For more than 50 years, Clinton “Tink” Larson coached high school and amateur baseball teams in Waseca, Minn. And when there were no games to coach, you’d find him at the historic ballpark on 7th Avenue cutting the lawn, dragging the infield or working on the pitchers mound.
Larson, who lives across the street, took care of the place as if it were his own. After all, it was his park. It even took his name.
On Wednesday night, the legendary baseball coach watched in shock as fire reduced the wooden grandstand and clubhouse to ashes in a couple hours.
“It was terrible, devastating,” Larson said Thursday. “Fifty years of my life just went up in smoke. It’s sad, it [the ballpark] was part of me.”
Larson said the charred remains are painful to look at and he didn’t sleep much Wednesday as he thought about a half century of memories and the hundreds of hours he spent at the field leading his teams and getting the field ready to play.
“There are so many memories,” he said. “A lot players have come through here … lots of big games played here.”
Larson had just arrived home Wednesday night from attending a ballgame with his grandchildren and saw the fire, which broke out shortly after 8 p.m.
Firefighters responded quickly, but were unable to save the beloved ballpark that was a landmark in the community of 9,500 residents located on Hwy. 14 between Owatonna and Mankato.
Waseca Fire Chief Gary Conrath lives a block from Tink Larson Field, but “by the time I did a U-turn and got to the fire, it doubled in size and flames were rolling outside the roof.”
Like they did when games were on, hundreds gathered to watch and film the swift-moving blaze at the ballpark, which was built in 1938 as part of a WPA project, and in 1994 was named after Larson, who is a legend in southern Minnesota, Conrath said.
“He is a pillar of the community,” Conrath said.
Baseball fans mourned on Twitter.
“Waseca’s Tink Larsen (sic) Field is a MN treasure,” Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter wrote in a tweet. “Baseball community will rally.”
For some, it was decidedly personal. “So incredibly sad about Tink Larson field,” said Jonathon Curry in a tweet. “So many great memories, including my first varsity hit, there.”
Others recounted pleasant memories at the ballpark in the center of town where games were played nearly every night during the summer and hundreds of fans watched from the stands and from pickup trucks parked along the first baseline. Five teams play there. Often players and fans would grill steaks after games at the park, which was a gathering point for so many.
Said Larson: “A lot players have come through here, … lots of big games played here.”
While no official plans have been set, the baseball community is ready to jump in and help Waseca rebuild, said Bryan Donaldson, executive director of the Minnesota Twins Community Fund.
One former player has created a GoFundMe page to help in the rebuilding of the grandstand; www.gofundme.com/tinklarsonfield has a goal of $5,000.
“Tink Larson is one of the most genuine men to have stepped foot on a baseball diamond,” said Drake Kilber, a senior at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “He has done more for the game of baseball than anyone could ever repay him for. This is a great opportunity for the community to help out own of their own.”
A number of area high school coaches also are stepping up to the plate and helping, said Jon Chappuis, head baseball coach at Medford High School.
“Knowing Tink and what that [the ballpark] meant to the Waseca community, we want to rally around him,” he said. “He is Mr. Baseball.”
Donations also are being accepted at Roundbank locations in Waseca, New Prague, Farmington and Waldorf, Minn.
During his career, Larson coached more than 4,500 games and won more than 2,500 of them while leading the high school team along with amateur teams that included American Legion, VFW and the Waseca Braves town team.
He is a two-time Minnesota High School Baseball Coach of the Year and a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and 10 other halls of fame.
He is currently a volunteer assistant coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Hundreds rallied around the beloved coach in 2006 when the Waseca school board decided not to renew his contract after 35 years as head coach. He was released after violating VFW rules by playing kids who were a few months older than the official cutoff date even though the VFW team did not fall under the auspices of the school.
The field was not damaged in Wednesday’s fire, and the high school, American Legion, VFW and town teams will play there this spring and summer, Conrath said.
“The field is in excellent shape, it’s just the grandstand that was lost,” Conrath said. “We’ll put up something temporary.”
Larson hopes a new grandstand can be built.
“It would be a travesty if it didn’t” get rebuilt, he said. “Baseball has been a part of history in this town. But nothing can ever replace this.”
Conrath said the state fire marshal will be examining the site to pinpoint the cause of the blaze.