Baseball Traditions in Victoria, Chaska and Chanhassen

Town baseball celebrates America's pastime at family-friendly prices.
Tony Lane of the Chaska Cubs at the Chaska Athletic Park.

Asked what he enjoys most about town baseball, Chaska Cubs catcher/outfielder Cory Poppitz reacts as quickly as he would to a fat pitch across home plate.

“What's not to like?”

In those four words Poppitz sums up the “field of dreams” world of small-town amateur baseball, a Minnesota summertime tradition dating back to the 1920s. At its peak, around 1950, there were nearly 800 town teams statewide. Today, among the nearly 300 teams of the Minnesota Baseball Association, there are several in the southwest metro area: the Chaska Cubs, Victoria Vics and Chanhassen Red Birds. They all play in the River Valley League, which also includes teams from Shakopee, Prior Lake, and a number of small towns outside the metro area.

Town baseball has many of the game’s enjoyable elements—the musical crack of the bat, summer evenings, carefully manicured, green fields, the “sociable” pace of the game, the smell of hot dogs—without the negatives of major league baseball (think over-priced tickets and concessions, steroids, overpaid players).

Emily J. Davis

For the players, there is the opportunity to keep playing a game they love beyond high school and college, and often into middle age. Most of Poppitz’s teammates are guys he knew growing up in Chaska, or while participating at retired Cubs player Eric Welter’s youth baseball camps.

Town ball team rosters are sprinkled with players who played college baseball and a few with professional experience. The Victoria Vics have three players with minor league, professional experience: pitcher-infielder John Kuelz, a Minnetonka native who played in the Seattle Mariners’ system; catcher/first baseman Eric Winegarden, an Eden Prairie high school graduate who played at New Mexico State and in the Philadelphia Phillies’ system; and pitcher/outfielder/infielder Corey Eckhoff, a Wadena-Deer Creek High School graduate who played at North Dakota State University and for the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks of the American Association.

“It's good baseball,” Poppitz says. “We don’t take it too seriously, but between the lines we are out there to win and compete. That’s what makes it so much fun.”

Entering his ninth season with the Cubs, Poppitz joined the team in 2005 after his senior year of high school. He went on to play collegiately, graduating from University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and played town ball each summer. Poppitz, like many other players, comes from a family of local baseball players. His uncle, Mike Poppitz, manages the Victoria Vics; His dad, Bob Poppitz, played a couple decades of town ball for Carver and Victoria. His grandfather, Hubbel Poppitz, was a town ball catcher in the 1950s and ’60s. Poppitz’s other grandfather, Barney Reisgraf, was a pitcher, often throwing to Bob.

Emily J. Davis

During the season, Poppitz makes the one-hour drive from Mankato, where he lives and works, to Chaska a couple times a week, or more. The Cubs play a 35-game season in May, June and July, plus play-offs through August, which can add another 10 to 15 games “if we’re lucky,” he says.

The Cubs typically draw 300 to 600 fans and up to 1,200 on warm summer nights when they are playing one of their rivals from Chanhassen, Victoria or other local towns.         Chaska Athletic Park, built in 1950 by volunteer labor near the Minnesota River, has been designated a historic site by the Minnesota Preservation Alliance. The city also received a state grant to build a berm to protect the park from spring flooding.

Comebacks have always been a big part of baseball. The Chanhassen Red Birds pulled off one of the best comebacks ever in 2010, when they fielded a team for the first time in more than 40 years.

According to Denny Laufenburger, a Chanhassen City Council member who serves as the team’s PA announcer, communications director and board member, the Red Birds were brought back to life when the Chanhassen High School was built in 2008–09. The city contributed more than $500,000 to build an athletic complex for the high school, which makes it available for use by other, local athletic teams.

The city’s director of parks and recreation, Todd Hoffman, proposed the idea of reviving the Red Birds, local volunteer groups got involved, and the “new” Red Birds opened their first season in April 2010.

The team came within one win of going to the state tournament in its 2011 season. Special events such as Fourth of July fireworks and having local musicians sing the pregame national anthem, have also boosted the fun factor.

Mark and Patti Swenson of Chanhassen are two of the most avid Red Bird fans. They attend about 25 games per season—both home and “road” games—watching their two sons play with the Red Birds: 22-year-old Zach, a third baseman/catcher/first baseman who played one season at St. Cloud Sate University, and 20-year-old Nate, a shortstop and pitcher who is currently enrolled at St. Cloud State. “It’s the whole atmosphere of watching outdoor baseball...and watching your kids play,” Mark says. “It’s really good competition, and it’s cheap entertainment for a family.”

After the game, players also pitch in to manicure the field, raking around the infield and filling in any holes. Another bonding experience reinforcing the fact that, in this league, there are no pampered millionaires.

 

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Catch up with local teams online for game schedules, rosters and more:
Chaska Cubs: chaskacubs.com
Chanhassen Red Birds: ballcharts.com/chanredbirds
Victoria Vics: vicsbaseball.net

 

One of the appeals of town baseball is its affordability for families who would like to spend an evening at a game. As an example, here are prices for a Chanhassen Red Birds game:
Admission: $4 for adults; $2 for seniors, kids, military personnel and veterans; kids under 12 free.
Concession prices: Burgers and brats, $2.50 each; beer $3; pop $1; chips and candy bars $1.