DUNDAS, MINN. – I have repeated this story often in the sincere hope that it’s true:
The Dundas Dukes of the 1980s were a collection of sluggers with several of the XXXL variety. They would climb into their orange double-knits and stretch the material to its max, and then jog around the bases as their home runs sailed toward the Cannon River, as it meandered behind the outfield fence of Memorial Field.
If the right guys were on base, the Dukes looked as if they were a squad of mutant Cheetos.
At one point, the bleachers that sat in the small grandstand were being replaced. The boards were sitting in a pile, as a rival from the Cannon Valley League (now the Classic Cannon Valley) arrived for a Sunday afternoon game.
One of the opponents glanced at the pile of wood behind the home-plate screen, then looked toward the Dukes and said:
“What happened, boys? Did you try to take a team picture?’’
That’s the Dukes’ tale I hope is true.
Dundas had competitive teams in the Cannon Valley after World War II. The team was called the Cardinals for a few years, until league rival Hampton came up with a fancy logo for its Cardinals’ nickname.
Dundas decided it needed a new nickname with its own logo, and went with the Dukes. Dundas became a potent team in the mid-’70s, and it won the first of five state titles in 1982. They won again in 1988, back-to-back in 1998 and 1999, and then had to wait 16 years for another Class B title last September.
There were many near-misses before that. In its history, Dundas has had a total of seven second-place finishes in the state tournament.
The devotion to the Dukes was such that when third baseman Aaron Erickson received a job transfer to California, he would work long days Monday through Thursday during baseball season. Then, he would take a redeye back to the Twin Cities on Thursday night, play whatever games that were possible on the weekend, and take the last Sunday flight back to California.
Erickson was the MVP of the 1998 Class B state tournament. The Dukes couldn’t cover the cost of Erickson’s transportation, but they could buy him a couple of cold ones after a ballgame, presumably.
Bill Nelson was a standout pitcher, manager and finder of players for the Dukes for many years. He stepped away as manager for a time, then came back again in the late 2000s.
“Quite a few of these players were young guys on the last team I managed in 2009,’’ Nelson said Monday. “Most of them are 25 to 30 now, right in their prime for amateur baseball. That makes it quite a ball club.’’
A younger generation took over managing and putting together the roster for the Dukes in this decade. Mike Ludwig, in his 12th season with the Dukes, and Charlie Ruud, in his seventh, are labeled as the “co-managers.’’
It’s an interesting combination. Ludwig is the sports information director and assistant athletic director at St. Olaf. Ruud is the pastor at Normandale Lutheran Church in Edina.
Ruud also pitched four seasons for the St. Paul Saints and won 40 games before hooking up with the Dukes in 2010. He was on the mound Monday as the Dukes had their annual Memorial Day game against the Northfield Knights.
The borders of two cities meet – the two-college town of Northfield and the two-bar town of Dundas. For years, Dundas had a population of 250. Now, there’s been home construction that has pushed the Dundas population to over 1,400.
There are five Class B teams (and four Class C) in the Classic Cannon Valley. Northfield hasn’t had much success against B competition come playoff time. The Knights have been more aggressive recently in competing for the local college players, and could be on the rise.
Northfield held a brief 1-0 lead, and hung tough before losing to 2-1 to the defending state champs.
The Knights did pull off a play that I never thought would be seen against the Dukes. A Dundas base runner tried to go from first to third on a single to right and was gunned down on a strong throw.
“The old Dukes never would’ve been thrown out going to first to third, Bill,’’ I said to Nelson. “The runner would’ve stopped at second and waited for Lew Olson to hit one in the river for three runs.’’
Nelson smiled and said: “It’s a different kind of baseball, but effective.’’
This game was a special occasion for Dundas, since it was able to unveil the first results of a fund drive for $1 million in Memorial Field improvements. The seating in the grandstand has gone from bleachers to several rows of individual seats..
There’s also new concrete and protective fencing. So far, $860,000 of the money has been raised.
Ludwig has led the fund-raising campaign. When it’s completed, there will be some drink rails (what’s a ballpark without those in 2016?) and a shed for equipment.
Most importantly, no wise guy will ever again be able to make a joke about the Dukes and their grandstand bleachers, for two reasons: A) The modern Dukes are mostly slim; and B) they have flashy orange seats now, not rows of planks.