TOURNEY TIME: The drive for baseball and fun

By Nick Gerhardt

Beyond the outfield fence at Schleper Brothers Field in Farming sprouts a small community each year. If there wasn’t a baseball field, you’d rub your eyes and think it’s a campsite. Instead it’s just the annual Farming Baseball Invitational, an eight-team tournament held at the historic field with generous accommodations. 

This year’s tournament featured neighbors Cold Spring, St. Joseph, Pearl Lake, Sauk Centre, Sartell Stone Poneys and some out-of-towners who took up residence for the weekend. Twenty-three players from Jordan made the trek to Farming in Stearns County, plus several friends and girlfriends. Their campsite neighbors drove up from Andover. 

The Aces took part in the tournament for the second time this year and already it’s the most anticipated tournament of the year. 

“You look and nobody’s on their phones,” Andover manager Sam Plohasz said. “Everyone is sitting around chatting, listening to music, watching baseball. We visit the other campsites and meet guys from other cities.”

Camping is a loose definition. Some arrived in RVs, others hauled ice castles. The less extravagant settled for tents or pop-up ice houses while the no-frills bunch slept in vehicles or truck beds. 

The out-of-towners appreciate the tournament environment and hospitality. 

“What time was the last Snap last night?” Plohasz asked.

“5:30 in the morning,” a teammate replied.

Andover played at noon on Saturday so the Aces that watched the sun rise still got a good 5 ½ hours of rest before their game. 

The outfield scene outdoes anything the bleacher bums at Wrigley Field in Chicago do. Think you’ve heard some good digs at an MLB park? You haven’t heard the taunts in center field at Schleper Brothers Field in Farming. Even the Flames players set up chairs in center field to chide opponents when they didn’t have a game. 

Fields like the one in Farming have a certain allure for metro teams, like Jordan and Andover. The Aces won’t play any of the teams in the tournament unless they meet the Cold Spring Springers in the state tournament. Jordan might have the opportunity to scout some potential state tournament foes. But that seems a distant secondary purpose of the trip. 

“I have to imagine there aren’t a lot of tournaments that give you a free camping site, which to us is huge,” Jordan veteran Steve Beckman said. “We don’t want to go somewhere where we have to get hotel rooms. We want to go somewhere where we’re right at the field. Some guys will walk to the bar after, but some guys will watch nine games over the course of the weekend. Someone like me, who’s a bit obsessed with it, that is a big draw for me to be right on site. … I feel like there are six or seven teams where I can feel like I know something. Sauk Centre for example, we faced one of their draftees last year in the state tournament. Having some knowledge of them is kind of a help. Whatever you can do to add knowledge helps. Obviously when you’re here the priority is fun in a different environment.”

Paul “Gilly” Buss has played with Jordan since the early 1980s when tournaments started to take hold across the state. The type of camping taking place in Farming is a far cry from what he first experienced.

“Slept in the bleachers, or wherever we could find a spot,” Buss said. “No tents, no sleeping bags. I remember one time in New Ulm, they had some fest going on down there … the fest closed down and we had no place to stay so we stayed in some guy’s backyard. When he woke up in the morning all he seen was 17 ballplayers laying in the back of his yard and he’s going to work. He didn’t say anything, he just walked by.”

Buss, the recognizable Brewers player with the long beard, opted to sleep in his vehicle for the Farming tournament. Some of his teammates arrived as early as Thursday night. Even after more than 40 years in amateur baseball, Farming presented a first for Buss.

“This is amazing to me,” Buss said. “You’re in the middle of nowhere and it’s beautiful. It’s a very nice park.”

Those in Farming go out of their way to make the teams feel comfortable. They left the field lights on late into the next day for the campers.

“They lean into it as a baseball tournament and a party at the same time,” Plohasz said. “Letting us leave our cars here, our tents here, it’s been awesome. They do a really good job of making it easy for everyone.”

It’s a symbiotic relationship between host and participants. The host benefits from the revenue the tournament generates, both from tournament fees and, more importantly, the ability to run concessions all day. 

If you haven’t caught a game in Farming, it’s almost the quintessential Minnesota amateur baseball park. If you drive west toward the park, you won’t see it until nearly the last minute. A row of coniferous trees shields the view of the park until you’re almost at the parking lot. Once there, good luck finding a spot. Many cars line the county road for parking while youngsters search the sprouting corn fields for foul balls and the chance of $0.50 for their effort. 

Jordan claimed the Farming tournament title for the second straight year. The Brewers defeated Sauk Centre 11-0 in the championship game after defeating Andover 6-2 and St. Joseph in earlier games. 

Across the state you’ll see similar situations with tournaments. In Arlington, Leavenworth made the drive up from Southwestern Minnesota. They sat around in collapsable chairs in a circle following their game against the A’s Friday. The Orioles players retired to fish houses or ice castles to catch some Zs before resuming play the following day. 

The Prior Lake Jays won the Arlington Grain Belt Premium Light Invite by defeating the Prior Lake Mudcats 7-6. 

“This is the most fun weekend we have as a team in June,” Plohasz said. “It’s cool to see the young guys learn about a small town, like Farming. They have such a cool field and they can host something like this. … Smaller towns do townball better than anybody else. That’s kind of cool to see.”

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