WILLMAR — Fans swarmed the entrance of Bill Taunton Stadium nearly an hour prior to the Willmar Stingers official first pitch against the Eau Claire Express on Wednesday.
But it was not to see the Stingers’ batting practice but, more for the special guest that greeted fans with an autograph, a picture and a professional smile.
Prior to the Stingers earning a 9-1 victory on Wednesday, former Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire highlighted the evening. He gave a brief speech on the field in front of an estimated 1,200 fans. He talked about his love for collegiate summer baseball, saying these players are the future of Major League Baseball, and expressed his ultimate gratitude towards the fans.
Following his speech, the 63-year-old showed off his arm strength by throwing a dagger right down the middle of the plate, to the delight of all the fans.
“It’s always nice to say ‘thank you,’ Gardenhire told the West Central Tribune following his pitch. “Thank you for all of the support over the years and more than anything else it’s just really cool to see these young college kids coming out here and playing baseball.”
Gardenhire added how huge the collegiate summer league is when it comes to helping players become future MLB prospects.
“My son played in it and I played a lot of college summer ball between college seasons, the whole package,” he said. “This is where they grow, they learn what pro ball is all about. Using wooden bats instead of aluminum, this is huge.”
Stingers manager Al Leyva believes Gardenhire played a key role not only in the players’ performance, but the overall success of having a large crowd on opening night.
“It was great because he probably put some more people in the seats,” he said. “He probably brought some enthusiasm to everybody being here.”
Prior to leaving the stadium, Gardenhire met with fans. From then on, the Stingers were the main attraction.
Catcher Tanner Tweedt launched a two-run home run in the bottom of the first to get the night started, followed by second baseman Daniel Sayre hitting a homer in the second.
Willmar scored four more runs in the third, building a 7-0 lead.
“The enthusiasm was there; we were doing the little things,” Leyva said. “Stealing bags, bunting, with passed balls we were moving, just trying to play the game right.”
Eau Claire scored in the top of the fourth off a Willmar error.
Stingers left-hander John Bezdicek earned the win with five strikeouts in five innings.
Leyva said there was a lot to be happy about in the victory.
“I think tonight was a good night. Playing in those yellow uniforms you better win in those yellow uniforms.”
Willmar plays the Express again at 7:05 p.m.Thursday at Bill Taunton Stadium.