Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine

The boys of summer
Collegiate baseball is a hit as the Mudcat Nine takes the field in Chillicothe

by Bob McEowen

Chillicothe Mudcat pitchers Andrew Dunn and Aaron Kleekamp sell 50/50 tickets to spectators attending a home game against the Clarinda (Iowa) A’s. The Mudcats field college athletes who gain experience playing summer ball for eight weeks in the M.I.N.K. League, one of dozens of collegiate summer leagues in America. Dunn, from Marion, Ill., comes to Chillicothe from Southern Illinois University. Kleekamp of Washington, Mo., plays for Jefferson College in Hillsboro.

Baseball. For many Americans, the mere mention of the word conjures images of summer — the crack of a wooden bat, a diving catch, hot dogs and Cracker Jack in the cheap seats. Once regarded as America’s pastime, baseball is one-third of an iconic trio along with Mom and apple pie.

In recent years, the shine has worn off the game a bit in the wake of steroid scandals, preposterous salaries and $5 hot dogs. Go to a major league ballpark today, and it’s hard to see the connection to the simple joys of summers spent on sandlots years ago.

Such is not the case in the north-central Missouri town of Chillicothe where, for the past seven summers, baseball has united the community and provided a source of pride that far surpasses batting averages or the score at the bottom of the ninth.

June and July is Mudcats season in Chillicothe as eager college athletes take their positions at Shaffer Park. Summer collegiate ball brings family entertainment to this town of 9,000, while providing young players a place to hone their skills.

“These kids come here because they want to make themselves better,” says Ed Crawford, the former head of Chillicothe’s parks department who first envisioned bringing collegiate baseball to town. “They love the game and that spills over into the crowd.”

Chillicothe resident Ken Lauhoff visits with two Mudcat players who are spending the summer in his home. In addition to hosting Luke Schlechte of Imperial and Aaron Kleekamp of Washington, Lauhoff’s jewelry business is also a corporate sponsor of Mudcat baseball. Both athletes play for Jefferson College in Hillsboro during the academic year.

The Chillicothe team is typical of the hundreds of collegiate summer programs around the country. This year, Head Coach Jud Kindle recruited college players from as far away as California, Texas and Louisiana and as close as Columbia and Blue Springs. The athletes come from junior colleges and Division I schools. All compete without pay in exchange for experience and the chance to get noticed by professional scouts.

“The summer leagues allow players to get an extra 40-some games under their belts,” says Kindle, a former assistant coach at Missouri State University and semi-pro catcher. “They’re trying to better their game so when they come in to the fall of next year, they’re going to win a starting spot.”

The Mudcats play in the M.I.N.K. League, one of more than three dozen summer collegiate leagues in the U.S. The M.I.N.K. includes seven teams from Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. Other Missouri teams include the Ozark Generals and two Kansas City-area squads, the FCA Grays and Mac-n-Seitz Athletics.

The Mudcats are scheduled for 45 games in a season that lasts barely eight weeks and culminates in district finals at the end of July — with the winner earning a spot in the National Baseball College World Series playoffs.

“We don’t practice much. It all happens on the field,” says Kindle, who played in the M.I.N.K. League for the Beatrice (Neb.) Bruins when he was a student athlete. “We play five out of every seven days, sometimes six out of seven days.”

Dallas Hord, a Missouri State University catcher from Springfield, reacts to a tipped foul at the plate.

The packed schedule affords plenty of opportunity for the community to enjoy the action. Providing entertainment for residents was the motivation when Crawford — the Mudcats’ general manager until moving out of state this year — first approached a group of the town’s leaders in 2001 with the idea of bringing collegiate baseball to Chillicothe.

The group formed Grand River Entertainment and set about making summer college ball a reality. The not-for-profit organization has since expanded its scope and now operates a bowling alley in Chillicothe as well.

Grand River Entertainment enlisted corporate sponsors and funded improvements to Shaffer Park, including new dugouts, stadium seats purchased from the Kansas City Royals, a batting cage for the players and a play area for young fans. One early supporter — Steve Franke, owner of a local glove factory — also owns a semi-pro hockey team in Indiana. The professionalism from that organization rubbed off and now a night at Shaffer Park is more reminiscent of a semi-pro baseball game than typical college venues.

“We do a lot of promotions,” says Liz Fechtig, an employee of Midwest Glove who took over as Mudcats general manager following Crawford’s resignation. “We have fireworks displays three times a year. We sell 50/50 tickets, where someone can win half the money in the pot.”

Muddy, the team mascot — imagine a catfish head atop a baseball uniform — roams the stands. Rock music blares from loudspeakers, and every game features some sort of crowd involvement such as a dizzy-bat race, a Frisbee toss or a chance for kids to run the bases.

Young fans run the bases following a home game. Each home game features activities for spectators, including dizzy bat races, a water balloon toss, name that tune contests and M-U-D-D-Y bingo. Each season the team hosts baseball camps in area communities, with the Mudcat players serving as instructors for young players.

The carnival atmosphere, combined with a high level of play, makes Mudcats baseball a hit for the community. Crowds of 500 or more are common on weekends, and games are broadcast on local radio and over the Internet.

Local businesses — including Farmers Electric Co-op — sponsor home games and often provide an employee to throw a ceremonial first pitch.

“It’s something to do. It’s entertainment. That was our mission, to bring family entertainment to the community,” says Grand River Entertainment Board President Butch Shaffer, whose father was the namesake for the stadium. “We feel like we’ve met that.”

A few members of the community take an even greater interest in Mudcats baseball. More than a dozen local residents, including Fechtig and Shaffer, open their homes to the visiting athletes for the summer.

“You give them a place to live. You feed them and you take care of them, just like they were your own kids,” says Ken Lauhoff, who, together with his wife, Brenda, is hosting two Mudcats players this season.

Fechtig says the generosity of host families and corporate sponsors are the keys to making Mudcats baseball a success each year.

For the players, a season at Chillicothe offers the chance to be a star in front of appreciative fans. “We have really good support from the community” says Kyle Zimmerman, a Crowder College shortstop from Four Seasons. “It’s really amazing playing in front of 400 or 500 people. That’s something I’ve never done before.”

Kayler Grant, 8, enjoys the game alongside Muddy, the team mascot.

For other players, summer ball is an opportunity to spend more time on the field. Erik Darkow was an all-state athlete at Columbia’s Rock Bridge High School before joining the University of Missouri Tigers baseball squad last season. But with Aaron Crow, one of the top hurlers in America, heading the Mizzou pitching rotation, Darkow doesn’t see much action.

“I’m just looking to get a lot of innings in and get some experience,” says Darkow.

At Chillicothe, 6-foot-5-inch Darkow not only gets time on the mound, he pitches against batters swinging wooden bats. Instead of the aluminum bats used in regular college play, summer ball is played with the same hardwood that pro players use. The experience is invaluable for athletes with dreams of making it to the majors.

“It allows professional scouts to come out and see kids use wood,” Kindle says. “They’re going to be able to see whether a kid can throw versus wood, or if a kid can hit with wood.”

Unlike independent league semi-pro ball, where players struggle to keep a baseball career alive, collegiate summer leagues showcase athletes with their futures ahead of them. St. Louis Cardinals great Ozzie Smith once played for the M.I.N.K. League’s Clarinda (Iowa) A’s, and a number of up-and-coming players have taken the field against the Mudcats.

“Three years ago we faced Joba Chamberlain. Now he’s pitching for the Yankees in ‘The Bigs,’” says Crawford, recalling the major-leaguer’s time with the Beatrice Bruins.

Kyle Zimmerman, a shortstop from Four Seasons, tries for the tag at second base. During this exhibition game with the Mac-N-Seitz Athletics, the Mudcats wore caps from their college teams — in Zimmerman’s case, Crowder College of Neosho.

Although the Mudcats have yet to see a player make it to “The Show,” more than two dozen former Chillicothe players have been drafted or signed into major league farm club organizations. In the meantime, the Mudcats have proven themselves a worthy opponent, having clinched the M.I.N.K. League title in 2006. Early in their 2008 season they’ve won twice as many games as they’ve lost and have, once again, earned a spot in the heart of Chillicothe’s baseball fans.

“They become part of the community and members of people’s families,” says Kindle, whose own host families from his summer ball seasons attended his wedding.

For Shaffer, who attends every home game as the Mudcats’ photographer, the time spent with Chillicothe’s boys of summer is all too short.

“You hate to see the kids go,” he says. “It’s kind of a sad day when the season’s over.”

The Chillicothe Mudcats’ regular season runs through July 23. For more information, log on to www.chillicothemudcats.com. Log on to www.minkleaguebaseball.com or information about the M.I.N.K. League.

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