Monday, July 21, 2008

Tobbaco Days crowd watches Albion win

ALBION, Wis. – Coach Dale Vike and his Utica Association couldn’t win at Albion on Sunday. It just wasn’t in the cards. Fate and the Tigers’ unique home field advantage wouldn’t let it happen.

First of all, it was Tobacco Heritage Days in Edgerton that weekend. And even though it was technically Edgerton’s festival, the celebration spilled over into the sibling city of Albion. Just two miles down the road, Albion is in Edgerton’s school district, and Albion’s Home Talent League team pulls many of its players from nearby Edgerton as well. With many people in town for the occasion, the Tigers beat Utica in front of their largest crowd of the season.

Tobacco Heritage Days isn’t just some antiquated nod to the Region’s past either. It just wouldn’t have been right to see the Tigers lose when there are actual tobacco farmers on the team. Among them, Albion’s Leif Thronson makes his living raising tobacco with his family.

“It's kind of an emotionally investing crop,” explains Thronson. “You spend nights up if there's a storm coming and you haven't topped the tobacco. It's great. You spend a lot of time with friends and family because you're working right next to them.”

Between planting, setting, topping, and harvesting the crop, there’s always a need for labor among the town’s youth. Albion manager Ben Towns, who also was raised on a farm that at one time grew tobacco, estimated that a “good chunk” of the players on the team worked in tobacco in some sort or fashion while growing up.

In an age of being politically correct, the festival’s name was changed last year to Edgerton Heritage Days under recommendation from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism and other state level organizations due to the area’s association with tobacco. The change lasted just one year. Back this year was the celebration’s original namesake honoring its rural farming traditions.

While bringing in a good crowd for the day’s game, Albion also reaped the benefit of knowing their home field just a little bit better than their opponents. “Tiger Stadium,” as it is affectionately known, is as distinctive a ballpark as any in the Home Talent League.

Home plate sits in the shadows of Kumlien Hall, the only remaining building from the now defunct Albion Academy that opened in 1854. Considered as one of the first co-educational colleges in Wisconsin, the school has such alums as former Colorado governor Alva Adams and ex-U.S. Senator Knute Nelson . Towns even said on a dry summer day, the outline of one of the Academy’s old foundations can still be easily seen in the outfield.

As far as baseball goes, homeruns are earned in Albion. With no outfield fence, batters must make their way around the bases before the ball reaches back home if they are to be credited with a homerun.

On this particular Sunday in Albion, in place of a fence sat several dozen spectators on lawn chairs lining the perimeter of the outfield mixed in amongst the shade of some trees looming overhead. In the realm of 400 feet away from home plate, no balls reached the fans. And even if one did, they’d have plenty of time to retreat before any defender came near.

For one last quirk, a paved road runs through right field, an obstacle to any unsuspecting outfielder. “If you’ve got metal cleats on,” explained Towns, “and you take off running across the blacktop, if you don't tiptoe just right, you're going for a ride.”

It’s possible the home field advantage earned Albion at least one run on Sunday’s 9-4 victory over Utica. Towns thought he saw a Utica defender look down for an instant before dropping a fly ball near that pesky road that led to an Albion run.

And finally, if by some off chance none of those factors were enough to motivate an Albion player to win, Towns knew the rivalry with Utica would.“We always kind of amp up for Tobacco Days because we know we're getting a home game with Utica,” said Towns. “And the rivalry with Utica alone is enough to get you amped up.”
Photo: An old tobacco barn sits just outside Albion
Photo credit: Brian Carriveau

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