Amateur Baseball: Building a foundation
The Red Wing Aces, in its present-day form, has been around since 1971 and amateur baseball has been a mainstay in town since the early 20th century. However, building a roster year-in and year-out, especially a competitive one, hasn't always been straightforward in that time.
Players are playing purely for their enjoyment and love of the sport. In the Classic Cannon Valley League, and the Minnesota Baseball Association as a whole, contracts are not handed out to players, yet teams are unable to pull from the high school ranks. What is left over are recent high school graduates, college athletes and those willing to put in the extra time on the weekends or after a workday.
For Red Wing, which started its season in April this year, that meant high school and college athletes were still in school, presenting another obstacle to team building. So what can an amateur baseball team do to bring in players and retain college athletes? Build a culture that makes players want to come back, even if it means a commute.
"We get that feel that once you play for the Aces, you're welcome back," Aces head coach Justin Plein said. "(Players) want to keep playing and you work with them. If they can only make it down on the weekends, we understand, but we want you to keep playing and you want to keep playing."
Flexibility is a vital part of managing amateur baseball. Not just in formulating gameday lineups but also understanding that every player comes from a different background away from the field. Some players live and work in town so it's easy to make it to practices and games, others need to commute, and others get a late start due to the school year.
Beyond building a roster reach year, there's also the process of getting everyone into game-ready condition.
"The first struggle that I had was I didn't play baseball over the spring or summer," Aces pitcher Sam Palmatier said. "I had to come back after nine months of not playing and try to get my arm conditioned and just being back everyday."
For Dixon Irwin, coming off of his junior season at St. Mary's University, a different type of conditioning was needed.
"Coming out of school, it feels kind of like you've hit a brick wall from practicing and games every day to playing three games a week and limited practices," Irwin said. "It's definitely trying to stay in baseball shape rather than practicing every day."
And that's the silver lining for amateur baseball teams trying to fill out a competitive roster. Each team fluctuates its schedule to a certain degree to accommodate its players, and Red Wing is no different.
The Aces have done a good job throughout the years of being cognizant that each player has a different mindset on playing. Some of the players that are still in college play until they graduate and that's it, and that's understandable to Plein.
However, he continues to be vigilant in cultivating the team's youngest players' skill sets and instilling a culture of belonging and camaraderie. It's not just on management to show the younger players the ropes either. Team veterans are just as active.
"I've seen Adam (Thygesen) working with Zach Harding, a kid that just graduated and is going to be playing college baseball next year," Plein said. "You've got someone who's five, six years out of college and a kid that hasn't even played his first college baseball game yet.
"That first day that Zach comes, Adam is there working with him ... kind of taking him under his wing."
The way Plein sees it, mentoring younger players not only prepares them for their upcoming college seasons but also gives them the sense of belonging that makes them want to come back year-in and year-out. Veterans of the team will inevitably retire but once younger players get a chance to put on an Aces' uniform, the hope is that they will want to come back every year to play, even after college.
Red Wing appears to be on the right track in achieving this goal and as success continues to be had on the field, the objective only becomes that much easier.
"After you graduate college, you go into the real world and you don't know where you're going to get a job and whether that's commutable," Irwin said. "But I don't see myself not playing for the Aces for awhile, so I plan to be here whether that's commuting or in town."