WATKINS, MINN. -- The Green Isle Irish were in the same situation on the first Sunday of September a year ago: Playing in the quarterfinals of the Class C state amateur baseball tournament.
The Irish held an 8-0 lead over Faribault, before an improbable rally gave the Lakers a 9-8 victory.
“We got revenge for that last weekend against Faribault,’’ Green Isle manager Joe Kreger said. “We swung the bats like wild men. We had 13 hits against Matt Lane.’’
Lane has been one of the better Class C pitchers in the state. He’s also a Lutheran minister in Faribault.
Green Isle had a third-round victory over Pelican Rapids on Saturday and that put the Irish in the quarterfinals on Sunday afternoon against Hampton.
There was no swinging the bats like wild men, no big leads to vanish. Hampton had two big chances, bases loaded and one out, failed in those, and Green Isle advanced with a 2-0 victory.
It was one of those tense elimination games when every strike call could have an impact. The gentleman behind the plate handled those duties confidently and with few overwrought complaints from the hitters.
He was a tall, black man – not a common sight in umpiring of town-team baseball in Minnesota– and after watching his good work for a couple of innings, a reporter asked someone in the know:
“Who is the plate umpire?’’
The answer was a surprise: “He’s Tony Oliva’s nephew. He’s been working games for a few years.’’
Rogelio Piloto-Oliva has been in the Northwest Umpires Association since 2009. He worked two games in the quarterfinals on Sunday and will have the Class C championship game on Labor Day.
Rogelio’s mother Irene was a younger sister to Tony. She died in Cuba in 2009, four years after her son had come to the United States.
“I went to Venezuela first, and then came to the United States,’’ Piloto-Oliva said. “I got here the same way the ballplayers have gotten here.’’
He defected and gained permission to be in the country in December 2005. He was taken into the wide arms of Tony, his wife Gordette and the Oliva family members who have come previously to Minnesota.
Piloto-Oliva’s field of study in Cuba was physical education. That gave him the background to be a volleyball referee as well as a baseball umpire.
“I played some over-28 senior baseball for a few years when I came here,’’ Piloto-Oliva said. “That was enjoyable, but I’m busy now with work and with umpiring … college and these games.’’
Rogelio first started working as an umpire in Cuba in 2000. He worked four games one year and eight games in another in the Cuban National League, the country’s major league.
Then, he made a trip to Venezuela and didn’t return. The new travel freedom that is taking place between the countries has allowed his father, Rogelio Piloto Sr., to be here. He was watching Sunday’s game.
Tight finances lead to most of the town-team leagues in Minnesota dictating one umpire for regular-season games. Working the plate while also calling the bases … that ranks among the more thankless jobs in sports.
You get a partner at tournament time. Zar Kovalov was working the bases for Green Isle-Hampton. He is also a black gentleman.
We get Tony Oliva’s nephew and a black guy named Kovalov working a ballgame in Watkins, a town of 950 on the Minnesota prairie, and you don’t think our state amateur baseball tournament is a great, annual slice of Americana in the late summer?
The folks of Watkins sure think so. Through pulltabs and fund-raising and a few bucks from the city budget, $300,000 was spent to remodel the Watkins ballpark into a great small-town ballpark, complete with a new electronic scoreboard.
The promise of that expenditure was what allowed Watkins to become a co-host for the Class B and C state tournaments with Cold Spring. That ballpark already was legendary as a Minnesota gem, but Cold Spring also pumped a lot of dollars into its ballyard. Among the donations was a substantial one from the New York Jets’ Eric Decker, a former Cold Spring town-baller.
Green Isle made it to the semifinals on Ben Alexander’s home run over the batter’s eye in center field, and with clutch pitching from starter Luke Herd (seven innings) and Alex Twenge (the last two).
As it turned out, this was almost a historic visit to the state tournament. I was there for nine sweltering innings between Green Isle and Hampton, had several excellent conversations, and did not get one complaint about the Star Tribune failing to give proper coverage to this event and amateur baseball in general.
I make a visit most every year and it would have been a first not to get at least one complaint. Luckily, a fellow about my age veered over as I was leaving, extended his hand in what seemed a cordial gesture and then started lamenting the lack of attention paid to the tournament “in the newspaper.’’
The streak remains intact.
UPDATE: Rain played havoc with schedule later Sunday. Plato and Nisswa were suspended in the fourth inning of the first Class C semifinal. They will resume at 11 a.m. Monday in Watkins, followed by Green Isle and Howard Lake, and then the championship game.
In Class B, Cold Spring knocked out Chaska in an elimination game delayed by rain. Cold Spring and Moorhead then started another elimination game at 10:45 p.m. The winner will play unbeaten Dundas and would have to beat the Dukes twice on Monday to win the title. The Class B finals will be played in Cold Spring. The first game (and perhaps decisive) was originally scheduled to start at noon.