Reusse: Former Gophers tip hat to Siebert Field

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 2, 2012 - 12:01 AM

A respectful crowd came out Tuesday night for the last game at the old ballpark before work on the new one begins.

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The wind was blowing hard from left field late Tuesday afternoon, as four score of former Gophers and family members chatted and took photos at Siebert Field. This would be the only game of this spring and last ever at the ball yard that first served as the Gophers' baseball home in 1971.

"It's not going to be easy to get a ball out of here that way tonight,'' said George Thomas, pointing toward the bubble that sits behind left field.

The bubble for recreation sports sits exactly where the previous baseball facility -- Delta Field -- was located. The move to Siebert Field (originally Bierman) was looked at as quite an upgrade.

"It's hard to believe the university let this place crumble,'' Thomas said. "It's still a gorgeous playing field.''

Thomas' brother Jerry was the pitching star and the MVP of the College World Series when the Gophers won it for the first time in 1956. George followed him to Minnesota in the fall of 1956, but could only play freshman ball in 1957 because of NCAA rules.

George was an outstanding hitter and could play in the infield or outfield. The Detroit Tigers wanted to sign him that summer, but baseball's bonus baby rules (a player receiving too much to sign had to spend two full years in the majors) were still in effect.

"The Tigers kept messing around all summer, trying to decide whether to sign me, and then the bonus baby rule was changed,'' Thomas said. "So, I signed in September, and never played a varsity game for the Gophers.''

Thomas played a decade in the big leagues. His last team was the Twins for a brief time in 1971.

Dick Siebert was the coach with big expectations for the younger Thomas in the late '50s. There was no bitterness from Siebert years later, when George's big-league career was over. Jerry Kindall left to coach Arizona after the 1972 season and Thomas replaced him as Siebert's assistant.

Siebert still held the job in December of 1978 when he died at age 66. Thomas became the head coach and named John Anderson, then a grad assistant, as his assistant.

"The university threw around dollars like they were gold pieces,'' Thomas said. "I told [athletic director] Paul Giel that I needed more money and he said he couldn't do it.''

Thomas resigned after the 1981 season to go into business.

"Giel wanted to hire someone with more of a name,'' Thomas said. "I said, 'Give the kid a chance. If it doesn't work out, you can hire someone else.'''

The kid was Anderson. It worked out. He is in his 31st season as the Gophers' head coach.

The athletic department didn't invest in Siebert Field as it fell into disrepair. Anderson, involved alums and friends of baseball have huffed and puffed to raise the $7.5 million minimum to replace the Big Ten's most dilapidated ballpark.

It's rather humorous to look behind the backstop in center field and see the lights towering over the softball field, and realize the plan for now is to open the new Siebert without lights.

"We had choices to make because of the limited budget and decided to spend money on the development of the players in our program,'' Anderson said. "To start, we're going to have a batting practice area rather than lights.''

The hope would be that another donor will come along with the $450,000 needed for lights early in the ballpark's existence.

For now, Tuesday's 9-2 victory over Division III powerhouse St. Thomas will be the last night game played on this site for the foreseeable future.

There were 1,421 fans at this going-away party, larger than any crowd the Gophers have seen in their 2012 home stadium, the Metrodome.

"In 1977, we had the NCAA regional here, and there were fans standing in foul territory and behind a rope in the outfield,'' Anderson said. "There were 3,000 people here, and they were going nuts.''

That was Minnesota's last trip to the College World Series. It will be tough for a northern-tier program with a bare-bones stadium to change that, but the Gophers should be able to get some students interested again to enliven a Big Ten weekend. And to start, that would be good enough.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. preusse@startribune.com

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