sports blog by andy shenk

Knights Double Up Bears

In At The Game, Northfield Knights on June 27, 2012 at 6:53 PM

Northfield Knights vs. Cannon Falls Bears, June 24, 2:00 PM, Sechler Park

Northfield’s amateur baseball team, the Knights, play their home games on the edge of town, in secluded Sechler Park. The Knights’ field sits on the northeastern edge of the park, between train tracks and the Cannon River. To the southwest, Sechler holds several little league ball fields before ending at the edge of a small creek bound for the Cannon. Though several Northfield businesses lay just to the south, the Cannon’s wooded riverbanks obscure them. Strung out between the railroad and river valley, Sechler is further isolated by its two, nearly hidden entrances: One opens onto Dundas Boulevard, formerly nicknamed the Whiskey Road. Back in the day, when Northfield was dry, the nearby hamlet of Dundas sold liquor and prominent Northfield citizens, seeking to escape notice on their whiskey runs, would light out for Dundas on this back highway. The second park entrance, though located in Northfield, sits behind a gas station and requires a half-mile drive through the woods to access the baseball fields.

Sunday afternoon my wife, Nikki, and I biked from our apartment on First Street, across the railroad tracks and Highway 19, past Kwiktrip, before turning onto the leafy bike path paralleling the asphalt road leading to Sechler Park. Wild raspberries ripened in the bushes clustered between the path and train tracks. The Malt-O-Meal cereal factory, Northfield’s biggest employer, rises to the north, providing Sechler with its only reminder of the town outside its wooded retreat.

The ballpark, seating capacity approximately 400, sits on the left, at the end of the service road. We pedaled around the outfield fence and into the adjacent parking lot just as the Knights and their opponents, the Cannon Falls Bears, completed warming up. Locking our bikes and helmets to the grandstand behind home plate, I made sure to record mentally that the Bears’ first batsman, shortstop Nate Otto, had grounded out to second to lead off the game. We settled into our metal bleacher seats three rows up, while the Cannon Falls pitcher, Keith Meyers, ground his spikes in the batter’s box, preparing to lance a pitch from Northfield hurler, Jeremie Kruse, into left field for a single.

The rest of the first frame passed quickly. I intended to keep score of a baseball game for the first time in my life and needed some time to create an improvised scorecard, not to mention keep up with play on the field. In the opening innings, then, I hastily drew little diamonds, in addition to agonizing over how to accurately reflect Cannon Falls’ third at-bat, a fielding error by Kruse, which saw Meyers advance to third from first, and the batter, Rich Burr, scurry all the way to second.

By the third inning, my makeshift scoring system had come together and the plastic gallon bag of popcorn I’d brought from home was already half-eaten. Nikki and I donned our Carleton College baseball caps to keep the steamy afternoon sun out of our eyes. In the bottom half of the inning, Northfield’s Eric Pittman rapped out his second single of the game, a line drive to left, driving in speedy center-fielder Chris Paradise from second. That tied things at one run apiece, making up for Kruse’s error in the first, which allowed the Bears to score despite only recording one hit.

Northfield took the lead in the fourth, thanks to a double from designated hitter Scott Benjamin that scored catcher-manager Troy Deden. Scattered applause filtered down from the bleachers. From our perch behind home plate, we could see about as many ballplayers on the field as fans in the stands. Most of the spectators, however, were tucked out of sight. Equipped with lawn chairs, they enjoyed the shade from trees planted beyond the dugouts on either side. Most of the few fans near us seemed to be friends or family. A couple of old guys, with weathered caps and grizzled faces, appeared to be the exception: bonafide baseball fans enjoying the American pastime.

Only seven more men reached base in the final five innings. Cannon Fall’s Aaron Stein allowed two hits over three innings, after replacing Meyers in the sixth. Kruse, for Northfield, gave up just two hits, to go with two hit batsmen. Cannon Falls’ best chance came in the top of the ninth. A single, a hit batter, and a perfect sacrifice bunt from first baseman, Taylor Pagel, put runners on 2nd and 3rd base with only one out.

The Bears’ beefy pitcher, Aaron Stein, strode to the plate. He had doubled to the gap in right field in the seventh. Nothing more than a sacrifice fly or well-placed ground ball would tie the game now. Jeremie Kruse peered at him from the mound. Though Stein had but a .386 slugging percentage, his heft made my impressionable mind expect the worst. Surely he’d put solid lumber on a Kruse fastball, and knock it deep into the outfield. After a couple of pitches knotted the count at one ball, one strike, Knights’ manager Pete Maus decided to pep up his boy on the mound with a little visit. The infielders gathered round, too, for instructions. His wisdom imparted, Deden paced back to the dugout and Kruse returned to his work. Thwaappp! Thwaackk! Strike Two! Strike Three! Called looking on a curveball on the outside edge of the plate, Stein returned to his dugout.

The catcher, Ryan Brintnall, stepped up next. Unfortunately for Cannon Falls, he came in batting and slugging .154, the worst of any Bears’ regular. Kruse, needing one more out for the complete game victory, attacked. Whiff! The final strike fooled Brintnall and the Knights celebrated their tenth victory of the season.

My scorecard told me that Northfield turned three double plays in the game. Bears’ pitcher Meyers took the blame for the final double play, which came in the eighth. With Nate Otto on first, Meyers knocked a grounder straight at Nick Kulla, the Northfield second baseman, who threw to shortstop Sam Maus to begin the 4-6-3 twin killing. Meyers audibly groaned after making contact; two at-bats earlier he’d done the same thing: grounder to Kulla, force-out at second, and the quick throw to first baseman Brett Berry for the final out of the third inning.

In addition to the two double-play ground balls, Meyers in many ways encapsulated the Bears’ ill-fated afternoon, in which they fell to 1-7 in their last 8 games, following an 8-3 start to the season. Meyers, if you recall, had scored the Bears’ only run back in the first inning, in large part thanks to the error from Kruse. As the starting pitcher, he gave up Northfield’s only two runs. Finally, in the sixth, he earned a base when Kruse sent an errant ball into his backside. His groan in the eighth captured the team’s frustration: Doubled up in the score, doubled up three times on the base paths. Cannon Falls, and Meyers’ backside, went home smarting after another loss.

The game over in a tidy two hours, our bike ride home didn’t take long, either. Nikki and I made plans to pick the raspberries along the path before the next game; some juicy sugar to balance out our greasy, salty popcorn. Our next outing to Sechler Park will be on July 4th, when the Northfield Knights host the Dundas Dukes in a holiday match-up of neighboring towns. Just as the Whiskey Road story suggested, Dundas fans are rumored to be heavy drinkers, as well as hearty supporters of their boys.

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