FORT MYERS, FLA. – There are five fields at the historic Terry Park baseball complex in the city of Fort Myers. Those ballyards are occupied for the most part by Division III teams from the North at this time of year.
The Bethel Royals were assigned to the field named for Connie Mack for a doubleheader of 7-inning games starting at 9 a.m. Sunday. Mack was the owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics for a half-century and brought the A’s here for spring training from 1925 to 1936.
The modus of arrival was either by boat or rough roads through the jungle until 1928, when Tamiami Trail – as in, Tampa to Miami – was completed.
Coach Brian Raabe, the former Twins’ infielder, has his Bethel team here for 13 games and for nearly two weeks, what with the People’s Stadium, a k a, the Zygi Dome, off limits to all baseball this year due to preparations for the Final Four.
The Gene Cusic Collegiate Classic draws more than 100 baseball and softball teams here from late February and to late March, allowing Minnesota visitors to southwest Florida to play quite a variety of colleges.
“We played Johns Hopkins, a top 10 team, last week and wind up next Saturday against Wooster, the No. 1 team in the country,’’ Raabe said. “It’s a lot of baseball, and we need it. We’re younger this year. We’re playing some freshmen.’’
The opponent on Sunday was the College of Old Westbury, a small State of New York University located in an affluent area of Long Island.
Jake Marsh, a junior from Wayzata, was Raabe’s starter for Game 1. He was Bethel’s starting quarterback before last season, when Jaran Roste took over early in the schedule. Roste arrived as a transfer after having spent a year as a Gophers’ walk-on.
“I’ll be honest: It wasn’t easy, but I found out a lot about myself as a person,’’ Marsh said. “I had a chance to play some, we had a great quarterback room, and a tremendous turnaround on the field – getting back to the playoffs and winning two games.’’
As Marsh was balancing football and baseball, Raabe used Marsh as his closer. Jake spent four weeks pitching for Willmar in the Northwoods League last summer, before jumping back into football with the idea of being the Royals’ starter again.
He’s committed to again pitching for Willmar. He’s going to be with the Royals for his senior season in football, but with Roste as the projected starter, he might spend more time pitching this summer.
On Sunday, Raabe made the same move that Gophers coach John Anderson has made recently with Max Meyer, his star closer from last season.
“John’s now starting Max, and we’re going to start Jake,’’ Raabe said. “He’s our best, and we want to get more innings out of him.’’
This looked like a very good plan on Sunday morning. The righthander had 41 relief appearances in his first two seasons, and one last week when he took a loss vs. Johns Hopkins, before making this first collegiate start vs. Old Westbury.
Marsh needed 73 pitches to get through the 7-inning shutout. He allowed two hits and one walk, facing 24 batters, three over the minimum. And the result was a 1-0 victory.
After five scoreless innings, Raabe was asked if Marsh would go seven. “Looks like it,’’ Raabe said. “He hasn’t had much stress. He has three good pitches and gets them over.’’
There were a number of ground balls and Joey Fredrickson and Marcus Krupka, the left side of the infield, made a series of excellent plays to keep the outs rolling in.
“The infield was good, but the biggest play was by Tommy [Friesen] in left field,’’ Marsh said. “That looked like a double in the sixth inning, but he cut it off near the line and kept the runner to a single. Kept the tying run out of scoring position … that was huge.’’
The 6 ½ innings were played in 1:34. Raabe gathered the troops in right field, offered brief congratulations to Marsh and his fielders, and then lit up his team for mistakes – particularly a couple of missed signs – that led to runners being lost on the bases.
“We can’t put Jake in a situation where he has to pitch a shutout to win,’’ Raabe said.
He reminded the freshmen that the .400 batting averages they posted as high school stars were meaningless; that if they weren’t’ going to play the game right, they weren’t going to play “baseball for Bethel University.’’
It was entertaining -- from a distance.
“It’s not all rainbows and balloons with Brian, is it?’’ I said to Marsh.
Jake, a junior, smiled and said: “That’s what makes it great playing for him. He knows so much about the game, and he teaches you.’’
Sometimes sternly? “Definitely,’’ Marsh said.
The end of Raabe’s speech was: “Here’s the good news. We’re going to win this second game, and then you have a day-and-a-half off to enjoy yourselves, to go to the beach.’’
Game 2 final: Bethel 13, Old Westbury 0.