The games played from May through Labor Day in well over 200 outposts across Minnesota provide our Norman Rockwell version of amateur baseball. You can describe it as “town team” or “town ball,” and the romance found in these country ballparks has drawn a documentary series from Eric Gislason and weekly visits from Channel 9 over the past couple of years.
I’ve gone to this Rockwellian well with some frequency, including at least one stop annually at the Class B and C tournaments that run for three weekends and wind up on Labor Day.
On a Tuesday night in August 2017, it occurred that I had not attended a Class A game — the 30-plus teams inside the 494/694 corridor of the Twin Cities — since Mike Marshall was pitching (and pontificating) one summer for the East Side Merchants in St. Paul.
The Minnetonka Millers, the titans of Class A, were playing upstart St. Louis Park on that Tuesday at Red Haddox Field in Bloomington to decide the title.
Shockingly, it was 8-0 for St. Louis Park before the Millers were able to get an out in the top of the first. Plus, shortstop Joe Shallenberger, Minnetonka’s four-time MVP of the Class A tourney, was barely moving because of the flare-up of a back issue.
Yet, the Millers came crawling back and were down 9-7 with the bases loaded and no outs in eighth, and here came Shallenberger.
Kirk Gibson time?
“I struck out,’’ Shallenberger said. “I left it up to the next guy. Nobody I’d rather have as the next guy than Puck.’ ”
To all associated with the Millers, Mike Davis has been “Puck” almost from the first time he took batting practice with them in 2012.
“Obvious reasons,’’ Millers manager Kevin Hoy said. “He’s African American, he’s thick and swings like he means it. Best of all, he has Puck’s love for baseball — every game, every at-bat.”
On this championship night in Bloomington, Davis did with a hanging breaking ball what Kirby Puckett did with so many on his way to Cooperstown:
“Ripped it into the left-field corner … bases-clearing double,” Shallenberger said. “And that won us a third straight title.’’
Shallenberger is 40 and first played with the Millers while with Concordia University in 2000. “I called up Lunch and said, ‘I need a shortstop,’ ” Hoy said. “He said, ‘I have Cal Ripken. Is that good enough?’ ”
“Lunch” would be Mark McKenzie, the Concordia coach in St. Paul for two decades before stepping aside to be an assistant. And the Ripken comparison was Shallenberger’s height, 6 feet 5, and also the might in his bat at the Division II level of baseball.
Shallenberger played two seasons with the St. Paul Saints after Concordia in 2002 and then 22 games for Kalamazoo in the Frontier League in 2004. He returned to the Millers, regained his amateur status and won the first of his four Class A MVPs that August.
The Millers have 14 state titles since 1997. Shallenberger has helped win 10 of those, and the last four have come with Davis hitting with him in the middle of the lineup.
Shallenberger graduated from Minneapolis Henry in 1998; the star player with a competitive baseball program, and a starter on a state runner-up basketball team as a senior.
“My dad [Joe Sr.] was a baseball coach — still is, in fact — and I’ve been an addict for the game since I was 5 or 6,’’ he said. “And, lucky for me, I have a great wife who tells me to keep playing.”
Katie Shallenberger has an excellent job with Target Corp. There are three kids at home. She started working at home in March because of the pandemic.
“I’m now a house husband,’’ Joe said. “And an assistant baseball coach at Macalester, when colleges start playing again.”
Davis graduated from Hopkins High in 2005. He played football for the Royals, and dallied in basketball, but he was hooked on baseball from the first time he launched a home run.
“I taught myself how to hit and found out this: The harder you swing, the farther the ball will go,” Davis said. “I was a linebacker and never scored a touchdown. I never was able to dunk a basketball. But I was able to hit a home run, and there’s no better feeling in sports.”
The best feeling of all: Davis once hit a cycle of home runs — grand slam, three-run, two-run and solo — for Hopkins in an American Legion playoff game.
Davis, 33 come August, played college baseball at Lambuth University, a now-closed NAIA school near Memphis. He also played amateur ball for the Hopkins Berries and Minneapolis Cobras before landing with the Millers in 2012.
“It’s the greatest; a true family atmosphere, a lot of fun with a serious desire to win,” he said.
The family of bashers was reunited for the Millers once this season resumed:
Joe Abellera, 35, a one-year teammate with Davis at Hopkins, a standout following Shallenberger at Concordia, has returned after a three-year absence.
Abellera was a Twins draftee in the 21st round in 2004. After two years of pro baseball, he was able to regain college eligibility — a Division II rule — and played a season at Concordia.
He also rode the “Lunch wagon’’ to the Millers and was the co-MVP of a title team in 2007. He stepped away before the 2017 season.
“My wife, Kelsey, was expecting a baby, and we already had two young ones,” Abellera said. “I wanted to be there with her and the kids.”
He didn’t go to a Millers game for 2½ years, to fight the baseball urge. “Joe finally came to a game last summer, was in the dugout with us, and by the third inning he was yelling at one of our younger players about not running hard enough on a ground ball,” Hoy said.
Abellera is back hitting second, in front of Shallenberger and Davis, and the Millers are 11-1 entering the weekend after scoring eight runs in the ninth to beat the Bloomington Bandits 8-4 on Thursday night.
Certainly, that was a reminder to Hoy’s Millers that they have been stalled at 14 state titles since way back in 2017, when Davis turned that hanger into a three-run double, Puck-style.
Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing email@example.com and including his name in the subject line.