Bob Karn posed an important question to his surgeon as he lay on an operating table preparing to have a stent inserted into his right artery after suffering a heart attack three weeks ago.
The St. Cloud Cathedral baseball team had its first playoff game four days later and Karn, the 72-year-old coach, wondered if he’d be able to attend. His doctor gave him clearance as long as he coached from the bench the first week of the postseason as a precaution.
“He said your heart should be fine,” Karn said.
Karn probably gave his medical team a scare Monday as he paced the dugout at Target Field, trying to calm his nerves. Trailing all game, Cathedral had scored four runs with two outs in its final at-bat to pull ahead of Fairmont 5-4 in the Class 2A state championship.
Fairmont advanced runners to third and second in the bottom of the seventh inning. Karn paced some more, until a ground ball for the final out completed Cathedral’s improbable comeback, giving Karn his eighth state championship and his repaired heart quite a workout.
“It felt good,” he said of his ticker.
This would be a storybook finish to a record-setting career, except Karn has no plans to walk away just yet. He is having too much fun, joking that Monday’s wild rally made him feel like he’s 7 years old, not 72.
Karn completed his 44th season at his alma mater and has won more high school baseball games than any coach in state history (711 and counting). He’s claimed state titles in four different decades, winning championships in 1977 and 2014 as bookends.
“That’s pretty cool,” he said.
His players still think he’s cool, which has allowed him to relate to high school kids as he’s aged and become a grandfather. Karn’s longevity reflects his ability to adapt to changing times while continuing to win. Unsuccessful coaches don’t last 44 years at one place.
Coaching high school sports presents different challenges and pressures today than, say, 30 years ago, but Karn sees a common thread woven into the sport he loves.
“Baseball fortunately crosses generations,” he said. “The nature of the game has a rhythm that allows people as they get older to stay connected.”
Karn’s players say he has mellowed over the years, but he remains a stickler on fundamentals and uses baseball to apply his love of reading. He still teaches three high school literature classes and requires his players to read at least one book of his choice during the season. He picked a novel about a World War II hero this season.
“That’s the English teacher in him,” said his wife, Karen.
Karn quotes George Carlin and used to teach tai chi, a form of exercise that involves stretching movements and deep breathing.
“It’s to create balance emotionally and physically,” he explained.
He’s always kept his players on their toes with impromptu quizzes on baseball history.
“If you didn’t know who Cool Papa Bell was, you better make sure you come to practice the next day with a paragraph written and ready to explain to the team who he is,” said Brace Hemmelgarn, who scored the winning run in the ’07 championship game.
Karn has coached Cathedral baseball for so long and influenced so many young men from different generations — athletic director Emmett Keenan estimates around 350 players in all — that his recent heart trouble triggered a flood of get-well calls and letters.
Apparently, no one actually thought a heart attack would cause Karn to miss a game, though.
“No doubt in my mind,” said Dan Hagen, a member of the ’77 state champion. “He’s got it in his blood. He’s not going to give it up.”
“He’s a fighter. We knew he’d be back,” said senior pitcher Jeff Fasching, who started Monday’s title game.
Karn looked strong and stoic throughout the championship game, even as his team approached its last at-bat trailing by three runs. He admitted that doubt began to creep into his mind, but as he gathered his players on the field, he told them that they would score enough runs to win.
“He said, ‘I can feel it,’ ” Fasching said.
Karn hugged his assistants, players and family members after championship No. 8 came to fruition. He said he plans to coach again next season. He still loves what he does.
I’m as happy as I can possibly be,” he said.