Monday, June 30, 2008

Evansville steps into the spotlight

“I’m a promoter,” said Jon Frey during the annual Evansville Home Talent League bowling fundraiser back in February. “I have this mindset of promotion and marketing and sales.”

Plans were in place, even back then, to have the Evansville Jays take on the Lake Mills Grays at Warner Park following a Madison Mallards game. The time had finally come on Sunday when those plans came to fruition. The Jays beat the Grays 9-0 on one of the nicest ball fields in southern Wisconsin this side of Miller Park.

According to Frey, the game had been a year and a half in the works. He had wanted his team to play there last year, but things just didn’t work out. This year, he was prepared to put that P.T. Barnum-esque brain of his to work.

“I want to first promote my community, Evansville” said Frey back in February. “And then I want to promote the Evansville community festival, the Fourth of July. And then I want to promote my team, and then I want promote my league because all these people in Madison are going to be exposed to an amateur league at this game.”

His team needs no self-promotion. They’ve let their actions on the field do the talking this season. As the team’s general manager/center fielder, Frey deserves a lot of credit after building this team from scratch.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Frey received a job offer to work in Beloit. With his wife working in Madison, they bought a house about halfway in between, settling in Evansville.

Frey commuted all the way to his hometown, Marshall, to play baseball for several years before attempting to build a franchise in Evansville in 2005. He did all the dirty work including player recruitment, fundraising, and a myriad of other duties it takes to get a team off the ground.
In their first year, the Jays won all of three games. In 2006 and 2007, they improved to win four, but still lost three quarters of their Sunday League schedule.

Finally in 2008, the hard work has started to pay off. The Jays are now in sole possession of first place in the Western division of the Southeastern section of the Home Talent League with a six and one record.

“It’s a lot more fun to go out and expect to win instead of, ‘How we going to win this one? How are we going to go out and play this one?’” said right fielder Jeremy Rasmussen. “The last couple of years we've gone out, we didn't know which was going to come out. Were we going to make 10 errors or are we going to have 10 hits?”

Surprisingly, it’s a lot of the same players on the team back from that inaugural 2005 season when they barely won. Back then, players maybe hadn’t played in a long time. With a couple years of practice and seasoning, they’re playing some of the best baseball of their careers.

“I think people weren't used to hitting,” said shortstop Nick Manion, “so you can tell we're more relaxed hitting. That's what hitting is about, being relaxed. You can tell that people are relaxed and people are throwing strikes. That's a huge thing. Our pitchers are throwing strikes.”

With Frey at the helm, the Jays are winning baseball games, and amateur baseball is being promoted to a larger audience. In fact, in just a few weeks, the Home Talent League All-Stars will be playing the U.S. Military All-Stars in the All-American Challenge at Warner Park on Sunday July 13.

The game is part of the Northwoods League All-Star game festivities being hosted by the Mallards. Rasmussen will be Evansville’s representative, and he’s just glad he’s been given that chance thanks to guys like Jon Frey.

“I thank him every day, having the opportunity to come out and keep playing,” said Rasmussen. “Otherwise I'd be playing co-ed softball.”

Next weekend’s Home Talent League road trip: Marshall at Waterloo on Friday for the annual Waterloo Fourth of July Festival.

Photo: The Evansville Jays take on the Lake Mills Grays at Warner Park

Photo credit: Brian Carriveau

Home Talent photo blogging

Evansville watches the Madison Mallards take on the Green Bay Bullfrogs at Warner Park from the vantage of the adjacent practice field bleachers as they wait for the game to end, and they can take the field.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Home Talent photo blogging

Make sure to come and watch Jeremy Rasmussen and the rest of the Evansville Jays take on Lake Mills on this upcoming Sunday June 29th at Warner Park in Madison following the Mallards game. The Mallards play at 3:05 p.m. with Home Talent League action immediately afterwards.

Home Talent photo blogging

Lucas Beese and Middleton roughed up on Evansville in a Night League makeup game on Tuesday night. Middleton won 12-7.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Mazo belle ringing "The Mazo Bell"

MAZOMANIE – Lois O’Connell was in the bleachers in Mazomanie on Saturday watching her Mustangs take on the Pine Bluff Bluffers in a Home Talent League match up.

There were few things better to do that day for O’Connell. After all, what better way was there to spend the day than take in a baseball game on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year?

She was in attendance to support her son and his team. Her son, Dan O’Connell, was manager of Mazomanie ball club. And support she would, by ringing a bell, a gilded little treasure, with every good play made by the Mustangs.

Sometimes a double would elicit the sound of her bell. At other times, a nicely turned double play by the “Mazo” infielders would too. But not very often. It was certain plays that made her give the bell a vociferous shake.

“Especially when we score,” explained Lois. “Otherwise it’s clap, clap.”

Lois has been at it, cheering on the Mazomanie squad for some time now. As long as her son has been either playing or managing.

“How long has she been doing this?” Dan asked himself.

“For many, many years,” he said in reply. “I started in 1974, I guess. I was at Black Earth, Wisconsin from ’74 to ’93, and I came over to Mazo and started a team over here. And I enjoyed every minute of it. And she’s been ringing the bell down here when we score runs.”

Lois and the bell got a workout this particular Saturday. Mazomanie would end up winning the game in a high scoring 21 to 9 affair. Unfortunately for Pine Bluff, they still might hear the ringing in their ears.

In the bottom of the seventh with two runners on base, up by a score of 18-9, Mazomanie’s Mark Nelson stepped up to the plate with a chance to end the game.

“A single would have ended the game,” said Mark referencing the 10 run rule in the Home Talent League that ends play anytime after the seventh inning. “So I was just trying to put bat on ball and hit it hard somewhere. Sometimes that way you don’t overswing, and good things happen.”

Good things did, indeed, happen. A powerful drive over the right field fence resulted in a walk off homerun for Nelson and the Mustangs. An animated shake of “The Mazo Bell” by Lois signaled the end of the game.

“The offense was just on fire today, and I guess the credit goes to everybody,” said Dan O’Connell. “I don’t really think there’s any particular hero today. I guess everybody did their chores, and got the job done for us.”

If everybody did their chores, it was Nelson, at least, who used a little elbow grease and helped cap off the win.

Lois, meanwhile, wouldn’t end up putting her bell away for long.

Mazomanie would travel to Cazenovia the very next day, and Lois would trek along to one of the furthest outposts in the league. It was a double-up weekend for the Northern section where most teams had to play games two days in a row.

It would be a hike, but that didn’t matter.

“It’s such a pretty drive,” said Lois.

Considering it was the solstice, there was plenty of daylight to take in another ballgame and ring that bell.

Next weekend’s Home Talent League road trip: Lake Mills takes on Evansville at Warner Park in Madison on Sunday June 29 at the conclusion of the Mallards game.

Brian Carriveau is writing a book about the Home Talent League this summer. He can be contacted at

Home Talent photo blogging

Marshall plays a game of "base-olf" in the time leading up to the rivalry game with Waterloo during the Marshall Firemen's Festival.

Home Talent photo blogging

Plain travels to Cross Plains to take on the Businessmen.

Home Talent Photo Blogging

Mazomanie is home of the Mustangs.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Festival still holds aura of Clarence Buss

COTTAGE GROVE – The Buss family gathered this past weekend for a family get-together just like they do every year for the annual Cottage Grove Firemen’s Festival now in its 77th year.

Even Dennis Buss who makes his year-round home in Anchorage, Alaska nowadays, made his yearly pilgrimage to be here just like he has been here every year since he was a child. It makes for the perfect weekend for a family reunion. The midway pulls into town complete with a Ferris wheel. Music hovers over Firemen’s Park from Thursday through Sunday.

And it all centers around baseball. From Teeners to Legion to Home Talent, there’s plenty of baseball to be had from the first day of the festival to the last. Many Home Talent League teams host a game during their town’s own summer festival, and Cottage Grove’s happens to be one of the best.

But there was one thing different for the Buss family this weekend, though. It was the first Firemen’s Festival spent without their family patriarch. Clarence Buss passed away this past February.

Clarence Buss is a name synonymous with the Home Talent League and specifically Cottage Grove. From the age of 17 when he joined the Cottage Grove team as a player to age of 83 when he passed away, there hasn’t been a single year when Buss wasn’t somehow involved in the H.T.L.

After his playing days, Buss became the manager of the team. When he wasn’t on the field, he was the team’s business manager. And he would later join the league’s Board of Directors, a post which he held right onto the very end.

Daughter Becky Ilgin explains, “The very first thing he did when he was dying was resign due to health reasons. And that was in January.”

During the Saturday of the festival, the Buss family circled just outside the left field fence to reminisce about their father.

Each member of the family had their own favorite memory of their father. Becky remembers the family vacations their father would take them on to places like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. Daugher Carolyn Pohlman remembers the time she spent playing cards with him. Son Dennis remember the hours Dad hit him ground balls out in their front yard. And son Larry remembers preparing the baseball diamond for game after game with his father.

Grandson Scott Polman actually had the honor of playing during one of the nine Home Talent League titles Clarence Buss took part in. But Scott’s fondest memory of his grandfather was during the days after Clarence had retired from managing the team.

During the championship game of a National Baseball Congress tournament, Scott remembers, “Grandpa was actually standing behind the dugout rattling the fence because he wanted a pinch hitter to come in. I’ll never forget it. He was just hollerin’, shaking the fence hollering at the guy that was coaching then.

“At the time he wasn’t the coach, but he wanted to be.”

That story adds to the legacy that Clarence Buss would give to Cottage Grove baseball.

“For some people, it’s just Sundays,” said Scott speaking about the day Home Talent League teams traditionally play on. “For grandpa it was every day of the week …December first he’d be talking about baseball – who was playing next year, who wasn’t playing next year. He was always concerned about those teams. He cared about the league too, but this was his baby.”

As the family was talking, the current version of the Cottage Grove baseball team was beating Rio on the ballpark adjacent to them dedicated to their father, Clarence Buss Field. Only a day later it would be Clarence Buss Day at the Firemen’s Festival like it will be every Sunday during the festival from here on out.

That day would be Father’s Day, appropriately.

Next weekend’s Home Talent League road trip: Waterloo at Marshall on Sunday June 22 for the annual Marshall Festival.

Photo caption: Cottage Grove warms up before their game against Rio during the town's 77th annual Firemen's Festival

Photo credit: Brian Carriveau

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Too much water for Waterloo

Here's the view of Firemen's Park in Waterloo after last week's treacherous
rains. That's the scoreboard in the distance. I'll try to update the status of teams around the league as I get more information.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The tourney is tops in Fort Atkinson

This past Thursday and Friday marked the beginning of the annual Fort Atkinson tournament that spans three weeks and culminates with the championship game being played during the city’s yearly Baseball Festival.

If only the coaches would have known that Sunday’s Home Talent League slate of games would have been wiped out by rain.

Had they had the foresight to predict the stormy weather the weekend had in store, they could have gotten their staff aces some pitching work during the opening round of games.

The Fort Atkinson tournament is considered one of the best amateur tournaments in the area, and most teams have to alter their schedule just to fit it in.

According to Stoughton manager Jim Winter, “I consider the Fort tournament just like a Sunday game where every team that comes here usually plays their Sunday starters except for maybe their pitcher. They’ll use their No. 2 or 3.”

Stoughton was able to get by Jefferson in the first round in extra innings, so Blue Devils manager Jeff Laesch knows just how competitive this tournament can be not only against Stoughton, but against the host team as well.

When asked if thinks this tournament is taken more seriously than the usual Thursday Night games, Laesch replied, “I think so, obviously with the five mile distance between Jefferson and Fort. And we’ve always had good success down here. So I think we probably do. It’s usually your starters that are playing in this tournament because it’s a big thing. It’s big crowds, and everybody likes to play on that Friday night of Fort Fest.”

Even though Jefferson lost during the opening round, they’re still alive and still have a chance to compete during the desired Friday night slot of the Baseball Festival on June 20 through the consolation bracket.

As an added bonus, there’s even a stipend that goes along with becoming the first or second place finishers in the eight team tournament as well as the only team that makes it through the consolation bracket undefeated.

The coaches insist it’s not about the money, though. They’re just glad to be getting good competition in a competitive environment.

Laesch was representative of the rest of the coaches when he said, “Mainly it’s kind of a bragging rights type thing. And it’s always good to win this tournament. Everybody’s always played in it for years. So I don’t think the money has anything to do with it. To be honest, we’d come over to the concession stand and spend it.”

That’s part of what the Home Talent League is all about. There’s sort of a gentlemen’s agreement among visiting teams to help support the hosts. On any given day, you’ll see the visitors supporting the home team and socializing with their opponents after nearly every game.

And it’s hard to pass up the chance to play at Jones Park in Fort Atkinson as well. Known as one of the best ballparks in the Home Talent League, the opportunity to play up to three games on a well-manicured diamond is too much to pass up.

“We just love playing here,” said Winter. “It’s obviously the best field in our section. They take really good care of it, it’s a great environment … and they always get good crowds.”

Next weekend’s Home Talent League road trip: Cross Plains at Ashton on Sunday June 15 for the annual Ashton Picnic on Father's Day.

Brian Carriveau is writing a book about the Home Talent League this summer. He can be contacted at

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Has hell frozen over?

Word on the street is that Jefferson's Justin Thiede has been traded to Fort Atkinson for a fungo bat and a player to be named later.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Tastes great, less filling

Dodgeville's Brandon Weier said he'd drink a beer for every one of pitcher Ryan Kussmaul's strikeouts. Not really. But we'd be proud of him if he did.

Dodgeville schools Ridgeway in annual Graduation Game

Chris Clerkin worked up a sweat acting as the bullpen catcher for the Dodgeville Knights on Saturday in a Home Talent League game that would count in the Sunday league standings.

And while Clerkin wouldn’t enter the game at Ridgeway on Saturday, he was the star of the show for friends and family less than 24 hours later when he strolled across the stage on Sunday to receive his diploma from Dodgeville High School.

Saturday marked the annual “Graduation Game” between Dodgeville and the Ridgeway Cardinals in a match-up of Western section of rivals that are separated by only about seven miles.

In a league that usually plays games on Sunday afternoons, these two teams annually agree to move this particular contest to the day before graduation due to both teams heavily drawing players from the same Dodgeville school district.

The two teams know that players, family and even fans are going to be attending the ceremony and ensuing graduation parties on Sunday. So rather than fight a losing battle, the game was moved to a mutually agreed up time the day before.

Clerkin, still young in regards to Home Talent, served a very particular role for the Knights in what would end up being a 4-3 win.

“(He) was our bullpen catcher today,” said Dodgeville manager Pat Reilly, “and would’ve caught if we had to go longer too.”

It turned out that Clerkin was nearly called upon as the game was tied 3-3 heading into the ninth. Luckily for Dodgeville, fellow graduating senior Danny Sullivan scored the winning run in the top half of the frame and the Knights would hang on to win.

Even though Dodgeville ended up winning this year’s version of the “Graduation Game,” each side has some favorite memories from the rivalry in years gone by.

“One year we 10-runned ‘em,” recalls Ridgeway manager Rich Hogan referencing the rule which calls for a game to end after only seven innings if a team is up by 10 or more runs. “That was the most memorable game. That was the biggest upset we’ve ever had with them. And then, of course, we went over there, and they beat us. But they tried to 10-run us and could only 9-run us. Other than that, they’ve always been like this. Real close.”

Reilly can remember another game between the adversaries that ended up in Ridgeway’s favor. And while Dodgeville didn’t end up winning, it remained memorable.

“There was one game here that we got beat in the 15th inning on a Saturday. We started at 3:00 because we had other things going on, graduation stuff going on. We played 15 innings before it was over.”

In a twist of irony, it was Dodgeville’s current first baseman Tony DeMuth’s father that ended up hitting the go-ahead home run in the bottom of the 15th that put Ridgeway on top.

“I guess that’s a memory,” laughed Reilly who probably didn’t find it funny at the time but can now look fondly back at the game years later. It, no doubt, helped that the junior DeMuth contributed to this year’s victory.

No matter which team has won the game throughout the years, the intensity has been as memorable as the contest.

“When I first started playing, the bleachers were full, the sides were full, people were standing all over,” said Dodgeville veteran center fielder Gary James. “It was just crazy here.”

And if there happens to be any more one run games decided in the last inning, it’s sure to get just as crazy in the future too.

Next weekend’s Home Talent League road trip: Cambridge vs. Utica in the opening round of the annual Fort Atkinson tournament on Friday June 6.
Photo credit: Brian Carriveau