By Paul Downer
By Paul Downer
Hitters love it. Fans love it. But some around the league have mixed feelings about the one-of-a-kind ballpark that the Young America Cardinals call home.
When eight amateur baseball teams and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fans converge on Willkommen Memorial Park over the next two weeks for the Region 7C baseball tournament, those visitors will be entering one of the most unique baseball environments around.
Norwood Young America is no stranger to large baseball crowds, having hosted the amateur state tournament on the other side of town at the Norwood Indians’ field in 2007, but while Norwood’s pristine park is spacious and conventional in layout, the Young America lot that will hold this year’s region event is just the opposite.
Like Boston’s historic Fenway Park, the field at Willkommen Memorial Park is built into a city grid in the old downtown Young America, and it has the dimensions to prove it.
A relatively short right field is curtailed by Central Avenue, and just a few feet beyond a similarly short left field is a house that has become a favorite target of home run hitters. Center field, however, is one of the deepest in the Crow River Valley League, and fences approximately 20 feet high provide an obstacle for hitters down the lines.
The actual distance of the fences is a closely kept secret.
"I could tell you, but I’ll sue the paper if you put that in there," said Cardinals player Nik Franck.
But dimensions and high fences aren’t the only oddities. Outfielders pursuing fly balls to the warning track must beware of four indents around the outfield perimeter where the fence juts inward to accommodate light towers. And the grandstand is positioned so close to home plate that fans seated there can often here the muttered conversation of players in the dugout or on the field – and vice versa.
"When you’re hitting, you can hear the fans just talking amongst themselves. ‘Franck sucks.’ It’s gets to you sometimes," laughed Franck.
"There’s the proverbial rabbit ears, but in this park you can’t help it sometimes," agreed fellow Cardinal Eric Ernst. "I don’t know how you tune it out, but that makes it fun."
Adding to the atmosphere of the ball field is the architecture down the right field line creating the impression of an authentic German village, complete with windows that open for concession stands and a bell tower that tolls while Young America players circle the bases after hitting home runs.
Home runs are a popular topic when discussing the field, and Cardinals players did admit that their approach is sometimes different at their home park. Pitchers might avoid throwing inside to opposing power hitters, while Young America’s bigger sticks might alter their swings in an attempt to mash a round-tripper. Most players contacted for this article agreed, however, that the field generally plays bigger than it appears.
"There aren’t that many weak home runs hit here, especially since we switched to wood bats," said Ernst. "A lot of people think there are, but there aren’t. The fences are close, but they’re not in as far as a lot of people think. You still have to hit the ball well to get it over."
Admired and maligned
With such a unique playing field and surroundings, it’s no surprise that the field has its supporters and detractors. Franck said the Young America team did run into some resistance when it first bid for the coveted region tournament, but added that significant improvements to Cologne’s field and a highly successful region tournament there in 2010 helped set the stage for Young America’s approval.
"More and more we talked about the atmosphere. We talk about all the other things besides maybe getting the cheap home run, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t play games here. Mostly because of our central location, we’ve had some of the highest turnouts for games. We used to always have all-star games up here. We had huge turnouts for those things, so we’re expecting major attendance here," he said.
When Norwood hosted the state tournament, many teams used Willkommen Park for batting practice and, liking what they saw, later contacted Young America with requests to play games there. Franck said one of the most notable requests came from Red Wing.
"They came up on a Friday night. They just wanted to play in this atmosphere. That was one of the cool ones because they’ve played all over in a lot of parks, and they drove 2.5 hours to play here," he said. "But that’s how it is, people drive by and say, ‘Wow, that’s a cool looking park.’"
On the other hand, various individuals around the league have voiced concern about holding an important event like regions on a field with Young America’s quirks.
"It’s a neat place to play because it’s got a lot of character that other places don’t necessarily have," said 21-year league veteran Eric Engelmann of Plato. "It’s certainly got it’s unique features, which makes it kind of fun to play at, but at other times makes it frustrating too. There are times that you feel like that park takes games away from you, and probably at other times gives you games you shouldn’t win either."
Even so, Engelmann said he personally has no problem with playing regions in Young America.
"There were a lot of questions about regions being there and whether a park with those dimensions should have it. As a manager in the league, my take is that everyone is playing on the same field and has the same advantages and disadvantages," he said.
"I’ve talked to some of the other managers a little bit. Some of them have concerns that there could be some crazy upsets there because of a ball that floats out over left field and all of a sudden it’s a 3-run home run instead of the third out of an inning, and you have a Winsted or a Waconia that’s a favored team to move on to state going home because something really unexpected happened."
If something unusual does take place, said former Cologne Hollanders manager Jason Kuerschner, that wouldn’t necessarily be inconsistent with baseball tradition.
"If Major League Baseball had an issue with short fences why would they ever allow playoff or World Series games to be played at Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field? If something goofy happens it goes into the history books and the lore of Crow River Baseball," he said. "We have a rich history already, that would just be another talking point. Some people have an issue with the shorter fences, but since we’ve gone to the wood bats I don’t think it’s that big of an issue."
Hamburg manager Dereck Wolter said the ballpark’s intimate feel is its best attribute.
"It’s a fun park to play in. The fans are right on top of you during the whole game. They know everything that’s going on because they can hear everything that’s going on. That sets it apart from a lot of other ballparks," he said. "I’m sure you’ve heard discussions that we shouldn’t have regions there, but I think they’re going to do a great job of getting it ready."
While there might not be many other ballparks like the Willkommen Memorial Park field, the hometown Young America players wouldn’t have it any other way.
"There’s no other field in the league where you look out and there’s houses on all sides of the park. It’s in the community. It’s part of the community. It’s not like it’s just out in some plowed field where you put up a fence and a grandstand," said Ernst. "That’s what I think is really special about it."
Franck summed it up in a single thought.
"It’s maybe not the best field," he said. "But it definitely has a bunch of character."