In '98 Mauer homers stopped Post 1639 title drive
Twenty years ago this August, the Willmar VFW Post 1639 baseball team took a 33-1 record to the VFW State Tournament held at Knute Nelson Park in Alexandria. The '39ers were good enough that manager Elsie Klemmetson began comparing them to the 1977 team that was 26-1. Retired West Central Tribune reporter Rand Middleton, who covered the '98 tourney, contacted several players for their recollections of a magical summer.
Erik Maursetter, C/OF: We had a talented bunch, no doubt, but there was just something about these guys. We always found a way to win.
That season of VFW baseball was the most fun I had and the most successful this group was in any sport together. After about 15 games, Elsie started comparing us to the '77 team that coach Johnson played on. Over and over he'd tell us, "You're pretty good, but not as good as that team."
We'd tease back that we weren't an area all-star team, like '77. Then he'd brag about his legendary recruiting. It was all in good fun.
Matt Breen, 2nd base: That loss to Rochester is the first thing that stands out to me, because I've always lamented letting that one get away. But I knew we had the pitching to remain competitive coming out of the loser's bracket.
On the road back, the 39ers ripped the host team with a 17-hit attack (catcher Mike Negan went 4-for-4 and Jed Nelson threw a 6-hitter with 9 strikeouts and 1 walk). Next, despite throwing just 13 innings all season, Jared McLister pitched into the seventh inning to beat Columbia Heights 4-3. The bottom four batters each delivered an RBI hit: Doug Runke, Ryan Anderson, Ben Iverson and Tom DeBoer.
Maursetter: We usually fielded well but we had errors (3) in the Rochester game. Pitching depth allowed us to compete through the loser's bracket. Jared pitched a heckuva game to get us a win.
Tom DeBoer, P, inf., current VFW and Cardinals head coach: I was the starting pitcher against Bemidji. It got off to a horrible start. I walked the leadoff batter, and then fielded a bunt, but I dropped the ball to put runners on first and second. Then I walked the third batter to load the bases and started the next batter with a 3-1 count.
Assistant coach Steve Johnson made a mound visit. I could see that there was action in the bullpen and I hadn't recorded an out!
Somehow, I came back and struck out the clean-up hitter, and then the next two batters on six pitches.
I have thrown a lot of innings in my life in a lot of big games. That inning stands out in my memory.
Todd Bergeth called the games on the radio. Listening back to the play-by-play, I still remember his call:"High fastball, strike three! Tom DeBoer, loads the bases and then strikes out the side — Good morning, good afternoon, and gooooood night!"
Maursetter: Elsie was a bit more nervous than usual during the state tournament, pacing around with the book at the end of the dugout, not talking or yelling at anyone.
Breen: Going up against St. Paul, I think we felt OK, knowing that they had lost to Waite Park, who'd we played tight many times and that we had some good pitchers still available.
Doug Runke, C/OF/P: We knew about the Mauer kid and tried to pitch around him the best we could. We were going to be OK with walking him and just nibble the corners. Two pitches got enough of the plate and he hit them both over the fence. We intentionally walked him for his next at bats.
DeBoer: We had a good left-handed starting pitcher in Ryan Anderson. In Mauer's first at-bat, he hit a line drive that cleared the right center field fence with ease. Playing baseball as a 16-year-old, you didn't see many balls clear the fence. In his next at-bat he did the exact same thing.
Breen: I still tell people I could have caught his first homer at second base had I simply gotten my glove up quicker — in other words, it was an absolute laser.
Ryan Anderson, a center fielder and occasional pitcher, quoted in Monday's Tribune: "I was told to keep it low or high against their No. 1 kid. The first one was low and the other one was high."
Maursetter: Mauer was unbelievable. Ryan had some pretty good movement that would tail back into left-hand hitters making it hard to hit. Ryan was told to pitch around him but not to walk him to see if we could get him out a couple of times. Ryan threw a pretty good pitch in the first inning, down and in. He hit a low rocket to center that just kept going up over the fence. After he hit a high pitch out the second time up, I think we came to our senses and just intentionally walked him the rest of the time.
Breen: Ben Iverson and I were trying to get this straight as recently as this March. We know Mauer pitched at least 7 innings the next day to help them ultimately beat Waite Park (St. Cloud Red) twice to win the championship, but my recollection was that he actually pitched all, or almost all, of both games. The story at the time was that he was throwing 92 mph to second base, so I'm sure he was a great pitcher, too.
DeBoer: The next year at the VFW State Tournament Willmar opened against Ranview. A bunch of us that had moved on to play Legion made the trek to watch the game.
We were puzzled when the starting lineup was announced and Mauer was not there. We knew that he was a year younger than us. We found out he was playing for Team USA that summer. At that point, we realized what an exceptional talent he was. Two years later he was the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft.
Maursetter: The support of family and friends was unbelievable; the atmosphere was unforgettable. We knew fans were listening to Todd on the radio. Lynn Norsten, our bus driver all season, was our biggest fan.
Maursetter: I always considered Kocka a player's coach, which I think only led to more antics amongst players. That would drive Elsie nuts.
But he was used to it; it was plain to see that he loved to be around the game and I think, on the whole, he enjoyed our group quite a lot.
Elsie would always assess your play honestly. There is no doubt we had a bad habit of playing to the level of our opponents, seemingly waiting at times for a pair of wild pitches to win a game. Elsie would let us know what he thought of our play. "Oh, Geez!" he'd say.
DeBoer: Elsie always positioned himself in the corner of the dugout near the water cooler to keep book. When games were going well he stuck to his spot. When things were close it was a different story. He would pace back and forth in the dugout with every pitch.
There were a couple of times Kocka said "Elsie, cool down!" If you made a mistake as a player you knew that you were going to hear it from Elsie and it was going to be loud! His voice was distinct, and when he was upset you could hear it across town! But he knew baseball. He devoted his life to VFW baseball and every player on the team knew it.
I remember Elsie talking to me before and after traveling baseball games before I played for the VFW team. He was always prepping for the future and trying to figure out what players might contribute down the road.
He was committed to making Post 1639 the best team in the area and one of the best in the state. To help bolster the roster he would bring in players from neighboring towns that did not have VFW baseball.
In my two VFW years, I played with four players from New London-Spicer — Jed Nelson, Quinn Rosendahl, Brady and Casey Toops, and also Nate Dammann from MACCRAY. The competition at practices and during games from the players on our own roster was intense. This helped push all of us to become better ball players.