monday night in Willmar, overturned the Cornbelt League's decision and disqualified Atwater for the rest of the season and also ruled that none of its players could be drafted by another team for the postseason. The Willmar Rails were also disqualified for the remainder of the season for having an ineligible player; left-handed pitcher Anthony Stern, who did not have a valid contract with the team.

"I admit I knew it was the rule," said Downes, by telephone on Wednesday. "I feel horrible. I really do. I never meant to hurt anyone on the Chuckers' team or any of the fans that follow the team. But I know I did. I apologize to any anyone involved with the team."

Downes' reason for what he did seems sincere. Still, he violated a rule and he is paying the price by being removed from playing, possibly forever in Minnesota.

"I'm sure they will never let me play in Minnesota again," he said. "I just love the game so much. I've had two arm surgeries and my arm still hurts all the time. I know I don't have much time left to pitch anymore and I just wanted to play as much as I can and as long as I can until my arm falls off."

Downes said he has received "a ton" of text messages, voice messages and Facebook messages, all begrudging him for his actions. 

"Some of my lifelong friends have drawn a line in the sand," he said. "Is it justified that they are upset with me? Yes. But I want them to know that my actions were in no way meant to harm anyone on the team."

Downes is a hard-throwing right-hander who threw a two-hitter this summer against Milroy, the top team among the 12 in the Cornbelt League. He had an illustrious career for ACGC and Northern State University. He was a three-time All-Area baseball selection and twice was All-Area in football when he helped the Falcons win the Class AA state title in 2001.

"I thought I had a good high school career and helped the baseball and football teams have good seasons," said Downes. "I've never been in the paper for doing anything wrong before. But for all the publicity I got and the team got, I will know probably always be remembered for this."

Downes had only played a handful of games with the Atwater and Ipswich teams because he is an assistant coach with the Aberdeen Legion baseball team and had to miss several amateur games. He is also an assistant baseball coach for Presentation College in Aberdeen.

"We have about 50 Legion games so it's hard to get a chance to play town team," he said. "I was only able to make a few Atwater games so I played a few here in South Dakota, too.

"I love the game so much. It was awesome coming back home to Atwater and playing on the field and pitching form the mound I played on in high school," Downes said. "It was a chance to push the sun back up in the sky.

Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Association president John Richter of Granite Falls admits the rule of penalizing the entire team for the actions of one individual may be extreme.

"We will review these type of things for next season," he said, by telephone on Wednesday morning. "But everyone should be aware of the rules that are in place. It's up to the managers to make sure players have signed contracts and it's up to them to make sure that players are aware they can't play on another team. The rule clearly states that teams will be disqualified if they have an ineligible player."

Richter pointed out that a player on Rosemount's team was also playing in Wisconsin and that Rosemount has also been banned from postseason play.

Richter said the board, which voted 9-0 to disqualify Willmar and Atwater at last Monday's meeting, will meet again on Saturday. They will discuss the matter more then, but the chance of Willmar and Atwater being reinstated is remote. They will also discuss whether the teams should be allowed to have any of its pitchers and catchers drafted.

"I'd say it's 99.9 percent that we won't change our minds," he said. "But you never say never. I feel Minnesota has the best amateur baseball in the country and that's because we go by the rules. Sure, some may be too harsh and we need to address those. But everyone needs to be aware of the current rules and abide by them, whether they agree with them or not."