I’m a baseball guy, first and foremost, and that’s what makes this week extra hard.
I know dealing with and trying to solve the coronavirus outbreak is the most important thing — to me and every living soul on this planet — but it also is the week I look forward to more than any of the other 51 of the year.
Thursday was supposed to be the opening day for Major League Baseball. Like always, I had planned on putting Friday’s Star edition to bed a little earlier than normal, pick up something to eat, and head for my favorite recliner to watch no less than four opening-day games. Of course the one I, and many of you, was looking forward to was the Milwaukee Brewers hosting my Chicago Cubs in what has turned into one of the best rivalries in all of baseball.
The coronavirus pandemic has also affected baseball on the local scene. With schools closed indefinitely that means all high school spring athletics — including baseball — are suspended. Wisconsin high school baseball teams were to report for the first day of practice this past Monday, but obviously that didn’t happen.
As a former baseball player myself (Jefferson, 1984-87) I truly looked forward to the start of baseball season. The excitement of first just soft-toss in the gym, and then anticipating the weather getting warm enough to go outside to practice was what drove me as a student-athlete. It would be a shame if that doesn’t happen this spring, especially for the seniors.
Year-in and year-out Sun Prairie has had some of the best teams ever assembled in Wisconsin, and its record eight WIAA Division 1 state titles proves it. The last five have come under the direction of current head coach Rob Hamilton, who entering the season is approaching the 400-win milestone and has an astonishing career record of 392-108-1.
Hamilton himself said this year’s team far and away exceeds the other groups he has coached as far as their baseball work ethic. The Cardinals return six players that received Big Eight Conference recognition last season: senior outfielder Spencer Bartel, senior pitchers Noah Wendler and Matt DePrey, junior designated hitter Josh Caron, junior second baseman Carson Shepard and junior utility player Liam Moreno.
Led by that group, Sun Prairie finished 24-8 and was the Division 1 state runner-up in 2019.
My baseball memory goes all the way back to my youth. My father used to take me to Helenville, Wis. (located just outside of Jefferson) to watch the Helenville Blue Devils, who later moved to Jefferson. Since 1989 when I began playing for the team and did so for just over a decade, I have been involved in the year-to-year organization of the Home Talent League amateur squad.
I attended my first Major League Baseball game in 1976 when I was just 7 years old. My father, older sister Rita and grandparents went to a Milwaukee Brewers-Chicago White Sox game at old Milwaukee County Stadium. It was there I saw a young Robin Yount, a future Hall of Famer, but my focus was on the all-time home run king, Henry “Hank’ Aaron. After returning to Milwaukee where he began his career with the Braves in the 1950s, he played the final two years of his career with the Brewers. While he didn’t start, I was thrilled when in a pinch-hitting performance Hammerin’ Hank single off former Milwaukee Braves teammate Clay Carroll. It was the only time I saw Hank Aaron play in person.
While I have covered more high school, college and professional games than I can count, I was only a fan the first time I saw the Sun Prairie baseball team in action. While covering Fort Atkinson and Jefferson for the Daily Jefferson County Union in the 1994 WIAA State Baseball Tournament I had some downtime between their games, so I thought I’d take in the evening session of the Division 1 semifinals. I was in the stands at Wausau’s Athletic Park when Andy Thompson hit one of the longest home runs I have ever seen a high school player hit in an 8-7 win over Sheboygan South.
As many know, the Cardinals went on to win the Division 1 title, their second under Hall of Fame coach Gary Bahe and third in program history.
I look forward to hopefully returning to this year’s WIAA State Tournament, held at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute since 1998, to witness yet another magical year in Sun Prairie baseball history, but time will tell.
As I mentioned earlier I also have a fondness for Home Talent League baseball and Sun Prairie’s own amatuer team, the Red Birds. I had a blast covering the Red Birds in their run to the HTL Final Four last season. And the question remains that when and if the season begins where will the team be playing now that diamond at Ashley Field has been eliminated by the new football stadium project, team general manager Scott Knorr assured me that all home games — even playoff games — will be played at Firemen’s Park in Marshall.
For now I just wait to hear the two most magical words in all of sports: