SCVBL: More than a beer league
Zac Balsiger was ready to close the door on his baseball career after his River Falls legion team won the Class AA State Tournament in 2011.
"I just thought, 'Well, I'm done,'" Balsiger said. "'I'm never going to touch a baseball again.'"
Then he received a call from Erik Thompson, the Spring Valley Hawks amateur baseball team's manager.
"Erik called me up one day and asked me if I wanted to play for the Hawks, and I said, 'Nope, I'm done. I went out on a win,'" Balsiger said.
But it only took one more call for Thompson to sway Balsiger to join the amateur team that he's devoted many spring and summer hours to since its inception.
Those unfamiliar with amateur baseball may be quick to equate the post-collegiate level of play with a summer softball beer league. That misconception is a slight to the amateur players and coaches who won't be found cracking beers in between innings of their highly competitive games.
The mixture of talent and competitiveness of the St. Croix Valley Baseball League, the league in which the Hawks compete in, is what encourages Balsiger and many of his teammates to make the hour-long commute to the Hawks Ballpark in Spring Valley after an eight-hour work day.
"We have five or six guys in the Twin Cities area who drive an hour to compete in these games," infielder TJ Walenski, a Cecil native, said on a Wednesday night in June around 10 p.m. after the conclusion of a Hawks' win. "I gotta work tomorrow in the North Loop of Minneapolis."
But for Walenski, the late-night drives are a small price to pay for the opportunity to continue to play the game he loves at a rivalrous level.
"I think it's a way to continue the passion that you grew up playing with," Walenski said. "You grow closer to the guys you play with. It's like all of your friends are going to a party that you want to go to; it's three hours of hanging out with your buddies playing a game that you all love."
"One time we were joking and we were like, 'What are we doing? We're 25, driving a couple of hours to play.'" Dylan Willett, the Hawks' leading batter who is originally from Somerset, said. "But it's just really a way to hang out with some great friends and just still get on the field. It's still pretty competitive and we're still working hard."
Like high school and college teams, the Hawks begin preparing months in advance before their 30-game season.
"A lot of other teams don't prepare, but we're starting in January," Willett said. "Erik is like, 'Alright boys let's get in the gym,' but it's not a chore because we like doing it."
During the season that lasts from April to mid-August, the Hawks rarely have time to fit in scheduled practices but are expected to show up to every game ready to play.
"We put the responsibility on ourselves to hit on the field or swing on a tee and take extra reps on ground or fly balls," Ellsworth native Brady Schroeder said. "You just have to keep the same competitive edge that you had in high school or college. It's the same type of deal. For me, nothing has really changed. Whether we're up 10-2 or it's 4-3, we take it seriously."
"Yeah, we're kind of obsessed," Balsiger said.
"It's like any other hobby that people have. Some people have fishing or hunting. For us it's baseball," Walenski said. "That's what we devote our time to."
Their devotion has led them to a 13-5 overall record and a first-place standing in the North Division of the SCVBL, but it isn't always acknowledged the same way that of their high school and college teams was. Other than when they play at River Falls' immaculate First Financial Bank Field, the Hawks typically welcome less than 10 fans to their games, a majority of whom are Balsiger's relatives — the Hawks' designated No. 1 fans who also drive over an hour to catch almost every game.
"We don't get a lot of fans," Willett said. "It's mostly family, but that doesn't stop us."
For the Hawks, playing amateur ball isn't about the accolades that come from winning games. Rather, it's a way to continue to take advantage of the benefits sports have to offer that some athletes choose to give up after graduation.
"You're never your best. You're always working on something, and that's why I continue to play," Walenski said. "There's always something that I can get better at."
Eventually, Walenski and his teammates will age out and be physically limited to beer league softball, but for now, they'll continue to rack up the miles on their cars and their moments on the baseball field.
The Hawks' season will continue on Saturday, July 7, when the Spring Valley amateur team hosts the Hudson River Rats at 7 p.m. Fans can check out the team's website, svhawksbaseball.org, or the HawlkTalk Podcast to stay up to date in Hawk happenings.