Small town triple crown – Baseball, family, tradition

Categories: Around the Diocese

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St. Michael Church graces the background as the Spring Hill Chargers take on the Richmond Royals in Spring Hill May 31. Photo by Dianne Towalski

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Immaculately trimmed patches of green stretch wide across a pristine field. Crisply uniformed men align the first and third baselines. All hats are in hand as local talent croons the familiar anthem. Smells converge — burgers and hot dogs, freshly oiled gloves, newly cut grass.

As the players take to the field, glove-handed children run along the outfield wall in hopes of shagging a foul ball to cash in for a well-deserved quarter.

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Members of the Spring Hill Chargers watch from the dugout during the game. Photo by Dianne Towalski

Above the din, the spire of St. Michael Church in Spring Hill pierces the skyline, and one can almost hear the whisper of a small voice coming from the cornfield behind the baseball field, like the one in the 1989 baseball film, “Field of Dreams.”

“Is this heaven?” one of the players in the movie asks.

It might not be heaven, but for the 57 towns within the boundaries of the 16-county Diocese of St. Cloud where at least one Catholic Church and baseball team can be found, it certainly comes close.

Not unlike the movie, these small town amateur teams are a “field of dreams” for those who pay them a visit. For both the baseball field and the church, the ground is sacred, regarded with reverence and preserved by faithful stewards.

What is it about baseball that brings small towns together on summer Sunday afternoons? And why has this common experience not only lasted but continues to be passed on religiously from generation-to-generation?

Randy Schoenberg, a member of St. Michael’s, has been playing baseball for the Spring Hill Chargers since they first built their field in 1983. Now, as co-manager of the team, he coaches his four sons as they carry on the family tradition.

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Chargers catcher Nathan Terres connects with the ball during early in the game. Photo by Dianne Towalski

“In a small community, you know everybody on the team,” he said. “Everybody comes out to cheer us on. It becomes a way of life, something we can all do together on Sundays.”

Schoenberg’s oldest son, Shawn, has played several positions in the 13 years he’s been on the team. He agrees that the strong sense of community is what draws people in.

“I think it’s true in a lot of small towns, and especially in the Stearns County League: you go to church in the morning and then head over to the baseball field. The church brings people together and so does baseball.”

Both Schoenbergs were greatly impacted by Father Dick McGuire, who lived in the parish house in Spring Hill after his retirement from the priesthood in 2007.

“He would come out onto the field before the games and we would all kneel while he prayed with us,” Randy recalled. Father McGuire died in 2014 but not before the whole team went to the hospital to pray with him.

The area’s first organized league was the Great Soo League, named after the two railroad lines that ran through the area — the Great Northern Railroad and the Soo Line. The league formed in 1926 but small-town teams were forming even earlier.

Today, there are about 40 Minnesota leagues consisting of almost 300 teams throughout the state. Their season runs roughly from May to September.

Priest and pitcher

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Father Aaron Nett delivers a pitch in the game against the Elrosa Saints in Farming. Photo by Paul Middlestaedt

Father Aaron Nett, pitcher and first baseman for the Farming Flames, also played baseball with his brothers — one in Little League and then with three of his brothers in amateur baseball for five years.

“It was our Sunday routine during the season to go to church together in the morning, go back home for a big brunch made by my mother, and then get suited up and drive to the game together,” he said.

They grew up watching their dad, Eddie, play softball. He passed away in 1999.

“He loved to watch us play,” Father Nett recalled. “I have good memories of those days and we still share them from time to time.”
Small town baseball is deeply embedded in the culture and communities across the diocese, Father Nett said.

“It naturally brings people together in the small communities and also can serve as a reunion of families and teammates,” Father Nett said. “The characters that are the players and fans at the games add a lot. Sometimes the funny stories and memories shared are as entertaining as the games themselves. People like to just sit and socialize at the games.”

Being parochial vicar of the St. Cloud parishes of Christ Church Newman Center, St. Augustine and St. Mary’s Cathedral, Father Nett likes to draw connections between the Catholic faith and baseball.

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Batboy Isaac Mergen, 6, waits to spring into action as his father Matthew Mergen stands watching his Farming Flames teammates take on the Elrosa Saints May 24 in Farming. Photo by Paul Middlestaedt

We have the Trinity — three strikes and three outs. We have the novena — nine innings. We have a judge — the umpire. Baseball has no clock so it is, in a sense, outside of time. Naturally, God must be a baseball fan,” he explained.

“However, baseball is a slower and quieter game and is also a game of dealing with difficult situations and failure so there can be a spiritual side. I pray before and during the games for my team, for health, clear minds and to do our best.”

Father Nett said there are always opportunities to grow in virtue on the field.

“Patience is always needed as well as courage,” he said. “I have really enjoyed being with the guys in the dugout and greeting the fans after the game. It is a great way to stay connected with the people and my roots.”

Moni Barten, one of Spring Hill’s biggest fans, knows what he means. As a religious education teacher at St. Michael’s for more than 40 years, she taught nearly all the past and present players on the Spring Hill team.

“There is a connection between church and baseball,” she said. “We’re all family here.”

At most home games, Barten can be found in her car parked along the fence line, honking her horn after every run scored. Her son, Gordon, is co-manager with Randy Schoenberg and three of her sons are former players. Her grandson, Ryan, is a current team member and two more grandsons play for the Meire Grove Grovers.

“It’s challenging when they play against each other,” she said. “Then I have to cheer for both teams. But that’s OK. It’s all in good fun.”

Every team relies on the support of their local community to help fund expenses for equipment, uniforms and field maintenance. While some enlist the help of local sponsors, others host community-based fundraisers like meat raffles. Oftentimes, it comes from the players’ own pockets.

Barten also bakes the buns for the team’s concession stand, sometimes baking 12 dozen or more each weekend.

“Baseball is good for the community,” she said. “Everyone gets involved.”

If the smell of the burgers grilling doesn’t draw fans in, perhaps it’s the strong pull of fresh country air where on summer Sunday afternoons, traditions remain unchanged and life just seems a little simpler.