Richard VanderLaan, baseball booster extraordinaire, believed that a lack of money should never keep a boy from taking to the diamond at Burnsville’s Alimagnet Ballpark.
His priority was to give scholarships to boys in need so they could play. If a local baseball association couldn’t cover the cost, he’d reach into his own pocket.
“Our mission is to provide a place for young men who want to play baseball,” VanderLaan said in a Star Tribune interview in 2008. “As many as want to play, can. There won’t be a young man who wants to play baseball denied because of money.”
VanderLaan, of Burnsville, died Sept. 12 at his home. He was 76.
A benefactor of amateur baseball who started American Legion baseball in the area in 1982, he later founded Baseball Association 191 — a nonprofit corporation providing athletic opportunities to youths of Burnsville, Eagan and Savage.
He also went on to start three more leagues and build one of the top baseball complexes in Minnesota by convincing the city to agree to a joint financing campaign with BA 191.
VanderLaan served in other ways, too, including on Burnsville’s Art and All That Jazz Board, the Burnsville Community Foundation and Economic Growth Commission. He won a string of local awards for contributions.
And two years ago, VanderLaan dreamed of more than 200 American flags flying from light poles in Burnsville’s Heart of the City to honor veterans and active duty military personnel.
So he led a fund drive, enlisting the support of a local Rotary Club and community foundation, said his wife, Ruthie VanderLaan.
He married her in 2001, on an Alimagnet diamond named after him. He’d warned her during the courtship that he would be at the park every day, May through August.
For many years, he passed down his love of the game to players, keeping tabs as they learned about teamwork, taking direction, executing plans.
“This is a microcosm of what life is about,” VanderLaan once said. “You hope it teaches them those lessons and helps them to begin their business and college careers.”
Each season, about 70 players ages 16 and up played on a half-dozen teams. Two full-size lighted fields at the park sport one of the few back-to-back configurations in the state.
He and other boosters had come together in the early 1990s to buy new batting cages. Then came a building for concessions and restrooms, dugouts, bleacher cushions, nine-inning scoreboards and a broadcaster’s booth.
Until a couple of years ago, VanderLaan’s voice resonated from that booth through the ballpark, like an old-time radio announcer’s.
From 1998 through 2008, the city and boosters raised nearly $1 million for more upgrades and improvements at Alimagnet, with BA 191 raising nearly half of that through pulltab sales at bars.
For 31 years, Ruthie said, Rich VanderLaan dreamed of the local Legion’s team, the Cobras making it to the American Legion World Series before he died. This year, she said, his dream finally came true.