Old-School BaseballSeptember 24, 2011
Story by John Patishnock
Photos by Krista Schinagl
On a field once graced by Hollywood and sprinkled with remnants of baseball yesteryear, Scott Gladish steps into the batter’s box wearing a gold-trimmed, purple-lettered uniform with “Winslow” emblazoned across his chest, grips a wood composite bat and stares out at the pitcher’s mound.
The bases are loaded.
Gladish, a 1977 Pike Central High School graduate who grew up in Winslow, blisters a two-run double to right field, giving the Winslow Eskimos an 8-0 lead over the Ireland Spuds during the Old School Baseball League’s regular-season nightcap played under the lights at Huntingburg’s League Stadium.
This is where dreams aren’t easily brushed aside. Or forgotten.
Rather, they’re created, lived out, handed from one generation to another.
“It’s my field of dreams,” described Gladish, founder and president of the Old School Baseball League who owns a sales consulting company in Atlanta.
This is what Gladish, 53, envisioned when he began putting out feelers a few years ago, gauging the potential viability of an adult, wooden-bat baseball league in the area.
The feedback was immediate and positive and ignited an avalanche of interest. The players were in.
For the past five weeks, the Old School League played out its second season, and already is showing signs of growth. Two teams were added this season, the Huntingburg Happy Hunters and Dubois Jeeps, joining Winslow, Ireland, the Holland Dutchmen and the Dale Golden Aces.
Each squad plays all other teams once in a seven-inning contest. Starting next season, the teams will be split into two, three-team divisions with the winner of each division meeting in the championship, though this year the top two seeds collided for the title. Winslow seized the championship last season, and last Saturday, Holland bested Dubois 3-2 in nine innings after Holland’s Andy McKeough ripped an RBI single in the top of the ninth against the regular-season champions. Holland’s win allowed the Dutchmen to claim the Town Council Trophy, which will be showcased at Holland Town Hall until next year’s championship.
Gladish originally thought of implementing the idea in his hometown, but logistical roadblocks manifested. Simply put, there was nowhere adequate for teams to play.
“I talked to the folks in Winslow about improving or building a facility there,” said Gladish, who graduated from Indiana University in 1982 with a degree in health, physical and recreational management. “The size of the town didn’t matter, it was more about the park. ... Then they said, ‘Have you been to League Stadium?’”
Turned out, Gladish had not. Nor even heard of the venue where parts of the 1992 film “A League of Their Own” were filmed.
“I was pretty amazed,” Gladish said of his initial reaction. “It is very cool, it’s a very nice play to play baseball. Like one of the guys said last year, it’s like playing at Busch Stadium.”
Inspired by local high school rivalries and wanting to create an environment that could captivate the community, Gladish and some of the eventual captains began discussing the possibilities of carving out their own baseball niche. This after Gladish approached Brad Ward, executive director of the Huntingburg Foundation, two years ago with a $5,000 donation.
“The concept was how we do take Scott’s gift and get the absolute most mileage for it,” Ward said. “What we felt we did was leverage the dollars for something brand new, far more innovative, far more encompassing of more people.”
Except this wasn’t the mission of a baseball lifer, someone who refused to let the game slip through his fingers after having gripped it for so long. Gladish hadn’t played organized baseball since his preteen years. But after experiencing an exuberance rejuvenation, Gladish suddenly felt transported back to those “bygone days in the Winslow Little League” where he played second base.
Gladish, who has a 2-year old son, Gary, with his wife of seven years, Julia, attended a Boston Red Sox major league baseball fantasy camp in 2005 in Fort Myers, Fla., and immediately became enamored with the pristine fields and big-league uniforms. So much so he joined a 35-and-over baseball league in Atlanta, where he boasted a .313 batting average earlier this year.
Hitting is the one area that requires players to make the biggest adjustment in the Old School League, with upper-cut softball swings jettisoned for a more-level hack. And oh, yeah, the possibility of an 80-plus mph fastball ratchets up the level of difficulty.
“The pitching is really good in our league,” Gladish said, “so it’s definitely a step up from what most amateurs play.”
Games are overseen by umpires sanctioned by the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
Gladish even enlisted the services of Scott Sollman as the public-address announcer and Scott’s 16-year old son, Logan, as the scoreboard operator to create as much of a gamelike atmosphere as possible.
Family and friends make up most of the spectators. More than 2,500 fans entered the gates at League Stadium over the season, with more than 400 fans attending the first two Saturdays — the Prospect League’s Dubois County Bombers averaged 331 fans a game this past season. But a different vibe exists with the Old School League, which features players who have played at League Stadium once upon a time and who still live in the community.
“People around Dubois County, they know everybody here,” said Huntingburg captain Dave Marcum, whose 19-month old son, Ethan, also attends games. “People in Huntingburg know us. They want to come watch wooden-bat baseball, especially the older people.”
Marcum, 28, figures next year Ethan will be old enough to run the bases after games.
“His first word was ‘baseball,’” Marcum said. “He watches and he sees me out there and he’s cheering.”
Holland, meanwhile, treats its games as Take Your Son to the Ballpark Day.
McKeough, 41, of Holland (Kamden, 7 years old), T.J. Montgomery, 36, of Holland (Colson, 9 years old), and Kurt Meyer, 38, of New Albany (Mitchell, 9 years old) don’t need to worry about being empty-handed when they go to the plate: Kamden, Colson and Mitchell, along with Andy Holzbog’s 8-year-old nephew, Carson Niehaus of Holland, all share batboy responsibilities.
Usually, the boys take in some pretty good action, with players discussing strategy, what teams are the ones to beat and personal expectations.
That air of athletic one-upmanship? It doesn’t evaporate with age.
“Even an old buzzard like me, I’m still really competitive,” said Dave Schank, 43, former baseball coach at Southridge High School who plays for Holland and lives in Huntingburg with his wife, Alisa. Schank didn’t play last year, but decided to suit up this season at the urging of his 11 year-old son, Tucker. Schank noted the quality of play, especially the pitching, is better than he expected. But that’s not his biggest takeaway.
“Just bringing him down here and playing catch and letting him see the old man play a little bit,” Schank, 43, said of Tucker. “I probably do it for him as much as I do myself.”
Joe Keusch, 39, who lives in and plays for Huntingburg, echoed Schank, whom Keusch followed as baseball coach at SHS, in complimenting the players’ pitching and fielding ability. Keusch knows, having played Double-A ball in the Texas Rangers’ organization. He approaches games at League Stadium the same way he did when he was a pro, saying, “I think that’s one of the best one-on-one confrontations in all of sports, is the pitcher against the hitter.”
Keusch, who also played semipro for the Jasper Reds, said being able to play with some of the players he coached at SHS added to the appeal.
“It’s almost surreal,” said Keusch, who has two children, 9-year-old-son Wes and 5-year-old daughter Bailey with his wife, Mande. “I look behind me, I got all the kids that I coached playing defense for me. I shake my head; it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. They have kids of their own already coming to the ballgame.”
Current SHS baseball coach Brad Wibbeler, 33, who lives in Holland and is one of Keusch’s former pupils, is one example. Wibbeler’s 3-year old son, Aidan, whom he has with his wife, Angie, greeted him after the Dutchmen played the Jeeps on Sept. 3 and also ran onto the field last Saturday night to celebrate Holland’s win.
Wibbeler, who captains Holland, took a break from his catching duties in the game against the Jeeps on Sept. 3 to play left field, and gunned down Dubois’ Jace Brescher at home plate. Brescher slid headfirst, arms extended. Then stood. He was caked in dirt.
“Words can’t describe,” Brescher, 28, said of the first time he slipped on the Dubois uniform. “It just feels good to get back on the field and run fast with a live baseball and a lot of good players.”
Dubois sports 18 players on its roster, 15 of whom are from Jasper, including Brescher, who still lives in Jasper. JHS baseball coach Terry Gobert, who noted leagues similar to the Old School League “are making a comeback,” allowed the Jeeps to borrow some helmets and catcher’s equipment, and the Jeeps even practiced at The Fieldhouse before the season started.
Uncouth for former Wildcats to play for another team? Not at all. After all, the community ties are just as strong elsewhere in some cases. Dubois captain Craig Denu, 28, lives in Jasper with his wife, Leslie, with whom he has a 4 1/2-month-old daughter, Hadley. Both Craig and Leslie have family in Dubois and Leslie, 27, is a 2002 Northeast Dubois High School graduate, and Denu’s mom, Cheryl, taught at Northeast Dubois High School for 32 years.
Once Denu met Gladish and heard his proposal, there was no hesitation. From him or the other Jeep transplants.
“When this opportunity came up, I knew we wouldn’t have a problem putting together a pretty decent team,” Denu said. “We had a lot of guys commit right away, and everybody has been very excited about it since.”
But that doesn’t mean the contests don’t showcase the casual flavor of backyard, Sunday afternoon family outings.
Occasionally, players from opposing squads suit up for another team when only eight guys show up. Lineups are written on scrap pieces of paper and posted in the dugout by a pushpin. Once, Dale sported two players wearing No. 15 in a game; another time three players wearing No. 3 almost all ran out on the field before Dale captain Brad Fella noticed the mix-up. After swatting a double against Ireland on Aug. 27, Huntingburg’s Jamie Foster stood on second base while the following hitter took his hacks; players from both teams razzed Foster about that — players aren’t allowed to lead off from base in the softball league they play in during the summer.
That’s one reason Ireland captain Stacey Moore and coach Hootie Flick said they see lots of differences from their softball league in the Old School League, which has nearly 100 players comprising the six teams. Many are from Dubois and Spencer counties, or have ties to the area, with the goal of having players suit up for towns where they have some connection.
Almost all are former high school players, with Fella, 46, of Santa Claus estimating 60 to 70 percent of the guys having played either college or semipro ball.
For others, such as Moore, of Huntingburg, a more lengthy layoff had transpired. But after receiving a call from his aunt Jackie Hasenour of Ireland, all that changed.
“I told her I hadn’t seen a curveball since I was 18 years old,” said Moore, 47. “But she talked me into it. When she said that, she goes, ‘OK, well, get a team together because we only have three players.”
Two years later, Moore doesn’t own a smidge of regret. Sure, he winced when talking of how the Spuds didn’t get their first win in the league until this year, but the joy he felt from that first victory soaked in completely.
“Just to get a chance to do it again is a blast,” he said.
Turned out, none of it almost happened. Moore had all of two weeks to field a squad. Mirroring the other teams, he and Flick engaged in a grassroots campaign to find other players, calling friends and softball teammates. Shortly after, the Ireland Spuds were born and the league had its original four teams.
“Once we got the right captains involved, then the teams came together,” Gladish noted.
He stumbled upon a Southridge practice one afternoon at League Stadium, and as the league began to form, Gladish met Wibbeler, Keusch, Fella, Ireland pitcher Kirk Kendall of Jasper and Gene Mattingly of Holland, who played for the Dutchmen last season and helped coach this year.
“That’s absolutely been one of the best parts of this, is befriending some of these guys,” said Gladish, who estimated he knows the first name of half of the players in the league.
The league had its stadium, but other details needed to be hammered out. Playing during the week after the Bombers played was discussed, but eventually dismissed because many players weren’t regularly available during that time. Fella suggested playing games on Saturdays, helping to assuage the burden of players having to juggle busy schedules — numerous players said the only drawback is managing being able to play with family commitments. Still, as Gladish sat in the stands watching a game earlier this season, he acknowledged, “I’m pretty happy with the results.”
“We knew it would be fun,” added Fella, who graduated from Heritage Hills High School in 1984, pitched at Indiana University and eventually advanced to Double-A in the Chicago White Sox farm system. “But to actually pull it off and come out in a venue like this, it’s an absolute blast.”
There was, however, a good amount of anxiety. And ample time set aside to gameplan. Denu said the Jeeps needed a handful of practices before the season started “to get back into the swing of things.” And butterflies? Yeah, that’s part of it, too.
“I haven’t played in 25, 30 years, and I was nervous as a bean last year,” Flick, 49, of Ireland said. “No matter how you slice it, no matter how old you are, when you get back on that field, it’s amazing.”
While having more than six teams in the league isn’t in the immediate future, everyone expects the quality of play to improve, with Dubois as a prime example: The Jeeps went undefeated in regular-season play with a roster comprised mostly of guys in their late 20s.
“The word is getting out and it’s trickling down to the younger players,” Fella noted.
Familiarity is the buzzword that swoops around League Stadium. Fans playfully tease the players. Sollman adds his own flair from the press box, playing sound effects. Players catch up with one another on the basepaths during breaks in the game and also stand along the dugout rail, chatting with fans. Fella once fielded an autograph request, signing a bat for a young boy.
But don’t be mistaken, these guys want to win. The majority of the players are friends off the field, and Flick and Moore estimated 80 percent of the guys in the league already have squared off in softball.
“There’s always bragging rights, whether it be a barbecue in the backyard or over a cold beer,” Fella added. “There’s always a little gibe and it’s nice to be the owner of the one who got the better of it.”
That down-home mentality permeates the league. Gladish doesn’t necessarily mind the sparse crowds. He acknowledged a larger fan base definitely has its perks, but he’s more interested in the ambiance than pure volume. Two weeks ago, Gladish’s teammate Steve VanMeter, 35, of Haubstadt roped a double. The roar of a capacity-filled stadium didn’t accompany the line drive. Rather it was the cheers of “Go, Daddy” from VanMeter’s four children — daughters Mayson, 9, Andi, 7, and Linzi, 4, and son Trey, 6 — who were sitting behind home plate.
“I don’t think it’s a league that has big financial aspirations,” Gladish said. “I always kind of felt this way: If we had fans, great, but that’s really not what we’re doing here. This is about the guys who are playing. It’s about them enjoying this moment.”
In the game right before the one in which Gladish ripped his two-run double, he played for Holland when the Dutchmen were a man short, and was on the bench when Dale’s Tyson Martin tattooed a home run to left field. Gladish immediately leapt off the bench, jumped up against the netted railing in the dugout and looked out on the field, peppered with streaks of sun late in the day.
“Just the field, just this moment,” he noted with a smile. “Isn’t it neat?”
Gladish talked like a man who couldn’t have envisioned wanting to be anywhere else in the world at that moment.
The player’s actions have provided proof their feelings align with those of Gladish.
Players chipped in their own money last year to buy equipment, including bats and pine tar.
Each player was offered a $50 stipend. No one accepted. Instead, they opted to keep the money in the league.
“It’s a wonderful tribute to the players that are in the league,” Gladish said, “that they care enough to play and they want to play.”
Gladish said the overwhelming majority of the players who played last year returned for a second season, which he called “gratifying.” Neither Marcum nor Denu expects a dropoff for either Huntingburg or Dubois.
The feeling Gladish had playing again after all those years has washed over his league. Nothing that happened between his days in the Winslow Little League and wearing a Winslow jersey in his Old School League was able to steal the joy of the moment. Everything came back to Gladish, he said. The glove, the camaraderie of his teammates, the smell of the grass.
Any chance of it ever leaving? Not likely.
“It’s the same kind of feeling you have when you’re a kid and you’re out playing,” Gladish said.
“You’re just so excited to be there. It’s that same kind of feeling.”
Contact John Patishnock at firstname.lastname@example.org.