The Lead-off Man

There’s no place like home for Chaska baseball booster.

When it comes to baseball, Dale Welter has all Chaska’s bases covered. For more than 50 years, Welter has stepped up to the plate in a variety of mostly voluntary positions to pitch the virtues of the Chaska Cubs and the amateur baseball team’s longtime home, Athletic Park.

“At my age, I’ve kind of been through it all,” the 74-year-old Chaska native says. “The problems they have now like recruiting players or [dealing] with the state amateur baseball board, I’ve been down that road. I kid that I’m a consultant, but nobody listens.”

His versatility in lending a hand or a viewpoint is legendary and mostly appreciated among the town baseball faithful. Welter often begins sentences with, “If I were king” or “In my opinion” on how he would like to enhance amenities for Cubs’ fans.
   
The Cubs have been playing in Chaska since 1928. Athletic Park opened in 1950 and has been the Cubs’ home ever since. “He's probably the closest thing to Mr. Baseball in Chaska we have, and he's meant a lot to not only the Cubs, but to the sport itself in our community,” says Cubs’ co-captain Cory Poppitz, a 12-year-veteran of the team. “I've never met someone who promotes the game of baseball more than Dale Welter.”

Welter began playing for the Cubs in 1960 as a high school senior, calling it quits when he was almost 40 in 1982. Though he jokes he didn’t have much of a throwing arm, he was a tough out, hitting well enough to win a year’s supply of beer during a home run contest at the old Metropolitan Stadium.

  Welter, who taught for many years in the Bloomington school district, was a well-respected and successful coach of the Chaska High School baseball team (1981 until retiring in 2008). The Hawks play home games at Athletic Park. “I tried to help with the field when I was a player, but, when I became coach, I really took ownership of it,” says Welter, who lives in Chaska with his wife, Yvonne. They have two adult children, Eric (who played for the Cubs, too) and Mollie, and five grandchildren.
 
Welter worked hard behind the scenes at Athletic Park, doing whatever needed doing. He watered the grass, painted the grandstand, picked up trash, all the while scheming and dreaming up ideas to make the city-owned park more fan-friendly.

For his  baseball achievements, Welter's a member of the Minnesota State High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame, the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame and the Chaska Cubs Hall of Fame.

“He doesn’t just talk; he puts in his time and energy to make the program what it is and continue to make it better,” says Bob Roepke, general manager of the Cubs’ board of directors and a former Chaska mayor. “He’s a baseball lover,” adds Cubs’ manager Bob Poppitz, Cory’s father. “He wants the park atmosphere to be as hometown friendly as it can be. He lives and breathes it.”

Welter has taken on the role of historian, too, chronicling all things Cubs on stacks of poster boards he decorates with photos, articles and anecdotes. Some are on display at the park; others were at the Cubs’ season lead-off party last month. Several boards showcase the 70th anniversary of the 1947 Cubs’ state championship and the 30th anniversary of the Cubs’ 1987 state championship. Welter played on the 1971 Cubs’ championship team, one of four Cubs’ titles in its history. “You won’t find that kind of history at other places,” Roepke says. "You can find people reading them. That’s pretty special. Dale recognizes that.”

Welter loves baseball, especially baseball played in Chaska’s own friendly confines. He beams like a father doting over a child while talking about Athletic Park. “I always say, even if you hate baseball, you love coming there,” says Welter, who has been doing so since he was a boy, living on a farm on the outskirts of town. “I just love going to a ballgame, especially if it’s a fabulous ballpark like we have in Chaska.”

The park is nestled in the pastoral river valley on the western edge of downtown Chaska, far from the sounds of vehicles chugging along Highway 41. Walking through the gate is like taking a step back in time. “In my opinion, the ballpark is calming,” Welter says. “Pair that with the large grandstand and great sight lines, there are few parks better in terms of atmosphere when it's full of fans,” Cory Poppitz adds.

Before the Twins came west in 1961 from Washington, D.C., town baseball drew huge crowds. For instance, approximately 7,000 fans turned out for the 1947 championship game Chaska won in Mankato.

“Amateur baseball brought people together,” Roepke says. “That was pretty special. I think people continue to believe this today. It can continue to be a gathering place, a community builder.”

It’s the “little things” that charm at this field of dreams, Welter says, such as the electronic scoreboard, the painted bases, the walk-up music for players and the edged infield. Home plate is located in the northwest corner of the park, the perfect spot, he thinks, to keep the sun out of the eyes of fans in the early evenings. And a levee built in 2015 eases flooding concerns, long a looming threat. “I kid that the mosquitos can’t get over the top of the levee,” Welter says, “but a few still can.”

Welter says keeping children happy during games is important. A grassy stretch of land on the third-base side gives them room to toss a ball around, “Wall ball” behind the grandstand is also popular, as is the bobblehead collection on display. Welter is lobbying for a sandbox on the grounds. A couple swings would also be nice. “If the kids want to go back to the ball park, then the parents will, too,” he says.

For years, Welter “basically did everything” at the park. “Before they had their sprinkler system, he would go out there with 1,000 feet of hoses and put sprinklers out to keep it from drying up,” remembers John Seifert, the longtime Cubs’ manager, who retired from coaching last year.

Welter admits the park went through some “adversity” before the city took an active role in caring for it. “When the ballpark wasn’t what it was today, he was down there working by himself,” Roepke remembers. “Today, we have a wonderful relationship with the Chaska Park and Recreation Department, and they’re doing wonderful job of maintaining it.”

And more fans are getting involved, too. Welter touts the team’s Dugout Club as “building ownership” among residents. Club members get season tickets and other goodies depending on what level plan they purchase. In turn, the money helps provide funds to run the ballpark and support Athletic Park improvements. “The more people we can get there the better,” Roepke says. “That’s why we offer the Dugout Club membership and try to keep prices low and pretty competitive and put on promotions and giveaways. It’s all in the spirit of trying to bring people to the ballpark. That’s been Chaska’s history and we’re trying to sustain that.”

Welter doesn’t think there is a bad seat in the park. He has checked every spot. The grandstand holds about 850 people, with more areas  located down the third- and first-base lines.  

“Some ballparks feel cramped at 200 people,” he says. “Here, you can get 2,000 people and still feel comfortable because there’s lots of space to spread out.”

He can usually be found watching games in the Ted Nikolai tent—named after the late longtime Cubs’ manager and Welter’s mentor—located down the first-base line. For Welter, it’s always a beautiful day for baseball in Athletic Park. “When I got married to Yvonne, she said ‘Sometimes I think you love baseball more than you love me,’” he says. “And I was quick to reply that I love her more than basketball and football. She didn’t think it was funny, and I shouldn’t be telling that stupid joke anymore.”   

Gaining the Upper Hand

Chaska native looks forward to pitching as big leaguer in Minnesota.

San Diego Padres’ pitcher Brad Hand is eager to come home in September. That’s when the Chaska native and his Padres’ teammates will be traveling to Minnesota to play the Minnesota Twins in interleague play.

The two-game series, Sept. 12-13, will mark the first time Hand, 27, a 2008 graduate of Chaska High School, plays as a major leaguer in his home state. His parents, Lon and Barbara, still live in Chaska.

“I’m excited about coming back,” says Hand, who lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., in the off-season with his wife, Morgan, and their young daughter, Lila. “It should be fun. I’m sure there will be some familiar faces [in the stands].”

Hand, who made his big league debut with the (then named) Florida Marlins in 2011, had his best year to date in 2016, his first with the Padres. As a set-up man, Hand posted a 2.92 ERA with 111 strikeouts in 89-1/3 innings pitched. He led the major leagues in relief appearances with 82.

His work earned him the Dick Seibert Award as Upper Midwest Player of the Year from the Twin Cities chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in January.

Dale Welter, one of Hand’s coaches with the Chaska Hawks, picked up the award for him.

Drafted in the second round by the Marlins in 2008, Hand was claimed off waivers by the Padres at the start of the 2016 season. “We’re very proud of that young man,” Welter says. “As a freshman, I saw his curve ball, and I said, ‘Geez, is that as good as I think it is?’”

Hand prefers starting, but will do whatever his coaches want. “We have a good young team this year,” he says. “I think we’re going to surprise some people.” Welter follows Hand’s career closely. He thinks Hand has found his niche as a reliever. Hand became only the sixth reliever in Padres’ history to strike out more than 100 batters in a season. All-time greats Rollie Fingers and Trevor Hoffman are two of those relievers. “That’s pretty impressive company,” Welter says.

Cubs move forward without Seifert
New Cubs’ season underway.

For 22 years, John Seifert had been a fixture in the Chaska Cubs’ dugout. But, the Cubs began their new season last month without him.

Seifert decided the 2016 season would be his last, as did his son, Ryan, a longtime Cubs’ pitcher. “But I’ll be on the sidelines harassing the hell out of them, giving them pointers,” Seifert says, noting he will still cut Athletic Park’s grass, as he has for 10 years.

The 73-year-old Chaska resident managed the Cubs from 1994 until taking a step back a couple years ago. Bob Poppitz, of Chaska, took over as manager, and Seifert slid over to coaching first base with the title of co-manager.

Poppitz, who played amateur ball for many years in Carver and one year with his brother Mike in Victoria, says Seifert’s baseball acumen will be missed.  Seifert pitched a couple years in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization, also playing a year of town ball in his hometown of Jordan. His son was in the Colorado Rockies’ organization, making it to Triple-A. “The guys are going to miss him in the dugout,” Poppitz says. “He’s a hoot to have there, and he’s very competitive. We’ll take another step without him, somehow."

Poppitz is expecting another competitive year from the Cubs. “We have a pretty tough schedule this year,” he says. “The record may not always show that you’re winning every game. But, then again, we’re playing the best of the best, too.”

 Co-captain Tony Lane says the team finished fourth in the state tournament the last two seasons, “so we’re hoping to finish three spots higher.”

Lane says playing for the Cubs never gets old. “I get to hang out with my friends (teammates), playing the game I love at a beautiful ballpark a couple nights a week,” he says. “The competition is unlike any other amateur baseball organization in the country.”

Poppitz grew up in a baseball family. His father played, his brother is the longtime manager of the Victoria Vics, and his son Cory is the Cubs other co-captain. “I always say I don’t want the 10 best ballplayers, I want the 10 best guys,” he says. “If you can take a base here, make the right throw, you win some of those close games. It’s not all athleticism that wins baseball.”