Baseball is back in Janesville.
As if being in charge of buildings and grounds and the head coach of the varsity baseball team at Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton Public Schools wasn’t enough for Scott Kaminski, the Waseca native has now begun the process of bringing town team baseball back to Janesville.
The Jays will kick off their inaugural season at the new JWP High School sports complex at at 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 19, against the Fairfax Cardinals of the River Valley league. Games are typically played on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, with the occasional Wednesday night games sprinkled in.
Kaminski has 19 players on roster, 11 of whom are current Bulldog baseball players or have played in the last three years. The roster includes: Kaminski, Blake and Brody Boran, Kyle and Andrew Fisel, Sam Eustice, Alex Kjolstad, Ryan Luedtke, Marshall Miller, Brett Taylor, Ricky Johnson, Tristan Kroll, Brandon Johnson, Zach Janike, Kain Oliver, Chad Guse, Spencer Heitkamp, Blake Seesz and Sawyer Gahler.
“I just want something for these kids to look forward to doing after high school,” he says. “Most athletes don’t ever lose that competitive drive. If we can have something here in the summer that lets them feed that need, I want to do everything I can to encourage it. That drive makes people successful in life, even beyond athletics. It’s a life skill.”
Though the Jays are currently using the new sports complex at the high school, Kaminski is hoping to eventually get funding to get the fields at Lakeside Park renovated for more of a destination atmosphere.
The new head coach is hoping that these guys can experience the same thing he did when his high school career was over.
”A lot of my favorite summer memories happened on the field in Waseca. I proposed to my wife at home plate,” he says. “I even had my best friend, Bryan Murphy, run me in the ring from center field. Memories like that last forever.”
The memories aren’t just for the players, he says.
”It’s the people in the crowd. It’s the conversations around the dinner table. Wives and kids, grandparents and parents, girlfriends and friends. People remember those times forever. I love what it did for my friends and me before we played and I want to see others feel that same enjoyment and feeling of community.”
Janesville, Eagle Lake join 13-60 league
The squad will be known as the Janesville Jays and will become the ninth team in the 13-60 town team league. While the New Richland Reds have folded, Eagle Lake is also planning a reboot of its town team and will join the Jays in their inaugural seasons. When asked if the Jays name comes from his days in Waseca, Kaminski smiled, “Maybe.”
Kaminski said he’s kind of surprised about how simple the league made it for him to join. “I was expecting to have to go through this long and drawn out process, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I went to a meeting with a board, told them what I had planned and they voted 7-0 to let us in.”
The 13-60 league consists of towns along Minnesota State Highways 13 and 60. The league is now made up of the Jays, Eagle Lake Expos, Blue Earth Pirates, Cleveland Spiders, Lake Crystal Lakers, Minnesota Lake Royals, Morristown Morries, Wells Wildcats, and the sure-to-be instant rival, Waterville Indians.
“I was able to get all the guys I wanted to play, except one former standout who currently plays for the Indians,” says Kaminski. “I didn’t feel like it would be right to even try in that regard. We’re new to this league and the last thing we want to do is mess with things. I like the team the way it sits. There’s a lot of talent here already.”
One of those players is Kaminski’s assistant varsity baseball coach and JV head coach, Blake Boran. Boran graduated from Waterville-Elysian-Morristown in 2011 and is excited to see how a rivalry with his home town will play out.”
A lot of the guys on that team (Indians), I grew up with,” he said “We played high school ball together; some of us went to college together. There are definitely bragging rights on the line, but at the end of the day, it’ll just be fun to play against them for a change.”
Boran was able to nab his younger brother, Brody, to join the Jays as well, but his other brother, Ben, decided to stay in Waterville.”
I’m a utility player overall, but when I’m catching and Ben comes comes up to the dish, I’ll be sure to talk some trash and get in his head. What kind of brother would I be if I didn’t?” Boran said with a wink.
Outside of the Boran brothers, there are a few names that the people of the area should recognize. The Fisel brothers will be joining fellow JWP student-athlete, Eustice on the diamond this summer, along with former Bulldog standout Kjolstad and previous varsity baseball coach and the current JWP activities director Luedtke.”
I grew up with all of these guys,” said Eustice. “I don’t think this will be as steep of a hill to climb as people would expect because we’ve always produced competitive teams since I can remember. We’ve always just had fun playing sports together and the success is born of that fun and hard work. I expect us to be competitive from day one.”
Kaminski loves where he’s at and the community that he has grown to call his home.
He was hired at JWP in April of 2014 and has really embraced his place in town.”
Janesville is a special place,” he says. “I know it’s cliché to say that a place has that ‘small town’ feel, but that’s what it is here. I really enjoy just walking around town and having people stop to talk or even just honk and wave as they drive by. People are proud to say they’re from Janesville, Waldorf and Pemberton. I’m proud to be from Waseca, but Janesville is my home.”
With the idea in mind that he’s embarking on a rebuild of a one-time community centerpiece, Kaminski wanted to make sure that every detail was covered. He even created the uniforms as an homage to the ‘60s and ‘70s Houston Astros teams. And he’s hoping the community responds.”
What we really need is people to show up. If we can put on a good show and be competitive, I know this community will be supportive. And with that support, hopefully we’re able to generate some revenue to keep this thing going for years to come,” Kaminski said.
Money may be hard to come by at first, but Kaminski isn’t really concerned about that right now. The uniforms have been paid for by the players and he says he has done enough to ensure a complete inaugural season.
Janesville baseball history dates back to 1870s
The new Janesville town team expects to get started this summer, a rebirth of this rich part of Minnesota history. Town team baseball remains a staple of Minnesota summer traditions in many communities. And in Janesville, there remain memories of days gone by.
“I remember, as a kid, going to games at the park on a Sunday and seeing everyone from town there,” says Jim Fury, owner of Fury’s Barber Shop and a Janesville resident. “There used to be an old cow tank that they would fill up with ice. They would put water and soda and beer in there and the fans would just love it. I never stopped loving the game from that point on.”
While the ‘50s and ‘60s might have been the heydays, a lot of the town teams in Minnesota got started as early as the 1870s. Janesville’s original town team was started in 1874 as the Merchants and continued play up until wartime suspended baseball all over the nation. While teams often started and stopped and the Merchants’ history is limited, Janesville’s team resurfaced as the Red Sox in 1920.
According to a 1934 issue of The Janesville Argus, the Red Sox faced Manager Foreman’s All-Stars in 1920, in what was described at the time as “the greatest game the village of Janesville had ever seen.
With the Red Sox up 8-5 in the 8th inning, Foreman pulled his “rookie” starting pitcher, “Sleepy” Davis, and replaced him with a veteran, “Doc” Joyce. Joyce gave up only one hit the rest of the way and the All-Stars came to the plate down three runs in the 9th.
The Argus reporter said that the Red Sox inexplicably shifted around their infield to start the inning and “that fatal move was what led to the ultimate defeat.”
“Due to a bevy of errors, the All-Stars were able to push across three runs to tie the game before utility-man Joe Byron slapped a single over third base to tally the winning run, sending Janesville home losers and the fans scratching their heads.”
After a state tournament appearance in 1934, the Red Sox played for another three years before interest began to wane. In an occurrence that couldn’t be explained by anyone at the time, in the final game of the 1937 season against the Smiths Mill Millers, the Janesville team failed to show up and the team spent the ‘38 season on hiatus.
With the start of World War II, baseball was put on hold in many towns. Janesville was no different. The Red Sox were put on the back burner and it wasn’t until the time Fury’s father, also named Jim, and others returned from the war in 1945 that the thought of baseball began to creep back into the minds of the local populations.
The elder Fury restarted the Red Sox team in 1947. Rationing was over. Industry was booming. And people were looking for something to do on the weekends outside of the town dances on Saturday nights.
“Weekends were for two things in Janesville while I was growing up,” said Fury. “On Saturdays, everyone would meet for town dances, but on Sundays baseball dominated the talk and the lives of the town. It was a great time to love the game.”
Fury’s father had the young team back in the Minnesota Amateur Baseball State Tournament by 1950. They played their first game of the tournament in Chaska, and it also happened to be the first time that they had ever played under artificial light. They were beaten in the first round of the tournament, but Fury felt like they should have won the game.
“Dad liked to blame the lights for that state tournament loss.” said the younger Fury. “I think it was more tongue-in-cheek than anything, but he really hated those lights.”
Fury’s father was a player-manager for the team all the way through 1967 when the team folded. Fury doesn’t remember the exact reason why but thinks it was because they just weren’t able to get guys to commit to the whole season anymore.
It wasn’t until 10 years later that the younger Jim gave the team another run.
At the onset of the first season, he got the local Dairy Queen to sponsor the startup team. In exchange for the financial support, the team was to wear pullover Dairy Queen logo jerseys.
“I like to laugh about it today that we were the Janesville Dairy Queen’s for that first year or two, but eventually we got the name changed back to the Red Sox,” he said.
Field maintenance, money issues surfaced
After the decade that had passed since a town team had played, the field that the team had to play on was a shell of its former self. It had become overgrown with weeds; there were rocks all over the infield; it was absent lights for night games. Fury didn’t have the time to maintain the field and try to keep the team going.
Paying for baseballs, bats, equipment, uniforms and the cost of umpires grew difficult. And while Fury loved managing and still loved playing the game, he was nearing the end of his baseball days.
“I remember sitting in church one Sunday with my wife and three kids and questioning whether I should pick my son up, for fear of hurting my arm before the game that evening,” he said. “That’s when it started to click that maybe I was getting to the end of it all.”
It wasn’t long after that Fury decided to hang it up. Not only was his desire to be more present with his family a contributing factor, but he also said that it became increasingly more difficult to get players to give up slow-pitch softball, which was exploding in popularity at the time.
He tabbed Janesville native and teammate Doug Berndt as his replacement. Berndt ran the team for about a dozen years before he, too, had to step aside.
“It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it anymore or couldn’t play,” said Berndt, “Baseball is a great game. It just got to the point where I was writing checks out of our personal bank account to keep the thing running. Not many people can afford to do something like that, and I was one of them. But I tried as long as I could.”
After experiencing the financial difficulties of running the team, Berndt handed the reins to another longtime Janesville resident, Scott Hammett.
“We did all sorts of things to generate revenue,” says Hammett. “We sold programs filled with local advertisers. We asked for free-will donations. Heck, we even did a team garage sale and made about three or four hundred bucks.”
Hammett had been a longtime player for the Red Sox, and managed the team for seven years after taking on the player-manager job. But, like Berndt, he ended up writing checks for over two years to keep the team going.
“Money is always going to be the biggest issue,” he said. “But it’s also something that these kids and men really have to commit to. I can’t tell you how many times we had players ready at the start and then, come game time, they’re busy with other commitments. You can’t fault guys for taking vacations, but it makes summer a tough time to get that full-on commitment that a team needs.”
The team was also losing kids to recreational slow-pitch softball, similar to what Fury experienced, but Hammett kept trying to keep kids interested in the game.
He and close friend Kelly Heitkamp have also been youth baseball coaches in Janesville and had worked with the 2017 graduating class from fourth grade until graduation.
“Summers with those kids were a blast. They loved the game and loved each other. That’s what we really need,” says Hammett, “We need the youth to get back to the sport. Something like year-round basketball is appealing and even good for the kids, but it’s killing summer baseball. I’m encouraged to see that some of those kids I watched grow up in the game are coming back for Scott.”
If kids are turning away from the slower, more cerebral pace of baseball, what does the future hold for a game that was once the best show in town?
“I’m concerned about it,” explains Fury. “Baseball has no clock. You can’t run out of time, only outs. With most other team sports, there is always action. With baseball, the action is in your head. You’re always thinking, always needing to be ready. Kids today seem to need that constant movement. Baseball just isn’t played that way.”
Fury, Berndt and Hammett have all given Kaminski advice and guidance on his pursuit, but the cautious optimism is there.
“We wish him all the luck in the world. I know his heart is in the right place. He wants to do right by this community and I applaud him for it. I really hope this works out,” said Hammett.