I love irony, especially when it’s funny. For my dollar, irony may be the best and most clever of all vehicles for delivering comedy in its rawest form to an understanding recipient. I also believe strongly in charity, good will, and civic engagement, and I have a tremendous respect for those that dedicate even a portion of their lives to promoting those ideals. All that being said, entering a ballpark with the proclamation “Optimist Park – Home of the Blues” on its scoreboard incited an instantaneous and audible chuckle from me. (If you don’t get it, I’ll explain later.)
The 2016 State Tournament opened on an unfortunately rainy weekend. So rainy, in fact, that Hutchinson, one of the tournament’s co-hosting cities’ field became unplayable, forcing games to be moved south to fortunately drier and prepared Brownton. As we headed west from our Twin Cities home base to Litchfield, intending to begin our day with the Beaudreau’s (Saint Cloud) Saints’ matchup with the Coon Rapids Redbirds, games were reported on as scheduled. Upon our arrival, however, we realized that passing showers had delayed the early game, and we were still in the middle of the 11am scheduled contest between the Blaine Fusion and the Duluth Express. In The Home of the Blues, State Tournament dreams would crumble for Duluth in a 7 inning mercy-rule loss, with Blaine advancing by a score of 16-4, bringing the first pitch of the early afternoon game closer to its scheduled start time.
The first thing that stood out to me about Optimist Park was its center field batter’s eye wall. Without taking measurements, I’d estimate it to be roughly 73 feet high by 144 feet wide, making it easily the largest such structure in Minnesota amateur baseball. Rumor has it that it was once the headboard of Paul Bunyan’s bed. Others say it was previously the screen at a drive-in movie theater, and was salvaged and painted navy blue by the Lithchfield Optimists to serve its current purpose. I would speculate that the tremendous advantage granted hitters by this monstrous backdrop contributed largely to the offensive explosions of both games we witnessed on that cloudy August afternoon.
Litchfield’s grandstand is quite nice, with flip-up bucket seats spread out along low-lying tiers that wrap the home plate area. Only the press box structure immediately behind home plate is covered by a permanent roof, but a tight-meshed netting was strung over the seating area, serving both as a filter to direct sunlight and a measure to stop foul balls from landing in the laps of unassuming attendees. Chain-link fence is minimized as a ground-level backstop through the immediate area, with high visibility netting giving fans an unencumbered view of the game.
Well-considered berms wrap the field along both foul lines, providing vantages over the large brick dugouts for fans wishing to spread out beyond the grandstand decking. Picnic tables and high-top drink stands are scattered around the extremities. A concession building stands behind the first base dugout, State Tournament equipped to serve cold beers, hot dogs, and (on this occasion) grilled pork chops to hungry fans.
The weather improved dramatically during the afternoon game, with clouds breaking and bright sunshine illuminating Litchfield’s impressive yard. Unfortunately, the lopsidedness of the morning game would carry over, with the Saints hanging 11 runs by the middle of the 3rd inning. Five unanswered runs by Coon Rapids in the 3rd and 4th temporarily closed the gap, but three more Beudreau’s scores in the middle innings stretched their lead to 14-5 after 6.
In the end, the Saints would ride 17 hits to a 16-5 win in 8 innings, continuing the offensive onslaught of the early contest. In the wake of a 41-run explosion on 48 hits, in a combined 15 innings of baseball, resulting in back-to-back mercy games, numerous players anonymously indicated that the ball “looked like a beachball” against Litchfield’s monumental batter’s eye.
Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Photo gallery available here.