Waseca calls itself a baseball town.
While other cities across Minnesota are known for basketball or hockey or wrestling, Waseca residents bond over peanuts and crackerjacks and 6-4-3 double plays as they watch their boys play ball in the summer sun.
“Really, the heart of the city is baseball,” said Duane Hebert, the city manager.
That’s why it was so devastating when fire destroyed the southern Minnesota town’s beloved wooden grandstand and clubhouse two years back. For a while, locals wondered if the park — Tink Larson Community Field — named in honor of the city’s 76-year-old coaching legend — would ever be rebuilt.
“For many people in town, this was kind of an icon,” said Duane Rathmann, a Waseca resident.
Now, after hundreds of donations and a $2 million restoration, the park is about ready to reopen. A ceremony to celebrate the event is scheduled for Aug. 18.
“We’re pretty excited now that we see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Clinton “Tink” Larson, who has checked the progress of the project daily from his home across the street.
Authorities said at the time of the fire that they suspected it was intentionally set. But no one knows for sure.
“All of a sudden, it was gone,” Rathmann said.
The town didn’t mourn for long. A committee, headed by Rathmann, formed within months and launched a campaign seeking funds to restore the grandstand to its former glory.
“We just didn’t want to settle for a set of aluminum bleachers and a chicken wire backstop,” he said.
Donations flowed in from across the state. The Minnesota Twins were among the first to pledge support. The team also contributed 200 seats from Target Field and the Metrodome, giving the new grandstand a big-league feel. The Minnesota Vikings and the Super Bowl Host Committee chipped in money as well.
The new grandstand will be more accessible and provide spectators with better views of the field. The restrooms, showers and concession stands also received some upgrades, but otherwise, the general layout is the same.
“And it’s cement, so hopefully it won’t burn down again,” Larson said.
In some ways, the new field will be nicer, Larson added. But he’ll miss the nostalgia of the old grandstand, a mainstay in the city of 9,500 residents since it was built in 1938, part of a WPA project commissioned by the Roosevelt administration.
The loss of the stadium probably hit Larson the hardest, Rathmann said. After all, it’s named after him.
“He made the field what it is today,” he said. “He’s kept it in immaculate condition.”
Every summer for years, Larson would head to the park almost every day. He’d mow the lawn three times a week and groom the infield after each game or practice, single-handedly making sure the diamond sparkled.
Larson moved to his current home 15 years ago in large part because he wanted to live within walking distance of the ball field.
“I could throw a baseball and hit the grandstand from where I live,” he said.
Currently, teams in five leagues use the field. On a summer Saturday, the VFW team could have a doubleheader, followed by an American Legion match, with the town’s amateur team — the Waseca Braves — topping off the day with a game under the lights.
At some point in his baseball career, Larson’s coached in all those leagues. He led the Braves and Waseca’s high school team for more than 50 years, compiling more than 2,500 victories. He still serves as a volunteer coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and helps out with the other teams in town when he has time.
Hebert said that for weeks now curious residents have walked by the stadium, which is located right in the center of town, asking excitedly: “When’s it going to be ready? When’s it going to be ready?”
Larson simply has told them “soon,” though no team will take the field until the high school team’s first ballgame next spring.
In the meantime, Larson said he will continue to maintain the field as he’s done for decades.
The park will host a youth baseball night on Aug. 13, five days before the reopening event.
When that long-awaited grand reopening day finally arrives, Larson said, he will once again walk across the street to a grandstand overlooking the grassy field so near and dear to Wasecans’ hearts — and his own.
“It will be nice,” he said, “to be back.”