ST PAUL, Minn. — As we head into summer, neighborhood baseball fields across Minnesota are coming alive with activity.
You see it, you hear it — the sounds of America's game.
And nowhere in this state does baseball have more history and unquestioned success than St. Paul. In fact, some would argue the city is the state's heart and soul of baseball.
You want proof? Well, look no further than Cooperstown New York.
On a busy Tuesday night for the St. Paul Highland neighborhood baseball association, the fields at the Ford Plant site on Cleveland Avenue are full of kids, full of excitement.
For St. Paul baseball enthusiasts, this is a hopeful sign. Baseball tradition runs deep here, and no one wants to see that disappear.
“Are the numbers down in St. Paul to a point where some playgrounds aren't fielding teams?” asked KARE 11's Randy Shaver.
“Yes, absolutely,” said Billy Peterson.
Billy Peterson should know.
The 82-year-old St. Paul baseball legend, with a field named after him, coached kids for over 60 years. He said he's seen baseball interest trending down in some places in St. Paul.
In fact, the Midway Youth Baseball program he used to run for decades shut down this summer due to a lack of numbers.
“It's a slow-moving thing and we don't slow move anymore. We got to go here and go there and go quick,” said Peterson.
Yes, it appears, sadly, even youth baseball's pace of play is one factor in whether kids want to participate.
But there was a time when St. Paul's baseball royalty was front and center.
An iconic picture from the 1985 All-Star Game at the Metrodome features St. Paul natives Jack Morris, Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor.
From that picture to their plaques in Cooperstown, all three are now enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame after amazing MLB careers.
“What does it say, Dave, about St. Paul that three guys within miles of growing up make it to the Baseball Hall of Fame?” asked Randy.
“They're just certain times and places the magic happens. And it happened for St. Paul, Minnesota, and it happened for all of us guys,” said Dave Winfield.
Especially, Winfield, who many feel is the greatest athlete ever from Minnesota.
The former Oxford playground legend and St. Paul Central High star actually played basketball for the Gophers.
But was a superstar in baseball.
Remarkably, in 1973, Winfield was drafted by four professional teams in three different sports: the Vikings in football; Atlanta Hawks in the NBA; Utah Stars in the ABA; and the San Diego Padres in baseball.
Winfield was interviewed by Channel 11 in 1973.
"When it gets down to negotiations, in the four teams, will money be a big factor?” the interviewer asked.
“Well, definitely. That's what it's all about — security, your future, finances definitely a big part,” said Winfield in 1973 as a Gopher baseball player.
Dave chose the Padres and he never looked back.
“That was a dream of ours to play, you know? Wanted to play Major League Baseball,” said his older brother, Steve.
Steve played baseball with Dave, for Billy Peterson, at Oxford Playground in the 1960s.
And the Winfield's weren't alone.
“Baseball really became big for me when I got under the tutelage of Bill Peterson over there on Oxford Playground,” said Paul Molitor.
Molitor, who was in eighth grade when Winfield was a senior, honed his fundamentally sound skills under Peterson as well.
“We're proud of it. We're all kind of the same belief we came from a little town nobody cared about in baseball and look, we all made it pretty nice,” said Jack Morris.
Morris is right. It's incredible to think about.
The Winfields grew up on Carroll Avenue, Paul Molitor grew up blocks south on Portland Avenue, and Morris lived on Saratoga Street, less than two miles southwest of Molitor.
And if you factor in Twins star Joe Mauer who appears on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in January, you possibly could have four players from St. Paul in Cooperstown. And not even Joe, as a tee-ball star with that sweet swing, growing up on North Lexington Parkway, could have ever dreamed of that.
“Have you let yourself think about what could happen in January?” asked Randy.
“To be honest, yes and no,” said Mauer. “Yeah, it would mean a lot to me and my family, to a lot of people. But, you know, it's kind of out of my hands.”
No matter what happens in January, all four credit a strong St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department for their early baseball success.
“Part of the lore of being from St. Paul is knowing that you have that baseball greatness, that lineage of. The question would be, 'Who's next?'” said Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter.
“Is there a chance that there's a potential fifth Hall-of-Fame player in St. Paul somewhere out there?” asked Randy.
“I would hope so,” said St. Paul baseball historian Frank White. “I'm hoping there's somebody we don't even know, right? Because that would mean maybe the game isn't dying.”
It's true, the path is more uncertain for the next Hall-of-Fame baseball player from St. Paul.
But then, that's the beauty of baseball.
You never know what's going to happen; it's why you play the game.
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