WASECA, MINN. – A steady flow of customers at Pheasant Cafe approach Clinton Larson’s booth to offer condolences or a word of encouragement.
Young and old, men and women, they all have some tie to the man known simply as “Tink.” Everyone in this town of 9,500 residents, it seems, knows Tink.
And right now the Hall of Fame baseball coach and a baseball park bearing his name are on the minds and hearts of Waseca, and beyond.
“Sorry about your loss,” a man says.
“I’m going to miss the old place,” another man says.
A woman approaches, puts her arm around Larson and says: “You getting along OK? I know it’s tough. A lot of boys played on that field.”
Tink Larson Field, a beloved landmark in the heart of town, was destroyed by fire last week. The wooden grandstand built in 1938 as part of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration was ruined, taking with it 50 years of meticulous care by Larson and a lifetime of memories for generations of Waseca residents.
Larson, 74, dedicated his life to that ballpark and to coaching boys at all levels of baseball. He won a state championship as Waseca’s varsity coach in 1990. He also coached VFW, American Legion and town ball teams simultaneously.
In all, Larson estimates he has coached close to 5,000 games in that ballpark, which was renamed in his honor in 1994. The fire has devastated him — the second-worst day of his life, he says.
The worst came Jan. 24, 2014, when his wife of 50 years, Sharon, died unexpectedly five minutes after calling her husband to say she was having breathing problems.
“The last couple of years haven’t been too good,” Larson says over breakfast. “But the world doesn’t stop and wait for you. You don’t want to burden other people with your problems.”
Tink’s sadness is evident in his eyes, and his words, but he refuses to complain. He often recites a phrase that he borrowed from Twins manager Paul Molitor.
“Complaining is like vomiting,” he says. “It might make you feel better, but it makes everyone around you sick.”
Everyone in town is sick about the loss of one of Waseca’s most popular hangouts. Tink Larson Field serves as a gathering place from spring to fall for people to watch amateur baseball and enjoy company of neighbors.
Baseball parks in small towns often carry sentimental value as a communal hub that stretches across generations. Tink Field had that magnet effect in Waseca.
“It reminded me of a Hallmark card,” said Twins third base coach Gene Glynn, a Waseca native who keeps a home in town. “When I go back, I’m always going to see somebody I know. I’m sure many people’s first dates were there.”
For nearly five decades, Larson refused to let anyone else handle the field’s grooming. He mowed the grass three times a week and dragged the field after every game and practice.
He estimates he spent 15 hours a week caring for the field. He also coached as many as 10 games a week between the four teams.
He bought a house across the street from the ballpark, down the third base line. He buried a family dog between home plate and the grandstand. Sharon ran the concession stand every game for 44 years, standing long hours on the concrete floor.
“People would say, ‘I don’t know why she does all that for you,’ ” Larson says.
They were a team. Sharon ran a daycare in their home for 35 years. She took care of the town’s boys when they were babies. And then Tink taught them how to play baseball as they grew into young men.
He became a Hall of Fame coach with more than 2,500 victories. All 10 starters (including designated hitter) on his 1987 varsity team played college baseball. His program produced eight professional players. He still serves as a volunteer assistant coach at Minnesota State Mankato.
Tink’s tentacles reach far and wide. He received more than 1,000 text messages and e-mails in the first 24 hours after the fire. Twins General Manager Terry Ryan and other team officials called to check on him.
“It’s unbelievable how many people have called,” he says.
City officials are working to determine a cause of the fire. Everyone seems resolute that the grandstand will be rebuilt, though it would be expensive to replicate a wooden structure that included two clubhouses, two bathrooms, two storage rooms, a concession stand and all of Tink’s equipment.
Each clubhouse was carpeted and included flat-screen TVs and air conditioning units. They grilled steaks on the gas grill after games. Tink says he’ll miss socializing in the clubhouses as much as anything.
“I hope by next year at this time, it’s, ‘Hey, you’ve got a nice grandstand there,’ ” he says. “That would be nice. But it will never be the same.”
There is one silver lining. A firefighter managed to save a picture of Sharon that hung in the concession stand. Her picture wasn’t damaged.
“Everyone was saying that it must have been Sharon watching over her concession stand,” Tink says with a smile.