Monday, July 28, 2008

Game at Ashton like stepping back in time

ASHTON, Wis. – There might be a portal taking passengers back in time when driving east down county road K outside of Madison. About one mile east of the beltline lies the tiny community of Ashton, unmarked on most Wisconsin roadmaps. It’s hard to believe the unincorporated community could support a baseball team, but it does.

It was a look into a bygone era on Sunday when Ashton hosted Middleton for an old-timers game before the current versions of the same teams played their regular season finale. For a large Home Talent congregation of a couple hundred fans, it was as if they had wandered into the set of Field of Dreams with cornstalks lined up along the outfield fence.

Even Milt Friend was on the mound for Middleton, the same Milt Friend who pitched for Middleton back in the 1960s, now seventy-two years of age.

“I try to make sure I'm around for this game because it's a great deal of fun,” said Friend. “There’s really good ballplayers, and it’s nice to see some of the guys you've played with back twenty, thirty, forty years ago. You look at, these guys can still swing the bat. They still make the plays fielding. It's a fun game. It really is. I just like to see the camaraderie. Somebody gets a good hit, and other guys congratulate him. It's not a blood game, you know? And yet, the guys try. They want to get hits, and pitchers want to get the guys out. Within limits.”

Friend has seen it all in amateur baseball, from the South to the Canadian border, as he says. He’s played from the Catskills League and the Twilight League in New York to the Rock River League and the Industrial League in Wisconsin. He’s even played in the adult World Series out in Phoenix on the Major League Baseball spring training diamonds. But the Home Talent League might just be the best of all his baseball experiences.

“For me, this is the best of all of the leagues,” said Friend. “You get good fan turnout. It’s hometown baseball. It's really quality baseball, but yet it's fun. I mean, look at how many people are here.”

The fans came for the old-timers game and stayed for the regular season finale. The fans, after all, are what Ashton is known for, so says current Ashton manager Dave Adler.

“There's not a whole lot here,” said Adler. “About 20 houses and a tavern and a church, and that's about all you need. We've got good support because we get anywhere from 150 to 500 people at a game.”

When going to Ashton, it’s almost as if the fans watch the game in black and white. Played on the grounds of St. Peter’s Park, Home Talent baseball has been played here for 61 years in the shadow of the large stone steeple of the adjoining church.

Behind the backstop is a memorial to Connie Grob, former Major League pitcher for the Washington Senators back in the 1960s who played for the Ashton and Cross Plains Home Talent League teams before and after his professional career. Just a stone’s throw away from the field is Connie’s Home Plate, the community’s only tavern formerly owned by Grob.

It was day where the past and present came together and meshed into one. The old-timers game was a chance for guys who played together in high school to renew the rivalries from when they played against each other in Home Talent.

“That's kind of what it's all about,” said Middleton manager Darrell Hellenbrand. “It's just a good get-together.”

Next weekend’s Home Talent League road trip: Stoughton at Utica on Saturday August 2nd at 1:00 for the 37th annual Utica Festival.

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