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Willmar notebook: Diamond dream realized in Florida

Photo provided by TJ Phillips T.J. Phillips of Willmar with former Twins' pitcher Dick Stigman, left, and Frank Quilici, who managed the Twins 1972-75. Quilici had a short career as a player but wrote his name in the record book when he got two hits in one inning off Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdahl in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series. Stigman, a native of Sebeka, Minn., pitched for the Twins from 1962-65.1 / 2
Photo provided by TJ Phillips Former Twins pitcher and 2011 Hall of Fame inductee Bert Blyleven rocks and delivers against former Willmar Cardinal T.J. Phillips on Jan. 10 at the Twins' minor-league complex in Fort Myers. The catcher is Phil Roof. The curveball artist reportedly sniffed in the clubhouse later, "I've faced tougher hitters, but I really can't remember when."2 / 2

Yes, Senor Smoke, boyhood dreams can come true!

Ask T.J. Phillips. He was a Minnesota Twin for a week.

He wore an authentic uniform with his name on the back.

A catcher for the Cardinals and Post 167 22 years ago, Phillips hit and played the field with Twins' legends and retired journeymen at the spring training complex in Fort Myers this month.

"It was the coolest thing I ever did in my life," he said over the phone.

You could hear his smile.

He was one of 30 or so camp rookies. Seventy other men were returnees. The Fantasy Camp "sold out," according to the Twins' website.

"We were all old; I was one of the younger guys," said Phillips, 40. "They found out I'd been a catcher, so that's where I ended up most of the time."

Eight teams played 7-inning doubleheaders Monday-Wednesday and a single game on Thursday, followed by a round of golf. Playoffs began Friday.

Phillips guesses he hit about .300, but he couldn't touch the offerings of Bert Blyleven, who also acted as the League Commissioner.

After a long day in the Florida sun, the wanna-bes and the ex-Twins joshed in the locker room while enjoying beverages.

''It was unbelievable,'' said Phillips. "They were like your buddies. We were called by our first names. The whole week we were treated like we were big leaguers."

Tom Brunansky and Rick Aguilera were his favorites. Both have grayed but still were in "great shape." Frank Quilici and Dick Stigman managed T.J.'s team, nicknamed The Pack. Other stars on hand were Tony Oliva, Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola, Gene Larkin, Tim Laudner and Juan "Senor Smoke" Berenguer.

"I mean, is anything more fun than sitting around with your childhood heroes and sharing a brew," said Phillips.

Of course, it's not cheap mixing with idols. The camp has a $4,200 price tag, including most meals and lodging at a Holiday Inn. Returnees receive a $500 uniform discount.

One of the annual returnees is Kurt Sampson of Hector, the 74-year-old owner of Canterbury Downs. He brought along two sons and a grandson, who received an exemption to age minimum of 30.

A live auction and kangaroo court together raised some $30,000 for the Lee County Children's Hospital and scholarships for three Wounded Warriors to attend camp.

Phillips got a good deal. He had the winning $2000 bid at an ALS-benefit auction in Fargo last August. Phillips was a Cardinals bat boy as a kid along with his east-side neighbor Lee Horning. He's employed as a crop protection salesman for West Central Chemical.

What about next year?

"Definitely," he answered.

Maybe, Bert will hang a curve.

District 5 stays firm

Willmar youth hockey traveling teams won't be shifted to another district, after all.

The Minnesota Hockey, Inc., Board of Directors sent the proposal to move Willmar, Litchfield/DC and Hutchinson out of District 5 and into District 4 back to the committee.

The Board suggested establishing criteria to justify such moves. The committee should also seek input from local associations prior to defining a proposal.

The committee had wanted to move the three associations into the southern district which has only 6 teams. The Willmar Hockey Association opposed the change due to increased travel and the loss of traditional rivalries.

On the fly

n Gustavus Adolphus listed sophomore Alissa Tinklenberg as a Notable Performer in this week's sports information release: The ex-Cardinal won four individual races at the Grinnell Invite (500 freestyle in 5:10.75, 100 backstroke in 59:81, 200 free in 1:57.70 and 200 back in 2:08.09. She was also a member of three first place relay teams.

n The first Spicer Winter Fest 1st 4-on-4 Pond Hockey Tournament on Green Lake is Saturday and Sunday off the downtown park. Eight teams are signed up.

n Starting the week, Hunter Schneider of Willmar and Tanner Picht of Morris/Benson Area were tied for 5th in Section 6A hockey scoring with 31 points each.

n UW-Superior hockey players Chelsey Wierschem from Willmar and Dani Schultz out of Morris/Benson Area, both left wings, supplied 4 points and 3 points, respectively, as the No. 10 Yellowjackets swept Concordia University, Wisconsin, 2-1, and 6-2 over the weekend in Superior.

n Willmar senior forward Graham Dahl is CLC Performer of the Week Boys Hockey Offense with 5 goals and an assist in two games.

n Kelsey Evans helped Briar Cliff improved to 19-3 last week when she scored a team-high 24 points in a 96-67 home win over Nebraska Wesleyan at Sioux City and sank 4 of 5 three-pointers on the way to scoring 15 points in a 75-63 win at Hastings (Neb.) College.

n Bob Brink and the Rocori Spartans will mean a big crowd in the Willmar gymnasium on Friday evening. It's the Cardinals biggest rivalry in the Central Lakes. Back in 1979, Willmar lost only two games and both were to Brink and the Spartans to open the season and end the season in the region playoffs. In 1988, at Williams Arena, the Spartans beat the Cards 63-60 in overtime in the state quarterfinals and went on to win the state big-school title. Last year the teams split. Brink has a 928-321 career record; Willmar's Steve Grove is nearing his 200th win (191-95).

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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