The All-Star Game was back in Milwaukee on July 9, 2002. It had been played at County Stadium in 1955 and 1975 and now was being played at Miller Park for the first time.
Bud Selig had been the baseball commissioner for 10 years, and his family still owned the Brewers. The long battle for a new stadium had come to completion in April 2001, when Miller Park, with its retractable roof, opened next to where County Stadium stood since 1953. This was going to be a golden night for Selig, his family and the Brewers.
And then after 11 innings, with the game tied at 7-7, the managers – Joe Torre of the American League and Bob Brenly of the National – came to Selig sitting near the field and informed him they were out of pitchers. In truth, Torre was being kind to Brenly, since the AL did have a pitcher available for long relief, but in an anguished decision, Selig was forced to go along with the managers and declare a 7-7 tie.
The boos cascaded through Miller Park, and the embarrassment was so great for baseball that it had to come up with a plan to mollify Fox television: The All-Star Game determined home-field advantage in the World Series for the next 14 seasons.
It is truly unfortunate that Selig and all of baseball’s brain wizards that surrounded him that night did not have the creativity for a tie-breaker that was displayed this past June 22, at Fritz Field in Cologne in Carver County.
The Spring Hill Chargers from the Stearns County League and the Cologne Hollanders from the Crow River Valley League have developed an inter-league rivalry that features a mid-season game, with the winner receiving a traveling trophy: the Horseshoe.
By coincidence, 17 years after the events in Miller Park, Spring Hill and Cologne were tied 7-7, and after eight innings, the visitors from Spring Hill were out of pitching.
Being an amiable host, Cologne manager Craig Pexa agreed to halt the game, but what was to become of the Horseshoe until the teams would meet again in 2020?
Pexa and Spring Hill coach Gorden Barten, with the encouragement of their players, agreed to this tie-breaker: They would stand across from one another at home plate and shot gun a beer, a can of Coors Light, and the fastest gulper of this mild beer would claim for his team the Horseshoe.
Pexa won in a breeze.
“By 10 seconds,’’ said his catcher, Tim Swanson. “It wasn’t even close. Craig did us proud.’’
Except, Barten claimed that not all of the beer had made it down Pexa’s gullet, as evidence by the minor spillage to be seen on the front of Craig’s jersey. “The Chargers declared it a no-contest, so we flipped a coin for the trophy, and we won that, too,’’ Pexa said. “Justice was served. We have the Horseshoe.’’
The scene was covered thoroughly by Eric Kraushar of the Chaska Herald (outstanding townball chronicles can be found by him), and I’ve been stuck with this image since first reading about it: Torre and Brenly, standing across from one another at home plate in Miller Park, shot gunning cans of Miller, in Milwaukee, America’s beertown, as the tie-breaker for the 2002 All-Star Game.
First, my bet would have been on Torre, and second, the 2002 tie would have went from the most-embarrassing moment in All-Star Game history to the greatest moment in All-Star Game history.
My interest in the Cologne Hollanders was piqued when Judd Zulgad, a reformed sports writer now working radio, and I went to Delano last Saturday afternoon. It was the first weekend of the state Class C tournament, the weather was glorious, and the ballpark in Delano is among the state’s top 5.
The Hollanders and the Hadley Buttermakers then rewarded us with a hellacious ballgame in this single-elimination tournament.
The state baseball tournament dates to 1924 and Cologne had made one previous appearance – in 1972. They did not win a game that year. So, what Zulgad and I wound up watching was the Hollanders’ first-ever tourney win: 5-2 over a Hadley team with a very dangerous lineup.
Cologne kept the Hadley attack under control with excellent pitching from Christian Johnson and reliever Zach Iten (a draftee from Watertown), and also with a half-dozen outstanding play in the field.
After weeks of watching the Twins hack it around in the field, Zulgad was led to say: “This is the best baseball game I’ve seen all summer. They are making plays.’’
And I don’t think it was the four Coors Lights talking (Judd had a designated driver – me, sober since 4-27-81). The infield play of Cole Pengilly and the Clemensen brothers, Carter and Casey, and oldtimer Anthony Brenner, a smooth lefty at first base, as well as Tanner Luebke ranging in center field … it was phenomenal.
As for those Coors Lights, those cost a total of $12, or a dollar less than some beers at Target Field and Allianz Field, so who could blame Judd for taking advantage of the bargain?
Sunday evening, I drove to Cologne to see the ballpark, Fritz Field, another Minnesota gem, and to hear some Hollanders’ stories from Pexa, and Tim Swanson, the catcher, and Tim’s father Mick, another Cologne baseball booster.
On the day that Pexa out-chugged Barten (forget the spillage; it’s was a beer blowout), there was another moment for the long-time coach, promoter, advocate, cook and maintenance man for Cologne baseball.
The PA announcer asked for the attention of the crowd of a few hundred and then surprised Pexa with this announcement: He had been voted in the Minnesota Baseball Hall of Fame, and would be among the five inductees for 2019.
“I didn’t know I had been nominated,’’ Pexa said. “I didn’t think it was something that was owed to me. I’m just been involved because I love baseball.’’
Craig Pexa is very humble about his contributions to Cologne baseball, including the rebuilding that so many aided to after a tornado struck Cologne and heavily damaged the ballpark two decades ago. There’s now a concessions building and a spectator deck on the notorious hill along the third-base line, and the lights came to Fritz Field in 2014.
Since then, the Cologne ballpark has been a popular place for youth tournaments and Legion games and townball tournaments.
For a while, Pexa coached both the Hollanders and the Legion team in Norwood that represents the area. He’s humble about all these things – about everything, it seems, but his cheese curds. Craig and his wife Kristi have been the main operators of the concession stand. Outstanding cheeseburgers, I was told, but Craig’s cheese curds, those are the ticket.
“I took me two years to get the recipe for the batter just right,’’ Pexa said. “People from other towns, they are hosting tournaments or something, and they ask for the recipe. “I say, ‘I can’t do that. Our crowds are better because people want to get an order of my cheese curds.’ ‘’
There is an abandoned bar in town that still carries the sign: Shep’s. The bar was opened by Ed Scheper in 1950, and his daughter, Phyllis Vos, ran it for many years.
“The story is that the trophy from the Hollanders winning the region in 1972 is still on a shelf in Shep’s,’’ Mick Swanson said. “I know that some people got in there a few years after it was closed, and the bottles of liquor were still behind the bar, just like the day they put the key in the door."
Shep’s closed in 2007. Phyllis was a legend and such a strong baseball supporter that this was a rule of the house: “If you came in Shep’s wearing a Hollanders’ uniform, you were served, no questions asked,’’ Pexa said. “If you came in the next day and not in uniform, and underage, you didn’t get served.’’
Phyllis died at her home in Cologne on July 22. Thirteen days later, on Aug. 4, Cologne won its second game in the region tournament over Carver and clinched trip to the state tourney for the first time in 47 years.
And 13 days after that, on Aug. 17, the Hollanders won their first-ever game in the state tournament in Delano.
“Phyllis missed the long-awaited Hollanders’ glory,’’ I said to Pexa.
Craig said: “She would have loved it. Most of us who have been in town for a few decades were served our first beer by Phyllis, and maybe a couple years short of 21.’’
Hey, you have to start practicing early, if you’re going to blow away a guy from Stearns County in a beer shot-gunning contest.
NOTE: The Hollanders play Nisswa in a second-round game at 11 a.m. Saturday in Maple Lake.