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The Duluth Huskies – whose nickname still grates on me because one of Minnesota-Duluth’s prime college sports rivalries is with the St. Cloud State Huskies – never avoids the responsibility of keeping us aware that nothing can be taken for granted in baseball.
We know the Twins have been capable of springing surprises, but in the Northwoods League, where college kids come to various points around the Upper Midwest and take up residence to play a little summer ball, it’s even more evident.
This season, the Huskies started off winning their first six games, then they lost about the same number, and since then have struggled to get to .500. When the first half of the season ended, leading to this week’s All-Star break, the Thunder Bay Border Cats – no hesitation in offering 100 percent approval of THAT nickname! – playing the Huskies in a duel to avoid the bottom of the league.
The Saturday game was going to be a festive thing, although Huskies management seems to have found a reason for every single home game to be a special event. This time, it would be the 75th anniversary of Wade Municipal Stadium. The Huskies would be wearing throwback uniforms, although I couldn’t get there to verify exactly which Dukes/Huskies team from the past was being so honored.
That particular landmark had special meaning to me, because I wasn’t yet born when the stadium was christened, although it first was known as Duluth Municipal Stadium. Long before I came along, my dad, Wally Gilbert, played Major League baseball. Third base with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and some with the Cincinnati Reds. He played pro football with the Duluth Eskimos too, halfback, punter and drop-kick field goal kicker.
The story I’m told was that during World War II, it was determined that the minor league ball club known as the Duluth Dukes could be a source of diversion, if not inspiration, for the local citizenry, and Wally Gilbert was selected to be player/manager of the team. I guess it went very well, according to the precious few witnesses I’ve come across.
When I came along, years later, I recall the Duluth Dukes being a Class C minor league ball club, and the Northern League was a strong, prominent source of player development for future major league status. I recall watching a player like Dick Lombardi, a modest-sized fellow who wore spectacles and played center field, and he could hit a fast ball with the best of them. I recall seeing him hit a high, towering fly ball home run that cleared the top of the flagpole in center field on its way out of the region.
I recall seeing Bernie Gerl, a lean, left-handed hitting catcher, who had made a remarkable comeback from the tragic team bus crash in 1947, and was back putting that memorable swing on the best stuff from opposing pitchers.
Sometime back then, they renamed Duluth Municipal Stadium “Wade Municipal Stadium,” to honor Frank Wade and his son, Dick Wade, two prominent West Duluth baseball names from my dad’s era. Looking back now, and recalling how my dad was always skilled at deflecting attention or honors, they probably tried to name the stadium in honor of Wally Gilbert, and he convinced them to veer off to the Frank and Dick Wade honors.
At any rate, it was a special thrill when, in youth baseball and later in high school ball, I was able to play on that Wade Stadium turf. So even as the place started falling apart, it was always a palace to me. In fact, when I got old enough to know about anything other than baseball, I remember the added attractiong of a cute little black-haired girl who worked at the popcorn stand at Wade Stadium.
But I digress. Back to the Huskies. Other circumstances prevented me from attending the 75th commemorative Huskies game with the Border Cats, but it was with a chuckle that I noted Thunder Bay beat the Huskies 7-0 on a by Shannon Broussard. Good game to NOT go to, I thought. Turns out, the Border Cats got all seven runs in the ninth inning, so it was a good pitching duel until then.
The next afternoon, I stopped by Wade Stadium, although I only had a half-hour or so before a family engagement. Thunder Bay scored four in the first, and another in the second for a 5-0 lead, and by the time the Huskies scored a run, they were being outhit 8-1. The Duluth run, incidentally, came in when the Border Cats walked the bases full, then Jake Pries was hit by a pitch, forcing in the hitless run.
Seemed like a good time to depart. Beautiful day, nice crowd, awful game.
Ah, but once again the Huskies had a surprise for those of us who strayed. Hours later I learned that the Huskies had come storming back to score a run in the fourth and another in the fifth, then erupted for a 7-run inning and turned that 5-0 deficit into an unlikely 11-8 victory!
Reportedly, the Huskies benefitted by a lot of walks and hit batters in the big inning, and made economical use out of only 9 hits. Mitch Reeves and Reid Long had two hits apiece for the Huskies, and Brendan McClary smacked a 2-run single to carry the inning.
What happens in the Northwoods League is that arrangements are made between team management and the colleges wherever these players play to limit the number of innings and pitches they throw. The result is that complete games are rare, and if your team is being snuffed by a pitcher, go get another bratwurst or popcorn and hang around – the relief crew might not have the same effectiveness.
All-Star break could give the Huskies some inspiration for the second half. We’ll see. So far, Dan Amaral is hitting .331 and looks great in center field, or, recently, in left field. Jake Pries and Amaral are both from UCLA, indicating that you can’t trifle with major college talent.
The main lesson, though, is to decide to spend the evening at the ballpark when the Huskies have a game, because you never can assume what will happen in the early innings. Or the later innings.