I did the math Monday afternoon to figure out exactly how many days had elapsed since the last time I attended a sporting event. I knew the key date was March 12, which was Day Two of the girls state basketball tournament. That also was the final day of that event as well as the final day of MSHSL competition during the 2019-20 school year, as Covid-19 wiped out spring activities.
Nineteen days in March. Thirty days in April, 30 more in May, another 30 in June and 27 days in July. The total: 136 days without sports. I did the math while sitting at CHS Field in downtown St. Paul on a spectacular summer day … watching high school athletes compete. Even though I'm on vacation this week, I had to go.
It wasn't an MSHSL-sponsored event, but that mattered very little. The St. Paul Saints, who are playing their American Association baseball games in Sioux Falls for the time being (thus making CHS available), worked with the Minnesota State High School Baseball Coaches Association to put together the Senior Salute as a way for 2020 seniors to get on a ballfield again. Twenty-four teams are entered, placed into pools with round-robin play going on now. The top teams will advance to elimination play, with a champion scheduled to be crowned Aug. 2.
"The idea that these kids are getting a chance to play on a great field, how can you go wrong on that? It’s very fun to be there," said Minnetonka High School coach Paul Twenge, who is among the coaches for a team with seniors from Minnetonka and East Ridge.
Players sign waivers stating that they understand the risks of Covid-19 and fans -- who buy tickets online in advance at www.saintsbaseball.com -- have their temperatures checked upon entering CHS Field.
Monday’s schedule included three games at CHS. The first game, starting at 2 p.m., was between teams labeled as Southeast Conference and Tomahawk Conference; most teams in the Senior Salute have seniors from two or more teams.
Southeast Conference, which lost 10-4 Monday, has players from Spring Grove, Caledonia, Rushford-Peterson and Randolph. They went 0-3 in round-robin play and will not advance, but that was pretty meaningless.
“I think this is probably one of the coolest experiences I've ever had playing baseball,” said Carter Bratland of Spring Grove. “I mean, we went 0-3 but this is bigger than winning or losing. We got our season taken away from us and I think just getting to play one last time with these guys that had the same thing happen to them, it was a good thing to just get something over with, get some sort of closure to what happened in our season.”
Most of the players didn’t practice or even get together before their first game. Southeast Conference coach Chris Strinmoen (head coach at Spring Grove who was the school’s male athlete of the year in 1996), said the players from his town, Caledonia and Rushford-Peterson could have stopped in Randolph for drills on their way to St. Paul, but it was unnecessary.
“We’re not using any signs, either,” he said. “We told them, ‘Steal if you wanna steal, just go out there and play.’ ”
A team that includes seniors from St. Anthony Village and Litchfield (and one from Columbia Heights) does use signals from the bench, and most players knew those signals long before the Senior Salute began. That’s because St. Anthony Village coach Troy Urdahl is a 1996 Litchfield grad who played for coach Jeff Wollin, who still coaches there.
“Litchfield is running the same signs and systems as when I was there,” Urdahl said. “We’re able to run through the same signs; we even called a pickoff from the dugout and the Litchfield guys knew what it was. It worked, too. It’s the same timing play, the same system I was taught by Coach Wollin.”
Opponents at the Senior Salute don’t shake hands before or after games. High fives and fist bumps between teammates are not uncommon, however.
“They’re so used to being around each other, they still want to high five,” Strinmoen said. “It’s human nature, they kind of gravitate toward each other. We only have 12 players on the team, so guys are always playing. The dugout isn’t packed and there’s room to spread out.”
Music is played between innings, a stadium announcer recognizes each batter, and one concession stand is open at CHS. All Senior Salute games are streamed for a fee on https://prepspotlight.tv/MSHSL
Spring Grove senior Chandler Bergrud was busy Monday, playing every position except catcher in the seven-inning game against the Tomahawk Conference team. After the final out, players on both teams tipped their caps toward the opponents. The Southeast Conference players posed for photos before leaving the field.
“It was a great experience with the boys,” Bergrud said. “We couldn't have asked for more beautiful days, it was a lot of fun getting back out on the field. And one of the nicest fields I've seen or played on, for sure.”--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.