May 22, 2010
Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending the 2010 Midwest Conference Baseball Tournament and calling the action for Midwest Conference Television all tournament long. The whole weekend was one of the best times I’ve had since I graduated from Grinnell two years and three days ago. And while it was great to be able to sit in the press box again after all these years while doing play-by-play for a baseball game for the first time ever, what really made the weekend special was the union of Pioneer baseball past and present.
The tournament got off to a rough start for the Pioneers. The Ripon Redhawks, who had dominated the Midwest Conference Tournament in recent years with a 36-18 mark in tournament play, easily the best in the conference, pounded out seventeen hits in an 11-4 victory to move to the winner’s bracket. Right fielder Nate Paul led the effort for the Redhawks, pounding out a singles, two doubles and a bomb in support of Redhawk ace Kurt Roeder, who was certainly short of dominant, but easily pitched well enough to get the victory, going the distance and giving up four runs on seven hits in the victory. All-Midwest Conference South Division first-teamers Greg Suryn ’11, Mike Goldfein ’12 and Nate Pierce ’10 all went deep for the Pioneers, but those runs were all Grinnell could muster in Game 1, as they moved to the loser’s bracket for the fifth time in their five Midwest Conference Tournament appearances.
After the St. Norbert Green Knights defeated Illinois College, then proceeded to fall to the Redhawks, it was time for Pioneers and Blueboys in game two. The Pioneers swept the Blueboys in the season series and were trying to do something they had never done before: finish 5-0 against one team in a season. They tabbed ace Ben Pope ’12 as their starter in the must-win game, and while he surrendered twelve hits and six runs in easily his poorest start of the year, he kept his composure and did not give up the big inning until a four-run seventh, when the Pioneers already had a comfortable nine-run lead. Dugan Knoll ’12 came on in relief to throw a perfect eighth and closer Chad Christoff ’10 tossed a scoreless ninth to preserve the victory and send the Pioneers to day two of the tournament for just the second time in the history of the program after an 11-6 win. Grinnell’s considerable offense in game two was highlighted by home runs from Paden Roder ’10 and Mike Nodzenski ’12, along with Suryn’s second bomb of the tournament, equaling his regular-season total.
In game three, Coach Tim Hollibaugh made a rather unconventional move, sending Mike Bogard ’12, who had thrown just five innings the entire season, to the hill in what amounted to the most important game in the history of Grinnell College baseball. Bogard did not disappoint, stifling a powerful St. Norbert offense for six full innings, giving up ten baserunners but only two runs before turning things over to Ryan Harris ’10, who rebounded from a difficult start against the Redhawks to slam the door on the Green Knights. Harris recorded the final nine outs to record the save, allowing just one hit and retiring St. Norbert’s Tony Jandron, the nation’s leading hitter at .538, on a 1-2-3 double play with the bases loaded and nobody out. That turned out to be the last at-bat in Jandron’s college career, as he was on deck representing the tying run when Harris knocked down a line drive with two outs in the ninth, then recovered and threw on to first to send the Pioneers to the Championship Round for the first time in the history of the program. Roder went deep one last time to set both the single-season(12) and career record(23) for most home runs by a Grinnellian, and Goldfein went 4-for-5 as the Pioneers jumped out to a 4-0 first-inning lead and never looked back in the 5-2 victory.
That win placed the Pioneers in a rematch with Ripon for the championship. Pioneer starter Andrew Myers ’12 pitched capably, giving up three earned runs in four innings of work, but in the end the Pioneer bullpen could not contain a powerful Ripon offense, as the Redhawks repeated their 17-hit effort in defeating the Pioneers 13-5. Grinnell had its chance in the sixth, when Nodzenski missed a grand slam by less than three feet, which would have put the Pioneers ahead 7-5, and instead had to settle for a sacrifice fly to make the score 5-4 Redhawks. Things looked good for the Pioneers even then, with Ben Pope available for three innings of work, but Grinnell would get no closer as the Redhawks scored eight runs over the final three innings to put the game out of reach. Chad Takabuki ’10 led the Pioneers offensively in his final game in a Grinnell uniform with three hits, but Ripon starter Jason Wierschke and reliever Steven Blader were able to hold the Pioneers to two earned runs on only nine hits, all singles. Zach Bayreuther committed four errors for the Redhawks in their clinching game, but the Pioneers could not take advantage as the Redhawks claimed the eighteenth conference title in program history, while Grinnell will enter next season still looking for its first.
Even though the Pioneers were unable to secure the elusive conference title, the tournament was still a great event to cap off the year. In an unprecedented show of support that one would be hard-pressed to find at most other schools Grinnell’s size, alumni traveled from all across the country to witness the Pioneers’ run at history.
From the east coast, Mark Wilcox ’09 (Baltimore, MD) and myself, Justin Abramson ’08 (Washington, DC) made the trip, though not without incident, barely arriving in time for the first pitch after missing a connecting flight at Chicago O’Hare. Coming to our rescue were former Pioneers Kevin Byrne ’06, James Bird ’07, Andrew Colver ’07 and Joe Reth, who drove us from their hometown Chicago to the tournament just in time for the pregame ceremonies. The four of them make up the nucleus of the Pioneer alumni baseball team, the Chicago Pioneers, who began their 30-game season last week with a 2-1 loss. Joining in the festivities all the way from the west coast was Ben Mendoza ’09 (Portland, OR), whose suggestion of a Dunkin’ Donuts trip on the way to Grinnell was critical to keeping spirits high throughout the journey.
Elsewhere, Mike Rosenbaum ’08 and Julia Meisler ’09 (St. Louis, MO) made the long drive, leaving their homes at 12:30 AM the day of the tournament and traveling all through the night to witness the Midwest Conference Tournament firsthand. Rick Berdelle ’09 (Clarendon Hills, IL) also drove in to watch the Pioneers and former rotation co-anchor Harris take their shot at history. And all of this does not even count the support from Pioneer alumni still in Iowa, including Peter Leo ’06 (West Des Moines), brothers Mike Maloney ’06 and Brett Maloney ’09 (Des Moines) and Jim Malewitz ’09 (Iowa City), who joined me in the booth and provided excellent color commentary for our viewers on MWCTV, which included among others, Daniel Dee Clark ’08 (Dallas, TX), Sam Eaton ’07 (Austin, TX) and, from across the pond, Gary Kahn ’09 (Ostrava, Czech Republic).
The weekend culminated with the end-of season baseball party, where Pioneer alumni and students gathered at The Titty Bar, home to Roder, Takabuki and J.P. Prouty ’10, among others, for one last night of drinking in honor of Grinnell College baseball. For the alumni in the crowd, it undoubtedly provided a welcome reminder of what a wonderful place Grinnell College is and can be, especially when one is surrounded by good friends, beer and baseball.
On Sunday morning, the Pioneers of the present woke up to prepare for final exams as they wrap up Hell Week in Grinnell. Also waking up after the final baseball event of the year were the Pioneers of seasons past, who headed back to their lives, wherever they may be. Mendoza heads back to Portland, where he lives with longtime girlfriend Gabriela Maldonado-Bell ’09. Byrne drives home to his wife, Lauren Meredith ’06, and the next day he heads back to his job at AllState Insurance. Wilcox, once called Max Walcott during his time as a Pioneer catcher, now goes back to being Mr. Wilcox as he returns to his high school chemistry classroom in Baltimore. Malewitz makes the one-hour drive down to Iowa City, where he’ll be finishing up his first year in journalism school at the University of Iowa, while Colver, Reth and Bird resume their own lives and jobs as they look forward to the Chicago Pioneers’ next game and, of course, rooting on the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL playoffs. Rosenbaum and Meisler head back home to St. Louis, where they look to extend their stay atop the standings in the Denslow Cup.
And finally, I, too, return to life after Grinnell, where I work as an analyst (actually, as of yesterday, a Senior Analyst) at the Advisory Board Company in Washington, DC. Once known as Young Towel, the voice of Pioneer athletics, I step out of the broadcasting booth for perhaps the final time and return to my life as Justin Abramson, a man who sits behind a desk in an M-Street office building looking at Excel spreadsheets for a living.
One week later, it’s life as usual for this Pioneer alum, as it is for all Pioneer baseball alumni across the country and the world. But for one weekend, the Pioneer baseball community came together in pursuit of a dream. And although the dream wasn’t realized this year for the Grinnell College baseball team, it was a weekend that this writer will never, ever forget. So keep the dream alive, Pioneers. The ghosts of Pioneer baseball past will always be with you.