Knute Nelson Memorial Park has hosted baseball games since 1938. From the Clippers to the Cardinals, the stadium in downtown Alexandria has been called home by hundreds of players. Now for the first time in its 81-year history, it serves as the home field to a 50-and-over baseball team.
The Alexandria Redbirds are 8-2 in their inaugural season. The team of Mike Weber, Greg Serum, Lee Backhaus, Roger Johnson, Joe Korkowski, Bill Ziegler, Tom Anderson, Kurt Kuhn, Jeff Kuhn, Jeff Hook, Mike Forrester, Bryan Boutain, Julius Hall, Mark Illies and player-coach Jon Brundell are keeping the game alive in their later years.
“Two years ago we were at the 35-and-older state tournament and we were the second oldest team there,” Brundell said. “After the game, I talked about starting a 50-and-older team. I guess some people tried a few years back but it didn't work out. Mike Weber told me that I should do it.”
Most of the teams in the 50-and-older league are located around the metro area, but Alexandria decided it was time to play ball. Upcoming games at home on Sept. 14 (11 a.m. and 1 p.m.) and Sept. 21 (1 p.m. and 3) will come against teams from the metro in Prior Lake and Apple Valley.
“After sitting on it for a year, Mike came up to me again and asked about it,” Brunell said. “We ended up starting the teams and we get to play with a lot of the guys we play with on the Clippers.”
The Alexandria Classic Clippers play in the 35-and-older league but have seven guys on the roster who are over the age of 50. Forming the Redbirds allows those guys the chance to play on both teams.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Serum said. “We’ve been together for many years. We enjoy each other so much and that’s one of the main reasons we play. The first year has been just fantastic. I really appreciate everything Jon has done to get it going.”
For each player, there’s a different motivation for stepping on the field. Johnson, the 70-year-old catcher, plans to play until the game tells him to stop.
“If I can’t contribute to the team, from a defensive or offensive perspective, then I don’t want to play,” Johnson said. “Why would I want to come to the ballpark and not play after playing for 65 years? That’s not me. It reaches a point where you have to make a decision in regards to injuries and my ability to execute and play the game well.”
Alexandria isn’t the only place where Johnson straps up the shin guards. By the end of the fall, he will have traveled across the country during his yearly baseball marathon.
“I have plenty of opportunities,” Johnson said. “I play on the Clippers and the Redbirds. I go to Phoenix, Ariz. and play two weeks of baseball out there. Then I come home for five days and play here. Then I go to Fort Myers, Fla. and play for two weeks there. Last fall, I had 29 baseball games in four weeks.”
Johnson’s career in the 50-and-older league began nine years ago when he joined a team in the cities. He knows the competition they will face in the coming years, but that's the exciting part about this league for many as they keep that competition going.
“We’re doing very well,” Johnson said. “We’ll have to up our game once we start going down to play the 50-and-older teams in Minneapolis. For metro teams, they think that if they have to travel more than 15 minutes they’re traveling to another world. It’s different playing them on the road. I think that we can beat any of the 50 teams in the state right now.”
What keeps Johnson in the game is just that – the game.
“I love baseball,” Johnson said. “I’ve been playing for a long, long time. I still enjoy coming to the ballpark and seeing the guys I get to play with.”
For guys like Serum, playing at Knute Nelson Memorial Park is a generational opportunity. The Alexandria native has fond memories of his childhood that are ingrained in the dirt that he plays on today.
“I grew up in this ballpark,” Serum said as he looked around the field. “My dad managed the Clippers in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s been a huge part of my life. My best childhood memories were watching him play baseball right here and to be able to continue to play in the same way he did is really big for me. I never thought 30-to-40 years ago that I’d still be playing at this age.”
For Brundell, the Redbirds are an opportunity to rewrite some personal history.
“I gave up baseball after high school,” Brundell said. “My rookie year with the Classic Clippers was when I was 52. I went many years without playing so I’m still learning the game. We have great teammates that help and support everybody. I’m trying to relive high school because I didn’t try very hard when I was there.”
The biggest battle for the Redbirds will be staying on the field. It's often that the best teams are also the healthiest.
“Injuries are part of the game,” Serum said. “When you get older, you realize that those same injuries you’ve had don’t heal as fast. That’s part of the game though and we all know that. Some of these guys are a decade or two older than I am on this team and they play through it. It’s an inspiration for me to keep playing as long as they have.”
When the Redbirds wrap up this inaugural season, the focus then shifts to recruiting. Not for their own roster, but for local competition.
“We want to get some other teams in the area,” Serum said. “Right now, we are kind of the only team outstate. There are one or two other teams that are kind of outstate but there’s more traveling for the 50-plus team. The city teams have been good to us in the first year and they’ve come up here but that’s not going to happen next season. The goal is to get towns in the area to get a 50-and-older team within the next few years.”