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Canadian sunsets (D. Hoekstra photo)

Canadian sunsets (D. Hoekstra photo)

TROIS-RIVIERES, QUEBEC, CANADA—Like all great tiki establishments, the Hotel-Motel Coconut remains true to its original vision.

Gerry and Madelaine Landry opened the Coconut in 1961 in Trois-Riviers (Three-Rivers), a 90 mile drive north of Montreal. They wanted the Coconut to capture the spirit of their Tahitian honeymoon.

Amazingly, the place hasn’t changed much in 56 years

Current owner Valerie Boisvert looked around the dark 180-seat Coconut bar that is loaded with rattan chairs, totem poles, tiki statues and shell lamps. “They brought all this back from Polynesia,” she said.” The Landrys also built a modest wooden bridge and added faux palm trees and portraits of pretty Polynesian women in all of their black velvet glory.

And while I’ve been to tiki bars from Easter Island to Hawaii to San Francisco, I can’t remember going to a roadside tiki bar with an adjacent tiki hotel. And motel. And an 80-person outdoor Coconut Terrace overlooking the highway and the magnificent Laviolette Bridge that arches over the St. Lawrence River.

The Coconut Hotel-Motel has 37 rooms.

When I visited Trois-Riveres in mid- August, my Room 29 had one door going outside to the parking lot AND another door into the hallway. At first I thought the hallway door was an adjacent room.

Hotel-motel manager David Duhaime explained, “That’s the reason we have hotel and motel. If we had only a door for outside it would just be a motel.”

I love the basic and good nature of Canada.

 

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My little paradise.

The motel dates back to 1958 when the two-lane Quebec Route 138 was the popular route between Montreal and Trois-Riveres (pop. 115,000).The route runs parallel to the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. The Hotel-Motel Coconut is on the west side of the city. “It used to be a motel with 12 rooms,” Duhaime said. “At one time it was called the ‘Hotel TV’ because it was the first motel here to have cable TV.”

 

Coconut Bar

Construction of I-40 left Route 138 in the Southwinds, but like Route 66 in the states, Route 138 remains popular with bikers and campers. After their honeymoon, the Landrys morphed from TV to Tiki.

Inside the coconut bar.

Boisvert and her husband Sylvain Carle bought the establishment in 2002. “Everyone knows the Coconut Bar,” she said. “It took us two years to find the money. We met here.  My husband said ‘I love you’ to me thefirst time here.’ We have been together 29 years.

Awhhhhh.

Valerie and Sylvain did make one structural change.

In 2012 they closed the motel restaurant and added, yup, another tiki bar. Located off the modest lobby, the romantic Volcano room offers a small bar, billiards and video machines. The Volcano is drenched in red light. After a couple of tropical drinks you may think you are in a seductive Amsterdam alley.

Complimentary breakfasts for hotel guests are served in the Volcano room to get your day off with a bang. Sylvain is a former chef at the Gueridon restaurant in Trois-Riveres and during November and December dinners are served in the Volcano room. The Volcano does not serve the traditional Montreal poutine (French Fries, cheese curds topped with gravy). In the Volcano room Valerie and Sylvain also diminished Polyneisan music in favor of rock n’ roll. Island music can still be heard between 4 and 9 p.m. in the Coconut Bar.

The way things are going in the states, I imagine more Americans will be finding their way to Canada.

Owner Valerie Boisvert and hotel-motel manager David Duhaine.

Owner Valerie Boisvert and hotel-motel manager David Duhaime.

Duhaime said, “We don’t get many Americans right now. You are here.  During the week we have people who are working in the city. On weekends we have tourists. Winter we have snowmobilers from everywhere. Two French movies and one documentary have been shot  here. French music groups stay here. Here, even in the winter it is  like summer. It is like having a south vacation.

The Coconut Bar serves 80 tropical drinks, beer and wine.  Highlights include the “Porn Star” (Curacao Bleu, Sour puss and 7 Up,) and the “After Sex” (vodka, banana liqueur and orange mix.)

“Every year we try to make a new drink,” Duhaime said. “At the employee Christmas party they have the challenge to make the best new drinks. The newest one is Coca-Sangria. People like the Zombie, Rainkiller. Some on the menu are from 50 years ago.”

The old drinks have the kick of a good honeymoon,

The Hotel-Motel Coconut tiki bar, Volcano room and Coconut Terrace is at 7531 rue Notre Dame (Route 138) in Trois-Riveres, Quebec. (1-800-838-3221.)  Autumn rates are $85 (American). I received a complimentary “Coconut” lei when I checked in.

William W. Powers State Recreation Area--in Chicago.

William W. Powers State Recreation Area–in Chicago.

Urban camping has spread its wings at the William W. Powers State Recreation Area.

The 580-acre park is the only State Park in the City of Chicago. The recreation area is at 130th Avenue O on the far southeast side of the city. The park’s jewel is the 419-acre Wolf Lake that borders Hammond, Ind., and although it has been described as a “hidden gem,” nearly half a million people visit annually.

Interim Site Superintendent Levi Bray said that at least 60 per cent are minority outdoors enthusiasts, which skews up from national camping demographics. There’s no camping at the park but there’s ample room for bird watching, boating, biking and picnicking. Fishing is a big draw as the lake is filled with bass, catfish, northern pike, hybrid muskie and walleye. Bird watchers can catch blue jays, finches, orioles,
mallards and cardinals.

And there’s Pee Wee the monk parakeet.

Pee-Wee and his newspapers (Courtesy of Levi

Pee-Wee and his newspapers (Courtesy of Levi Bray)

Local lore says a few South American parrots migrated roughly 30 miles from the Hyde Park neighborhood of late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Pee Wee now lives in the park’s business center.

“Someone said Harold Washington introduced these birds to Hyde Park,” Bray explained during a late August interview. Bray began his career with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) in 1990 as a Site Technican. “Back then we had hundreds of the parrots here,” he said. “They blew the transformers. (The monk parakeet likes to build nests adjacent to warm transformers.)  It killed them all, except for a couple.”

In January, Bray was assigned as the Interim Site Superintendent at William W. Powers. He had been Ranger at the I&M Canal State Park near Joliet. “When I came back I saw Pee Wee was still there,” he said with a laugh.

Mayor Washington lived in the Hampton House condo building, 53rd neat South Shore Drive, across the street from a small park that included a colony of monk parakeets. He called the birds a “good luck
tailsman.” After his death in 1987, the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) tried to remove the parakeets. Hyde Park residents created a defense committee and threatened a lawsuit. The birds won.

Remember when conflict was so beautiful?

 

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Wild Indigo Nature Explorations illustrates biodiversity of outdoors Chicago and offer programs in Cook County Forest Preserves.

Abraham Lincoln visited the future William W. Powers park and Mary Todd Lincoln nearly drowned in Wolf Lake in a spot located near the visitors center.

The State of Illinois acquired an 160-acres parcel of the future park in 1947 and in 1965 the Illinois General Assembly named the area after 1920s Chicago alderman William W. Powers. He used the cottonwood and willow tree site for picnics to feed the needy during the Great Depression.

“There’s a lot of history here,” Bray said. “Actually until I came here for the job, I didn’t even know this existed. We draw a lot of Hispanics. African-Americans. Lots of Polish.”

Wolf Lake is a deep Chicago melting pot.

In 2014 the Coleman Company, Inc. and the Outdoor Foundation compiled the “2014 American Camper Report” through 19,240 online interviews. Their research found that eight per cent of American campers were Hispanic, six per cent were African-American and four per cent were black. (The average age of a camper was 32.)

New minority camping organizations are emerging such as Outdoor Afro, based in Oakland, Ca., Wild Indigo and the National African-American RVers Association (NAARVA), the fastest growing RV organization in the country. NAARVA was founded in 1993 and has nearly 2,000 members.

The North Carolina-based organization hosts annual rallies that includes seminars, fishing, cake walks, pot luck dinners and worship service.

“For the last three to four years, we’ve been growing four to five per cent a year,” said NAARVA president Carolyn Buford in a phone conversation from her Kansas City, Mo. home. “We’ve had a lot of young retirees who have moved to the southern region; Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. Our members have motor homes, travel trailers and fifth wheels. The only requirement is that you have cooking and bathroom facilities in your RV.”

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Carolyn Buford

Buford’s father was an avid camper. Her husband Luther is a retired Kansas City law enforcement officer. She is retired from information management at AT&T. Carolyn and Luther bought their first unit in 1969. It was a Holiday Rambler travel trailer. They now own a motor home.

“One reason we joined NAARVA is that we had been to a lot of states and we had seen very few minorities,” she said. “It was interesting to hear about an organization comprised of 98 per cent minorities. Even as we travel today, we don’t see a lot of minorities on the road. NAARVA has local clubs and we see more minorities when we camp with our local clubs. We go away for the winter and even though we’ve been going to this particular park for six or seven years people still look at us like, ‘Where did you come from?’ ”
Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas is an avid  camper who can be found setting up shop in Wal-Mart parking lots. “We contacted him we know he bought an RV,” Buford said. “As far as we know, he’s still camping in his RV (he once had  40-foot Prevost).” Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson is a well known African-America RV enthusiast. The Bufords purchased their motor home from Bill Thomas Camper Sales in Wentzville, Mo., the same St. Louis area store that serves Gibson.

Here comes the Judge: (with wife Ginni), Image from Business Insider, Australia.

Here comes the judge: (with wife Ginni), Image from Business Insider, Australia.

Bray said, “Lately I’ve been seeing more African-American people camping. But as a kid I never thought about camping. One of my wife’s friends, they’re big (African-American) family campers. He was in the
Army and I think that’s how he got into it. Every Labor Day my wife’s cousin and their family go to Starved Rock (outside of Chicago.) Its about 50 people.”

Bray, 60,  grew up on a farm between West Memphis and Little Rock, Ark. Bray was speaking the day after the park’s “Aquatic Pet Take Back” event. “This was for reptiles and goldfish,” he said. “No one showed up. I guess no one wanted to turn in anything. But in the past there’s been instances when people brought in alligators. Maybe an iguana is not quite what someone wanted, so they can turn them in here.”

The park is operated under the auspices of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. It is open year round. Bray said, “Starting in October we’ll have duck and geese hunting. This park is really a nice place. The (Cook) county actually just put a campground about 15, 20 minutes south of us.”
In the summer of 2015 the Forest Preserve of Cook County opened Camp Sullivan, 14630 S. Oak Park Ave. in Oak Forest. The park had been used for scouting activities but was turned over to families and groups  for the first time in 50 years. Camp Sullivan is part of the 612-acre Tinley Creek Woods and offers tent camping, bunkhouse rental and a vintage red barn with a climbing wall. Also, in 2015 Camp Shabbona Woods, 15810 S. Torrence Ave.  in South Holland opened with nature trails, mulch tent pads, three season cabins, and yes, even bathrooms and showers.

The Aug. 27 New York Times Travel section reported the explosion in camper culture. Writer Stephanie Rosenbloom said that about 13 million households in the United States planned to camp more this year than last year, according to research conducted  by Kampgrounds of America. More than a million new households have started camping since 2014.

Such massive growth has to embrace the diversity that gives America her wings.

 

 

Minor league baseball, Clinton , Ia., June 13, 2017 (D. Hoekstra photo)

Minor league baseball, Clinton , Ia., June 13, 2017 (D. Hoekstra photo)

CLINTON, IA.—America was a different place when I began writing the Glove Compartment 25 years ago. Life is now framed by more jagged edges. People continue to leave big cities for the small and mid-sized cities that define the Midwest League. Where you unlock the doors, you unlock your heart.

When I began traveling in and out of Illinois to explore baseball’s backroads for the Kane County Cougars and the Midwest League, at least the state had a working budget. Just after this Fourth of July, Illinois passed a budget after a two year impasse. The state now only owes $15 billion to doctors, hospitals and other vendors who stayed the course. Who can hold on? And isn’t that part of baseball’s bewitching lure? Holding on to a memory and letting go of a dream.

I have just a few memories of catching weekend stars in the sky summer songs along the Natchez Trace, a pier in Key West, Fla. and on a hot summer night several years ago after leaving a baseball game inCedar Rapids, Ia.. I was driving down a two-lane country road. I pulled over along a random cornfield. I got out of my car and rested on the hood. I looked to the heavens.

At that moment it seemed like all things were possible.

Do you remember that feeling?

So I chose the twin spin of Cedar Rapids and Clinton, Iowa as my column swan song.

In mid-June I saw two games in 33 hours. On a 91-degree afternoon at Cedar Rapids I had my picture taken with the super hyper mascot Mr. Shucks. Back in 1992 mascots like Mr. Met weren’t flipping off fans. The Cedar Rapids Kernels lost to Burlington 1-0 on a swift one-hitter mostly thrown by the Bees’ Erik Manoah.

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An outfield fence promoted “Iowa, Corn, Bourbon–Swisher, Iowa.” Indeed further research revealed that the family owned and operated Cedar Ridge Distillery in Swisher won “Best American Craft Whiskey in Show” at the 2016 New York World Wine Spirits Competition.

After a short rain delay the next evening in Clinton, a resplendent double rainbow emerged over the Mississippi River beyond the center field fence. The I & M rails are along the parking lot near the ballpark entrance. Horns from passing freight trains blared into the humid air. This is how it was, this is how it always will be.

When people ask me where to find the root of Midwest League baseball, I always send them to Clinton. The vibe is from 1959. Fans literally sit next to the field. There’s no bleacher seats or grassy knolls at Clinton. Fans huddle under an evergreen grandstand roof creating a micro-community of Clinton (pop. 26,800).

A fine riverfront supper club called The Candlelight Inn is an easy stroll from the ballpark. Don’t miss the restaurant’s detailed riverboat sketches made by the late Roscoe Misselhorn of Sparta, Ill. And now that I have a camper van I have come to realize that the Riverview Recreational Vehicle Park, 9th Ave. and Riverview Dr. has to be only RV park within short walking distance of a Midwest League stadium and the Mississippi River.

The Clinton LumberKings are the Midwest League’s longest-running franchise, dating back to 1954. The brick and cinder Riverview Stadium was built in 1937 with flourishes of Art Deco.

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I visited Clinton several times during my years of writing this column. One time I took a girl friend and her German Shepherd to see the ballpark the dead of winter. In 2013 Lucas Mann wrote the excellent book “Class A Baseball (in the Middle of Everywhere),” which was based on spending the 2010 season with the LumberKings.

On the evening of June 13, 2017 I only noticed a couple changes from my first visit in 1992. The stadium naming rights now belong to Ashford University. There’s a new sandwich called The Buzz Saw (a tribute to Clinton’s lumber roots) which consists of a burger patty, two chicken strips, pulled pork, two slices of bacon and two onion rings on a pretzel bun ($8). And sadly, there was a security check– for an announced attendance of 817 people.

The LumberKings are an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Clinton beat Beloit 6-3 in a game that started 37 minutes late due to the rainstorm. The George Jones country hit “White Lightning” played over the speakers during the delay and that’s something you just don’t hear at Wrigley Field.

Midwest League baseball offered me respite from life’s storms over the past 25 years.

In 2015 when my parents were in double home hospice in Naperville, I sometimes took a break and drove to Geneva just to catch a few innings of baseball and gather my thoughts. It meant a lot to me for members of the Cougars community to ask how things were going. I will never forget the sincerity that has blossomed in Kane County.

Although I spent more than 30 years working for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Suburban Sun-Times and freelanced for Playboy magazine, I always got a major charge out of a stranger coming up to me at a non- baseball place like FitzGerald’s in Berwyn to talk about something they read in the Glove Compartment. Now, that was destination reading.

I often would bring home the Cougars game day program for my Dad to peruse. He was an avid reader right up until the last week of his life when he died at age 94. Dad’s passion for curiosity was only matched by Cougars season ticket holders Dale and LuAnn Klein, whom I profiled in 2004.

Dale and LuAnn have followed my column for all 25 years—and this is also their last year with the Cougars.

Dale & LuAnn in Cooperstown, NY

By the time you read this, Dale and LuAnn will have relocated from Carpentersville to Crossville, Tn. Since 1986 they have visited 334 minor league baseball parks (including independent leagues) and a May visit to the new ballpark in Atlanta marked their 51st major league stadium.

Dale and LuAnn always took time to e-mail me a note about one of my columns. Earlier this season I wrote a tribute to the late Midwest League president George Spelius. Dale wrote in part, “Great article on George…we knew him and Nancy (George’s wife) well and visited him several times at his office. We even attended his retirement party a couple years ago….” Minor league baseball is a fertile landscape for creating such easy connections.

I caught up with Dale and LuAnn on 7/11/17, the day they said goodbye to their home of 42 years. They had driven seven hours from Carpentersville in their dark blue Dodge Caravan mini-van. It was their 11th straight version of the Dodge Caravan. Dale and LuAnn had stopped in Paducah, Ky. for the night.

“You may remember I am from Milwaukee,” Dale said with pride in his voice. “So now I have seen the Braves play in four home stadiums (the new SunTrust, Turner Field, Fulton-County Stadium and County Stadium in Milwaukee.)

Friends of the Kleins once had a rental unit in Crossville which is how they became familiar with the area near Knoxville. “We work for a non-profit Christian organization,” he said. “We never thought we could afford to move any place. We are going to make more than $20,000 in selling our little house in Illinois and buying one there. We’re getting out of the snow and cold.  The taxes in Tennessee don’t come near to what we paid in Illinois and even gas is cheaper. The main thing is we could sell a house, buy a house and have it paid off. I’m 71 years old. We’re not looking for a mortgage.”

Dale and Lu Ann have been married 37 years. Their e-mail address even begins with dalelu. They are as tight as Whitaker and Trammell.

So in early summer, Dale and LuAnn packed up their 35 handmade baseball scrapbooks, organized by league. They sold most of their Pepsi-Cola memorabalia but kept their collection of more than 300 souvenir plastic ballpark cups. “We packed up our bobbleheads,” Dale said. “We don’t buy bobbleheads. Only what we get at as a giveaway. We only have 40 of those. Over the years we have five or six Ozzie bobbleheads, Ozzie in a Marlins uniform, Ozzie in a Cubs uniform, the rebranded Ozzie. A lot of us didn’t care for the new look Ozzie.

“But you can just blame that on not liking change.”

My Blue Bird camper van at minor league park, St. Paul, Mn. May, 2017

My Blue Bird camper van at minor league park, St. Paul, Mn. May, 2017

Dale and LuAnn’s final Cougars game as Illinois residents was on July 3. As a surprise the Cougars offered thank you and bon voyage on the scoreboard. Dale and LuAnn attended the Cougars inaugural game in 1991. That team featured future Cubs closer Joe Borowski. Dale and LuAnn became season ticket holders on Row T in Section 106 in 2009. “Before Kane County came we had already been to every park in the Midwest League,” Dale said. “The Waterloo Diamonds, Springfield Cardinals, Madison Muskies.”

What will Dale and LuAnn miss about Kane County and the Midwest League?

“We’re going to miss the people,” he answered in a heartbeat. “We have friends on the staff and in the stands. We will miss Clinton, Iowa because we love biking there. We get a hotel and bike on both sides of the river. We met you there at that real hot all-star game (June, 2009). We go to the Clinton banquet every year. We’ve been to the sawmill museum there. But there’s a lot of season ticket holders and a lot of people do this. Don’t make it sound bigger than it is.

“We’re not the only ones.”

But that is exactly what I will miss about the Cougars and Midwest League baseball.

It is a special place where the only ones are everyone.

 

Mark Hamburger (Courtesy of the St. Paul Saints)

Mark Hamburger (Courtesy of the St. Paul Saints)

ST. PAUL, MN.—It was opening night of another renegade season for the St. Paul Saints. The Saints were celebrating their 25th anniversary as a franchise in baseball’s independent leagues, a place where there is still a flicker of light between nearly closed doors.

On May 18 a sell out crowd of 8,294 filled CHS Field in downtown St.Paul in 52- degree weather. Fans were motivated in part by a Mary Tyler Moore tam giveaway. Moore, who died in January, played a Twin Cities based television  news reporter the hit television series “Mary Tyler Moore.” The  show’s theme song promised she was “gonna make it after all.”

The Saints beat the Gary SouthShore Rail Cats 5-2 on a masterful pitching performance by Mark John Hamburger. The blond long-haired 30-year-old right hander struck out eight, walked none and did not give up an earned run in 8 1/3 innings. After the game I picked up my blue tam, wandered about the park and said goodbye to the fun-loving Mike Veeck, who owns the Saints along with Marv Goldklang and “Team Psychologist” and actor Bill Murray.

My camper van was parked behind the center field fence. The game had been over for 45 minutes. I looked through the flicker of light between the nearly closed  center field fence.

About a dozen fans were still in the ballpark. And Hamburger was standing along the first base line signing autographs. For every last fan. This wasn’t a media grab. There were no cameras and no sportswriters around. This was the home team’s starting pitcher.

This was something special.

Mark Hamburger, all in a day's work (Dave Hoekstra image)

Mark Hamburger, all in a day’s work, after winning the home opener 2017.  (Dave Hoekstra image)

“I just look at it as a deeper thing,” Hamburger said in a thoughtful late June conversation when I returned to CHS Field. “I’m really that last kid. If that last kid gets a signature signed…… Most guys will sign five and ‘See ya,’ but if you’re that last kid and someone waits for you it has to be a good feeling for him.

“When it comes down to it, what is my job title? I’m an entertainer. I even question it sometimes when I’m pitching. I get so into it that I get mad. But that’s my ego trying to show people I can do something, when in actuality if I lose that game the fans still appreciate my vigor and how hard I’m trying.”

Hamburger has been trying and trying.

In 2012 he made it to the major leagues with the Texas Rangers. He owns a 1-0 major league record with six strikeouts in eight innings. A native of St. Paul, he has had two tryouts with his hometown Minnesota Twins. Two years ago he auditioned for the Chicago Cubs.His agent has been Billy Martin, Jr.–the son of the late Twins-New York Yankees manager. (Martin recently became a coach with the American Association’s Grand Prairie Air Hogs and can no longer represent players.) Hamburger drives a 1989 Oldsmobile station wagon around the Twin Cities.

Hamburger also failed two drug tests because of his affinity for marijuana. The Houston Astros released him in February, 2013 after he flunked his second test. He received a 50-game suspension. Hamburger
spent 30 days at Hazelden (in Minnesota). He is now as clean as Laura Petrie.

“It made me take a step away from my life,” he said. “Reorganize. Spend time alone. Self reflection is huge for me.  I chose to go to Hazelden. I still had insurance through major league baseball so for $40,000 treatment I paid a $200 deductible. My insurance for big league baseball ended two days after I got out of treatment. It was a big blessing.

“I would be in my room at night time and it was, ‘Why are you mad at this?’ ‘Why are you mad at that?’ I had to go through it. No one had to ask me that question. I was going through my life until I realized I couldn’t hold on to the anger anymore. I couldn’t hang on to the need of money. The need of being in the majors. Or, ‘Why did that person wrong me?’ It all welled up. I said, ‘I don’t know who I’m giving this to, but I’m done.’ I let it go. And the next 25 days I just floated. I had gotten rid of the past. People get depressed because they hold on to something. If they can find out how to release that…..”

Hamburger stopped and turned around to look at the Northern sun shining through the office window.

He gathered his thoughts and continued, “It was like a physical purging. I started crying. I don’t see tears as a person being sad. Whatever it is, it is coming out. It came to the surface. I had to make a decision with what it was.”

Mark John Hamburger, feeling free

Mark John Hamburger, feeling free

Hamburger debuted in St. Paul in 2013. He went 6-8 with a 3.26 ERA,striking out 120 batters in 149 innings. He returned to organized ball in 2014, moving up the ladder from New Britian (Class AA) to Rochester, the Twins’ Class AAA affiliate where he was 4-4 with a 3.79 ERA. Hamburger went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA for Rochester in 2015.

He returned to St. Paul in 2016 and has been lights out. Hamburger was 12-6 with a 3.29 ERA for last year’s Saints and won the American Association All-Star game. This season he is 8-1 with a 2.88 ERA.

His left non-pitching arm has a long diamond shaped tattoo with details that include family members and close friends. The artwork was done by his friend Milo Alfring at Black Sage Studio in Evergreen, Colo. where Hamburger makes annual off season visits.

“The diamond has a thousand facets,” he said while looking at his arm. “Each facet is covered with dirt and tar. It is the job of the soul to clean each one until they shine brilliantly just like the colors of the rainbow. That is my life goal. Not to achieve money, house, car, retirement.” He stopped to collect his thoughts. Hamburger wanted to make every word count. He continued, “I will stay the same no matter what I am given or no matter what I lose. I wake up every morning and I have something I can work on. At the end of the day I polish a little bit more.

“My ability to deal with you,” and he looked me straight in the eyes unlike many interview subjects. “I can’t be good to people if I don’t know what’s going on with myself. So every day I’m trying to work out my interior so that no matter what happens in my exterior, who knows what can happen? You whole life can change in one second.

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A strong arm.

“The only way I can deal with that is by working on myself.”

Mary Tyler Moore wasn’t the only Twin Cities related icon to pass over in 2017. Robert Pirsig, the Minneapolis-born author of the 1974 spiritual best seller “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” died in April at the age of 88. In “Zen,” he wrote, “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

Hamburger is also a devotee of yoga, something he has been doing since 2009. “I definitely went into yoga deeper after getting sober,” he said. “But yoga has always been there for me as my workout besides lifting weights. It is kind of like my church. Some days it would be a way to get rid of something. Some days it would be ‘I’m here enjoying my friend next to me’. I’m pretty loose with what happens the day of my start. I don’t like to have any set things. Because if you have set things and one falls through…..”

For example, Hamburger is no longer overly set on returning to the major leagues.

“So much goes into it,” he explained. “I’d love to play at the highest level. Would I like to be able to play in big stadiums and be able set a life for myself money wise? I would. But now that I’ve come across personal happiness the need for external happiness doesn’t matter as much as my inner soul. I would love to go to the majors but if it didn’t feel right with where I was at in my life, I would say no.”

In a phone conversation Saints manager George Tsamis said, “Mark could be pitching at AAA right now. He’s throwing 90, 92 miles. He wants to be starter. He always wants to pitch the whole game He will pitching in our all-star game in a few weeks (July 25 in Ottawa, Ontario) in front of all those scouts.”

It has been reported that Hamburger turned down one major league deal as a relief pitcher. He does want to remain a starter. He is a huge fan of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige and brings Paige’s baseball card to the ball park on the day he pitches. He used to carry an original Paige baseball card in his wallet.

“I heard I can’t get out lefties,” he said. “I’ve been winning a lot of games which means I’ve been getting out more lefties than I don’t. I disagree with a lot of thing people say, like ‘We see him as a reliever.’ Well, you’ve never given me the opportunity to start with a big league baseball. Starting with a big league baseball as opposed to Triple AAA baseball is completely different. The movement of an AAA baseball or our baseball versus the big leagues is tremendous. Could I be successful as a big league starter? Maybe. I guess I’ll never know unless the right person sees me.”

Mark Hamburger big league baseball card.

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Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige (1906-1982) liked to say, “Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.”

“Satchel Paige is everything I want to be, except he left contracts all the time, which back then I can imagine,” Hamburger said. “He was one of the best pitchers of all time. His quotes, his life style, the fact he pitched two, three games a week. There was no pitch count back then. Are you kidding me? I’m not a fan of pitch counts. The most I’ve thrown this year is 130 something. Pretty light load.”

Attention TheoJed: sign this guy now.

Hamburger continued, “I’m not a fan of limiting people. Limiting yourself is the worst thing you can do.” Last year Hamburger broke the American Association record for complete games in a season (7) and led the league in innings pitched (158 2/3 innings).

He does not see any doors being closed.

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Mark John Hamburger was right on time for our pre-game conversation. He had been on the field dancing with the Saints’ pink and white mascot Mudonna T. Pig for a video tribute to a St. Paul television weatherman. (The Saints’ live ball pig is named “Alternative Fats”). Kids love Hamburger because he is always up for anything. He has fun.

Hamburger is known as “The Mayor of St. Paul.”  His father Steve is a graphic designer and printer who took over his own father’s business. Hamburger’s mother Cheryl is an interior designer and stay at home mom. He has an older brother Paul and sister Michelle. The Saints pitcher lives with his parents.

Mark Hamburger in Paradise (L), with apologies to J. Buffett.

Mark Hamburger (L) in Paradise, with apologies to J. Buffett. Check out the no-fun guys on the bench.

“I don’t have my own home,” Hamburger said. “I was born in Shoreview, about 15 minutes from here. I’ve lived in the same house since I was born. The fact that I returned and I’m playing here isn’t random. For me, this (the Saints) is the real reason of  baseball. I can’t say that for other people. And where you come from calls you.”

Hamburger knows home is where the heart is. He owns two camper vans.

* In 2014 he bought a 13-foot 1967 FAN (Franklin A. Newcomer) manufactured in Wakarusa, Ind. For the past two off seasons he has been restoring the vintage trailer with his brother. FAN was in operation between 1957 and 1980. Hamburger purchased the tin-can trailer in the Catskill Mountains. “Just going to get it was the most wonderful time,” he said. “The small towns of upstate New York are amazing. I’m not going to polish it. I like the rustic outside. But we will be doing a lot of mods on the outside, a roof rack and custom canopies. I’m guesstimating it will be done by September.” The FAN van will become his home.

* In Australia he has a Ford Transit Van, a cousin of the one that I drive. Mine is blue with a silver canopy, his is white with a purple canopy. Hamburger’s ride has solar panels, a 160 liter water tank and outdoor shower. “Stove top but no fridge,” he said. “The fridge pulled too much from the solar. They have some pretty nice coolers that stay cold for a couple days. The solar panels are amazing. Being able to live without having to plug in is great.”

Hamburger guesses his Australian van is about 17 feet long. “I actually sleep diagonally,” said Hamburger, who is 6’4.” He added, “There’s so many other ways to sleep. I have a hammock. I have a tent. Once I get back to Australia I will reconstruct it a bit. I actually want to get a tent that goes off the back so when you open the double doors  I can have a tent and my own little foyer.”

Karma worked in Hamburger’s favor. He finished the winter league with a 1.90 ERA, the the lowest in the ABL (Australian Baseball League). He pitched the Melbourne Aces to their first ever grand final series where they lost to the Brisbane Bandits, the reigning ABL champions.

“The main sponsor for the Aces asked me if I was coming back next year,” Hamburger explained. “I said I’d love to. He said, ‘We know you’re only making $200 a weekend and we’d like to help you out.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I just love this place so much.”

The Aces knew Hamburger was restoring a van in Minnesota. They asked him if he saw any wheel dreams he liked around Melbourne. And he had.

“They called me up on my birthday (Feb. 3),” he continued. “He said, ‘Do you want to go to Sydney?’ I said, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘You know that trailer you sent me the picture of? I talked to the guy who owns it and I’d like to buy it for you.’ Hamburger first said he couldn’t accept the transit van.

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A gift from Australia.

“I didn’t want to owe him anything and I didn’t want to put logos on it,” he said. “This was going to be my home and not some team project.” The team insisted he take the transit van as a gift. Hamburger broke down in more ways than one. “I was so humbled,” he said. “On my birthday? Of turning 30?  A true blessing. I don’t have a home. And this guy, on my 30th birthday purchases me my first home. My last three weeks in Australia were bliss. I lived up and down the beaches. I had my stove. Cooking eggs. Fruit. And going to the ballpark and playing baseball.”

Hamburger has also played winter ball in Mexico, Puerto Rico and a teetering Venezuela.

“I was in Venezuela twice and the last time was 2016,” he said. “Right when I left they grounded planes. The bolivar’ went out so you couldn’t spend bolivar’ anymore. It was interesting to see things escalate a lot, but it also made me thankful to live here. I loved Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela. The baseball was great the money was great but I couldn’t connect with people. I’m fluent but you can’t get to the depth of someone. You have to be engulfed in the culture for years to learn someone’s heart in another language.

“Australia is the only other place that had winter baseball. A couple years ago I thought it could be my second home. And when I went there all this occurred. They bought me that Transit and apparently this was my second home.”

How did Hamburger get into van life?

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“My sister told me about these gentlemen who wrote a book on minimalism,” he said. “With her life, a car payment, her apartment and she was living off of $18,000. I looked at my spending. I had so many clothes, so many different things. Once I purged those things I felt so great. I guess that’s how my life has been the last couple of years. Instead of buying stuff to feel better it’s letting go. Having the practice of letting things go in my life, it just kept happening more and more.

“Solitude is big for me. I think I’m an empathetic person so recharging by myself is something I need.”

He has an eye for the unique when on the road in the American Association, a league that takes the Saints through Gary, Ind., Lincoln, Neb., Wichita, Ks., Sioux City, Ia. and even Kansas City, Mo. “When I get into town I find a co-op, a good grocery store,” he said. “Take my meal money and get all the food I need for the three days I’m there. Sometimes I find a yoga studio. I always cruise around town to find flea markets. You can find gold in the Goodwills in some of those small cities we go to.”

“I do go solo a lot. After ten years of doing this, you usually have a roommate or go solo. I like going out with the guys but I spend ten hours a day with people. So when I wake up I like to be on my own for the first few hours.”

His 50-year-old manager Tsamis observed, “Mark is always happy and he gets the job done when he’s out there. He rides his skateboard, longboard, whatever you call it, everywhere. He flies on that thing. I haven’t seen that before. I’m not a big rules guy. You want them to show up on time, play hard and care about winning. The long hair is not a big deal. If would have asked me that question, 10, 15 years ago, I would have been against the long hair. It doesn’t matter.”

In professional  ball Hamburger’s journey has taken him through Clinton, Ia., Frisco, Tx. and Tucson, Az. But one of his best memories is embedded around the oil fields of Bakersfield, Ca., the land of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. In 2010 he compiled a stingy 1.77 ERA with 18 saves for the Bakersfield Blaze, but the meaning of his time with the Rangers affiliate goes beyond the numbers. “We had a game canceled because a huge dust storm blew the entire parking lot onto the field,” he said. “We couldn’t see our left fielder. I played the two best frisbee golf courses of my life just outside of Bakersfield. And I saved a dog. That is is the biggest moment in my baseball career.”

Pitching down under, 2017

Pitching down under, 2017

One of his teammates found a malnourished boxer-mastiff mix behind the team batting cage. “He was under a year old and 80 pounds,” Hamburger said.

“Broken femur. I put the water to him and he didn’t move at all. He just looked at me. After about ten minutes he lifted up his head started getting water. I realized I could pet him. I picked him up and brought him to my place.” Hamburger and his teammates named the dog Blaze in reference to their ball club.

“The next six days we were at home and I brought him in front of the fans,” Hamburger recalled. “I said, ‘Hey guys, this is our dog, we found him but they’re going to kill him if we can’t save his life.’ The fans raised $750 and anonymous donor paid for whatever they didn’t cover because it was on the news. So we got him femur surgery and found him a permanent family. He was the most beautiful dog I have seen. He never made a noise. I wish I could have taken him. He must be 160 pounds right now.”

Hamburger has met a litter of characters throughout his baseball career, but the first player that comes to his mind is St. Louis Cardinals reserve first baseman Jose’ Martinez whose journey began with the Chicago White Sox before stopping in independent league ports like Rockford, Ill. Martinez played 887 minor league games with 11 different minor league teams.

Hamburger and Martinez were teammates in Venezuela. “I basically say what he said every day,” Hamburger said. “He’d laugh–ha, ha, ha–and I’d go, ‘How ya doin’ Jose?’ And he’d go, ‘Outstanding looking! I’d go ‘Outstanding looking?

Outstanding looking man with a van.

Outstanding looking man with a van.

“And (former Rangers teammate) Josh Hamilton. My second outing was in Fenway (Park). I ran past him in the outfield. He spit and accidentally hit me in the leg. I turned around and he wiped it off. It was like, ‘I’m in Fenway and Josh Hamilton spit on me! This is the best day of my life’.”

Hamburger played some high school baseball at Mounds View High School in Adren Hills, Mn. During his senior year he was noticed by a Twins scout who came to see another pitcher. “I was pitching 86 or 87 at the end of the game,” Hamburger said. “I had more strikeouts. Less pitches. He came over and asked me what my GPA was. I told him and he said, ‘Maybe you should go to school.’ He was right.” Hamburger enrolled at Mesabi Range Community College where he went 11-0 with a 0.65 ERA. “He saw me after college at an open tryout for the Twins at the Metrodome,” Hamburger said. “In two years my velocity went from 87 to 92, 93.” The Twins signed Hamburger in 2007.

His pitching repertoire now includes the somewhat underhanded “submarine splitoon” and the “slurvy slurve.”

Hamburger laughed and explained, “You got the eephus pitch. That’s kind of my slurvy slurve. I’ll try to make my body look like it is going as hard as it can and then at the last second slow down, release it and try to throw a 55 mile an hour curve. I actually struck out one of my good friends the other day, Reggie Abercrombie (former Houston Astro and Florida Marlin) on a 64 mile an hour slurvy slurve. And he laughed.”

Most important, Hamburger is having fun.

“I asked our GM (Derek Sharrer) if during the fifth inning sometime when I’m pitching if I could run in the stands and grab a kid’s cheeseburger,” he said with a warm smile. “Take a bite of it and give him a hat? I’ve learned that the more I’m here, the freer I become.

And I feel better being free than being rich.”

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“I want to pick up where Theodore Ohman left off,” Foss declared during a mid-May conversation at his cafe in Mount Morris. “HIs goal was to put these in every school across America. And that’s what we’re doing. I just had a couple come in and buy a Constitution to donate to the Oregon School District. Our country needs this. New plates have been made and we want to offer these to the American public. Our constitution is important.  I’d like to see these go to the schools, attorney’s offices.

I’d like to see these go to the current occupant of the White House.

Foss sells 26” by 40” reproduction prints on parchment for $99 each at Wethepeopleprints.com. Shipping is free.

“We started doing research,” Foss said. “I started calling a lot of places to authenticate. I had never seen anything like (black ink) on glass.” Wisconsin appraiser Mark Moran worked with the Antiques Roadshow series. Foss paid for the appraisal and Moran estimated the Declaration lithographs created from Ohman’s plates at $650 each. For his Declaration lithograph, Ohman used an engraving plate from 1823 and the last negative of the original Declaration before it was permanently sealed in the National Archives in the early 1900s.

No one knows how Ohman made copies of the Constitution, but Foss  discovered more than 10,000 Constitution copies in the crates. Those were done in 1953. “We believe he got sick and passed on and was never able to distribute the Constitution,” Foss said. “Theodore Ohman had two kids who are deceased. He started his printing business in Memphis, Tennessee and move to Fort Lauderdale, Florida where he passed away. His printing plates, negatives, positives and maps went up for auction in Fort Lauderdale. A gentleman in De Kalb (Ill.) purchased all of it. And it was brought to his printing business here. He passed away, that estate sold and  this stuff got moved from one warehouse to another warehouse.

“And it got forgotten.”

HERE is a nice trailer from videographer Melissa Tassone:

Foss, 57, is owner of McKendrie Street Cafe, a sandwich and coffee shop, ironically on 500 Evergreen Dr. in Mount Morris (pop. 3,100). He also owns the Below Zero ice cream and smoothie shop in downtown Mount Morris. Below Zero is across the street from the community band shell that features Wednesday and Friday night summer concerts.

Mount Morris is a cozy borough about 35 miles southwest of Rockford and 100 miles west of Chicago straight out on Route 64 (North Avenue.) A Mount Morris welcome sign on Route 64 says, “Let Freedom Ring!” Mount Morris is the home of the Illinois Freedom Bell, located in the town square. I have spent some time in Oregon, a small town about five miles east of Mount Morris, but I had never been to Mount Morris. If you want to pull the strings of a Mount Morris resident, just call their town a suburb of Oregon.

Jerry Stauffer (L) and Ken Foss (D. Hoekstra photo)

Jerry Stauffer (L) and Ken Foss (D. Hoekstra photo)

Rookies Overhead

Wisconsin Wiffle Ball Field (Photo courtesy of Steve Schmitt)

MAZOMANIE, WIS.—Every kid who grew up playing Wiffle Ball  understands how the game shapes your imagination. You can create a field anywhere. For me and my brother it was a Cul-de-sac in suburban  Chicago. For others the game was played under the blue heavens of a soybean farm.

You can play the game by yourself. The plastic ball is light and can easily be tossed in the air with one hand while swinging a plastic bat with the other hand. Flying solo it is difficult to swing and miss ( “a whiff”), which is how the game got its name. The batter narrates the action with the scat like voice of his or her favorite baseball announcer.

thI still have a Rick Sutcliffe- endorsed Wiffle Ball and there’s eight perforations in the plastic ball, about the size of a baseball. The box says, “It’s Easy to Throw Curves with Wiffle Ball.” And it is spelled “Wiffle,” not “Whiffle.”

Wiffle ball is about escape and improvisation.

It is the jazz of the toy world.

Many years ago on a long night at the Old Town Ale House in Chicago,  jazz bassist John Bany told me, “Jazz is the idea of human freedom  applied to the laws that govern music.” That is a metaphor for Wiffle Ball.

Nov. 5 is Election Day.

On line voting concludes for the National Toy Hall of Fame, located at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. Wiffle Ball is one  of 12 finalists competing for induction, including Super Soaker,  Twister, the American Girl doll and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–really?  Wiffle Ball is something we all can take a swing at.

To drum up support for the Wiffle Ball I recently drove from Chicago to Rookies  Sports Bar & Grill on U.S. Highway 14 in Mazomanie, about 25 miles south of Madison. Owner Steve Schmitt built a huge Wiffle Ball field behind the bar and people can play 365 days a year, weather  permitting. The field is 105 feet to right field and 85 feet to left field.

I asked Schmitt to talk about Wiffle Ball on my WGN-AM Nocturnal Journal show.

Schmitt is also owner of the Madison Mallards baseball team in the collegiate Northwoods League and the Shoe Box, the Midwest’s largest shoe store just up Highway 14.  His inventory is  750,000 pairs of shoes including the beloved Hush Puppies I can’t find in Chicago.

Schmitt has the go going.

He opened Rookies in 1998 when the Governor’s Bar was put up for sale at the corner of Highways 14 and 78.  Schmitt built the field at the  same time as he opened the bar. He owns the rolling farm land that  is the southern backdrop for the field.

An enclosed dining area overlooks the field where customers eat pulled pork pizzas and grass fed burgers with organic ground beef from Black Earth. The cedar ceiling is plastered with baseball cards and posters.

Steve Schmitt and his field of.....(I won't say it) Dave Hoekstra photo.

Steve Schmitt and his field of….(I won’t say it) 

Rookies features more than 6,000 baseball cards, seen throughout the complex  including the men’s bathroom.

Downstairs, the entrance to the field includes  an original turnstile from Comiskey Park in Chicago.

“I wanted a safe family place for kids to come,” Schmitt said during  a rainy afternoon tour of the Shoe Box, Rookies and the Wiffle Ball  field. “And be able to hit the ball over the wall where it wouldn’t  land in the highway.

“I wanted guys or gals be able to come out here  at the spur of the moment and have a ball. It’s  the only artificial infield Wiffle Ball field in America. We light it  up at night like a Christmas tree so you can play all night long.  We’d play in the snow if people want to. People have had birthday and  bachlorette parties here.”

Rookies deploys a plastic 12-inch ball, larger than the 9-inch traditional size most kids grew up with. “That’s a perfect size because it doesn’t carry over too often,” he said. 

It’s always the notes you don’t play.

Schmitt, 68, grew up playing Wiffle Ball in neighboring Black Earth. His parents Bill and Janet Schmitt ran a shoe store in downtown Black Earth (pop. 1,400) where they sold guns, lures, night crawlers and sporting goods on the side. Schmitt bought out his parents in  1974 and specialized only in selling and repairing shoes.

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You’re in baseball heaven.

“Growing up we did our sandlot thing six against five,” he said. “We had a little Wiffle Ball stadium in a field. Then, in 1960, the back of our house we found the porch and dimensions were a  perfect fit for a ground rule double, the home run. My buddy and I would play.

“He was a big Milwaukee Braves fan.  I was a Cardinals fan  and was (St. Louis announcer) Harry Caray of course. I’d lead off  with (Julian) Javier, (Curt) Flood, Joe Cunningham. I’d mock Bill White’s stance. I was fascinated. I was up  29-26 games that year, but my buddy beat me 32 to 30 games. We played  a full nine innings, foul balls and everything, day and night. Those  games probably lasted two hours at least. Off the porch was a ground  double.

“It was the best years of my lifetime.”

This was before Game Boys.

During the baseball season every team that visits the Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League also visits the Wiffle Ball field  at Rookies. Schmitt explained, “We’re obligated to feed them  pre- game and post- game, put them up in a hotel and do their laundry. A  lot of those guys come out here and burn themselves out.”

Schmitt smiled like a Wisconsin fox. He continued, “It’s the  ego thing like they gotta hit the Wiffle Ball out. It throws their  timing off for the Mallards game that night. We say, ‘Go out there  and have fun and swing for the fences!’ The ball doesn’t travel out of here too many times unless the wind is coming from the north. It’s  also in a hole (flood plain).”

Rookies Wiffle Ball Field

Wiffle Ball history also exists at Bethel College Park in Mishawaka, Ind. where a Wiffle Ball field was built in 1980 complete with six- foot high home run fences. In August, 1980 the First Annual World  Wiffle Ball Championships debuted in Mishawaka, where they remained  until moving to Skokie, Ill. in 2013.

But the magical reach of radio across the central Wisconsin farm fields is what made Schmitt a Cardinals fan.

“I was walking around  Black Earth on a late evening,” recalled Schmitt, who was wearing Red Wing work shoes. “I had been listening to  Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd (out of WGN-AM in Chicago), Earl  Gillespie (another “Holy Cow” announcer at WTMJ in Milwaukee). All of a sudden KMOX in St. Louis raises their wattage at a certain time and  Harry Caray almost jumps out of the broadcast booth. Who the hell is this guy? So I send a letter to the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis,  Missouri. No address. No zip code. ‘I’m Steve Schmitt, nine years  old, I’m a Cardinals fan.’ They send me back four by sixes of Wilmer  ‘Vinegar Bend ‘Mizell, Al Dark, Bill Virdon, Stan Musial. I was hooked. 

“I’ve never said anything bad about that organization since.”

Besides Wiffle Ball, Schmitt has been involved in minor league baseball in Madison since 1994. The Springfield (Illinois) Cardinals of the Midwest League relocated to Madison where they became the Hatters. “I wanted to see baseball in Madison,” Schmitt said as he drove a  green Land Rover affixed with the Madison Mallards logo. “I wasn’t sure at first. The franchise fee was $125,000. I thought I’d try it. Now its a million bucks. My theory is if you don’t try it, you’ll  never know if it works.

“In 2000 I was involved with seven, eight  other guys who brought a professional hockey team to Madison. They  were the Madison Kodiaks. It was owned by the county so they took all the profit. We got out of it but I learned so much through the other owners. We could never come to a decision, we never did anything but I had a great time.”

Steve Schmitt and his own bobblehead giveaway.

Steve Schmitt and his own bobblehead giveaway.

“So I brought in the baseball team: first five games, 174 people then  250 people. The last game of the year it was 2,000. It jumped to  4,000. Now we average 6,285 people. We have a good front office. We  treat it like a state fair. You come in the front gate and it’s a family thing. There better be something for you to do every 20 seats.”

In 1996 the Hatters became the Black Wolf of the  independent Northern League. Jimmy Buffett was a part owner of the team during its inaugural season.  When the Hatters left in 2000 for  Lincoln, Neb. Schmitt struck a deal with the Northwoods League. The wood-bat league runs from June to late August.

Former major leaguers such as Ferguson Jenkins, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers  have played in charity alumni games at Warner Park in Madison. Late greats like Robin Roberts and Andy Pafko visited the Shoe Box.

Jazz pianist Ben Sidran is from Madison. I bet he likes Wiffle Ball. In 1997 my pals The Skeletons closed out their fine “Nothing to Lose” CD with the love ballad “Whiffle Ball.” (“Anyplace..someplace..”)

Schmitt made many of his baseball connections through the late New York Yankees -Los Angeles Angels pitcher Ryne Duren, who was from Cazenovia, Wis.

1961+Topps+Ryne+Duren

“Ryne was a buddy of mine,” he said. “I was with him when he died in hospice in Florida. They called me down. He’d take me to the BAT (Baseball Assistance Team) dinners at the Marriott Marquis in New York. There was a ballplayer at every table. Then he’d have Pat Maris (Roger’s wife) call me. There’s no end to it. I just saw Maury Wills, what a good guy. Ron Kittle just bought a couple pairs of shows. He was on his way to Minnesota to see  (Hall of Fame pitcher) Bert Blyleven and then on to Sturgis (South Dakota).”

“The day (Packers receiver) Robert Brooks decided to get out of football, he went AWOL. Nobody knew where he was. He suddenly walked  in the Shoe Box. Someone asked him, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He said, ‘My family, my life… I  had to go somewhere. I was in the  parking lot of Lambeau Field (about 160 miles north of the Shoe Box) and just went for a ride. By the time I got to the Shoe Box I decided to retire. We love all these guys.”

What’s not to love about Wiffle Ball?

FinalMINNEAPOLIS—The legion of devotees to Nye’s Polonaise restaurant and piano bar form a neon ribbon that runs from Hollywood to Manhattan.

Albin “Al”  Nye opened his Polish-American restaurant in 1964 at 112 E. Hennepin, just west of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Nye’s charms have been how it remained a period piece in a forthright Minnesota manner. Nye’s is Garrison Keillor with a lampshade on his head.

Earlier this year Nye’s announced it was closing in the autumn. The date keeps getting pushed back and now what Esquire magazine once called “The Best Bar in America” is slated to remain open until January, 2016.

Nye sold his restaurant in September, 1994 and died in 2004 at the age of 89. Brothers Rob and Tony Jacob bought Nye’s in 1999. In December, 2014 Rob Jacob told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, “We have made the decision to close Nye’s after careful consideration. In recent years, business has fallen off and it’s been difficult for us to stay competitive.”  (The Jacob brothers declined further comment for this story and our Aug. 29 WGN-AM segment on Nye’s.)

Minneapolis media reported the brothers are working with a development company to build two fancy pants high rise apartments on the site. Updates can be found at the popular Facebook page Save Nye’s Polonaise.

How do you keep the music playing?

Something bigger comes into play when a mid-20th Century place like Nye’s goes dark. We lose our cultural memory. We lose track of gentlemen like Nye’s bartender Phil Barker.  

“I’ve been here 46 years, three months and 20 days,” Barker told me on May 20 in a conversation at Nye’s “I had just gotten out of the Navy. I was sitting at home when Al Nye called me. He asked if I would come down and tend bar for him at lunches. The light went on. I thought, ‘Why get a job where I gotta’ behave myself?’ It beats the heck out of being stuck in some office where you can’t have any fun.” Barker was 22 years old when he started at Nye’s. He said he will find another bartending job in the neighborhood, but it won’t be the same.

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Phil Barker with a Polish beer at Nye’s

Barker grew up in Northeast Minneapolis where his father worked for a burglar alarm company. Barker’s mother owned a grocery store. Nye’s is in Southeast Minneapolis. “The street out front, East Hennepin Avenue divides northeast from southeast,” he said as he peered out of the bar’s daylight darkness. “This used to be the Skid Row area of Minneapolis. In the late 1940s they tore down all the flophouses on what used to be called ‘The Gateway’ into Minneapolis.

Barker is a direct connection with Nye.  He is the senior employee at the restaurant. Collecting voices like Barker’s is why I do this website.

 “Al Nye was Polish and Austrian, “ Barker said. “He was born in north Minneapolis. His father moved to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, which is where he was raised. He moved back here during the Depression. He worked at Minor Ford before World War II and got a job at Northern Pump (company, established 1929). They made ordinates for the Navy there. He started out by owning a beer joint in South Minneapolis. Then he bought this bar, August 1, 1950 from Jimmy Heffron. This (bar) building opened  in 1908 it was the Prince Street Cafe.“

 Old regulars call the original bar “The Old Bar or The Old Side.” Newer folks call it “The Polka Lounge.”

 “The World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band” plays on Friday and Saturday nights in the bar. The cozy bar with eight Naugahyde booths and a dance floor is open Tuesday through Saturday.  The bar only opens during the day (at 11 a.m.) on Friday and Saturday, when Barker tends bar.

Barker looked toward the dining room and continued, “He added on the restaurant—the first room– that opened December 23, 1964 at four-thirty in the afternoon.”

Of course, old-timers call this “The New Side.”

But it is technically The Polonaise Room. Diners slip slide away into the past while sitting in the gold vinyl covers of large booths. 

The iconic piano bar is part of the supper clubby room that serves Polish-American cuisine like cabbage rolls and pierogis along with strip steaks and walleye. Music starts at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Folks sit around a curved piano underneath a portrait of 18th Century composer Frederic Chopin.

In a folksy Northern setting where more people are familiar with Harry Chapin, Nye loved Chopin. He wrote his polonaises mostly for solo piano. “Chopin lived in Paris and that’s where the polonaise comes from,” Barker explained.  “Chopin missed Poland so much he wrote the ‘Polonaise’ which means ‘Poland’ in French. So it’s Chopin’s Polonaise.”

And so it became Nye’s Polonaise.

Around Valentine’s Day 2008 I hung around the piano bar listening to the playful Sweet Lou Snider sing standards of the 1950s and 60s. She sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” for my date and I. Sweet Lou started at Nye’s in 1965 and health issues forced her to retire around  Valentine’s day 2011. She had been coming to work on crutches.

Thanks for the memories Sweet Lou Snider

Thanks for the memories Sweet Lou Snider

Sweet Lou met her future husband David, on Labor Day weekend 1959 while she was playing with the rock band Lanny Charles and his Harem at  the Casino Bar in La Crosse, Wis. David requested “It Had to Be You.”

“I had to look it up,” Sweet Lou told me as her eyes sparkled under multi-colored Flintstone-like lamps that were handcrafted in Winona, Minn.. What will become of these lamps when Nye’s goes dark?

Where will these stories go?

Daina De Prez now sings at the piano bar between 8:30 and 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

A second dining area opened in 1967 in a former sign shop, and the third area [The 80-seat Pulaski Room, east of the Polonaise Room] used to be John’s Café.  “Everybody still calls it John’s,” Barker said. “ That opened in December, 1971, ” Finally, the open-spaced Chopin Room seats another 80 people between the piano bar and the Pulaski Room.

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When I was working on The Supper Club Book  a few summers ago I debated on whether or not to include Nye’s. It was a close call. I concluded the scene just seemed too large for a traditional supper club. Nye’s reminded me of Chicago’s Busy Bee restaurant on steroids.

“For the amount of food we serve and the number of people that come in here, it’s a supper club,” Barker said. “We still have relish trays. Family owners. Old Fashioneds are  popular again, especially  the Brandy Old Fashioned from Wisconsin. At one time like 51 per cent of every bottle sold in a Wisconsin liquor store was a bottle of brandy.

Barker said the Polish Vodka Martini is the most popular drink at Nye’s. “And our Polonaise (with Chopin potato vodka! served with dry Vermouth and an olive),” he said.

Vodka was outlawed in Minnesota until 1957. “They thought you couldn’t smell it on your breath,” he said.  “And it smelled like lighter fluid. Another Minnesota spin is the addition of hazelnuts to a White Russian, another go-to drink at Nye’s.

Nye’s doesn’t ignore its imported Polish beer.  You can find Zywiec, Okocim and Tyskie on a menu of 35 brews. “They’re basically all the same,” he said. “They have kind of a sweeter, hopsy after-taste to them from what I understand. I don’t drink. I used to drink, I was my own best customer. I made a deal with the state highway department years ago. They let me drive a car if I quit drinking.”

Phil Barker in daylight in front of the original bar.

Phil Barker in daylight in front of the original bar.

Barker has served several thousand people during his 46 years at Nye’s. But he has not taken care of Minneapolis notables like Prince or Jesse Ventura.

 “I’ve served a couple vice-presidents,” he said. “I talked to Hubert Humphrey when he was vice-president. It was on a Monday. We used to have a Teamster business luncheon here and he stopped in to ask a question. He ran in and ran out. We’ve had (former Minnesota Viking) Bill Brown. (The late and rowdy New York Yankees-Minnesota Twins manager) Billy Martin  had lunch here with (former Twins coach) Frank Quilici. Billy behaved himself.”

But is the everyday people who made Nye’s what it is. And it is the everyday people who will be missed.

 

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Beryl and Ken Nordine visit Nocturnal Journal May 2, 2015

Beryl and Ken Nordine visit Nocturnal Journal May 2, 2015

Now, when I see old people together I see my parents with piercing clarity.

Chicago voiceover legend/word jazz poet Ken Nordine and his wife Beryl arrived a half-hour early for Ken’s appearance on my Saturday night radio show on WGN-AM. They drove downtown from their home on the far north side of Chicago. Ken and Beryl will celebrate heir 70th wedding anniversary this year.

Ken walks with a cane so I escorted him and his wife up an elevator to avoid the Michigan Avenue stairway to the Allstate Showcase Studio. They walked together. Moments in time.

We talked about moments in this Ken Nordine segment.

I thought of my Dad, who passed away on April 8. I thought about how old people do everything together and I smiled. My parents were married 65 years.

This is my friend Colleen Bush’s favorite story about my parent’s bond, one that I had forgotten about in the flurry of activity over the past few months. In the final days before my parents could no longer drive a car,  my mother had Macular Degeneration. My father had a bum right leg. So on short spins through the neighborhood, my father provided the eyes and my mother took care of the pedal. I doubt this set up lasted very long, but they were a team with a scheme.

Old people always take care of each other. And that is beautiful.

Frankie Knuckles

Frankie Knuckles

Most people don’t eat the same meal every day.

I search out different music to nurture my changing moods. Calypso for fun, old country for loneliness. My knowledge of house music is pedestrian but I’ve always been intrigued by its deep Chicago roots.

This became very clear on Saturday night when Chicago house music DJs Derrick Carter, Darlene “DJ Lady D” Jackson and Marea Renee “The Black Madonna” Stamper joined me live in studio for my Nocturnal Journal radio show on WGN-AM. The station’s Allstate Showcase Studio was filled with an expressive joy I won’t soon forget.

We explored the seed sounds of house in soul Chicago churches, Disco Demolition and the legacy of hearing music on Chicago streets, especially in the anticipated endless nights of summer time. We paid tribute to house pioneer Frankie Knuckles who would have turned 60 years old on Jan. 18.

On Martin Luther King weekend, we played Carter’s Cratebug Edit of  “Dreams,” an example of the technique that Knuckles used, where he mixed Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with house records and other sound effects. You hear part of Knuckles “The Whistle Song” that became part of a Lipton tea commercial and a portion of Knuckles final set at the Smart Bar, Thanksgiving 2014. Stamper is talent buyer and resident DJ at the Smart Bar.

DJ Lady D

DJ Lady D

 

I found out  just a couple of weeks ago that in 1995 DJ Lady D moved in with three other DJs to a 3,000 square foot loft space at 120 N. Green at Randolph (now restaurant row). Carter and DJ Mark Farina were also living in the 120 N. Green building during the early 1990s.

At the same time I was in a post-divorce bachelor loft across the street at 131 N. Green. I lived above the S&S Restaurant where the greasy scrambled eggs danced off the rye toast. My neighbors were also house music DJs and I bet I drove them nuts with my Martin Denny records blaring across my tiki bar.

A second or third version of the Warehouse dance club was just a block away on West Randolph and there was a club called Alcatraz on North Green Street. House music roared late into the night and then a new morning.

Always a new morning.

Derrick Carter

Derrick Carter

 

 

 

 

 

Bruce Rickerd getting certified by the Guinness Book of World Records for not missing a performance in 21 years (Courtesy of Mystere', Cirque Du Soleil)

Bruce Rickerd getting certified by the Guinness Book of World Records for not missing a performance in 21 years (Courtesy Cirque Du Soleil)

When I come home from my radio program I reflect on the show we made to share with you.

I consider questions I might have asked, a button I shouldn’t have pushed to aggravate my fine producer Dan Long  or maybe an anecdote I could have contributed to inject some of my personality. I had a hard time getting to sleep after the Jan. 3 Nocturnal Journal. I was thinking about the thread of purposefulness that connected my guests:

* At the end of December, Bruce Rickerd broke the record for most theatrical performances by a male musician in his role as guitarist in “Mystere” at Cirque du Soleil  at Treasure Island in Las Vegas.

His mark of 9,958 shows got him in the Guinness Book of World Records and as he told us, he is bearing down on 10,000 shows since “Mystere” debuted in 1993. Rickerd, 62, has not missed one gig playing prog-rock electric and Eastern European acoustic guitar.

* Nick Russo, the long time swinging piano player at Jilly’s on Rush Street is back in the game. You can hear him between 7 and 10:30 p.m. every Thursday at Zeal’s restaurant in the shadow of the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg.

I had heard Nick had been ill, but it wasn’t until I was helping him take his gear down after the show that I learned he goes to Dr. Vincent Buffalino in Naperville, the same heart specialist that has taken care of my parents. Nick was a great guest with great stories. “A month ago I wouldn’t have been able to do this show,” Russo told me as we rode down the Tribune Tower elevator. Russo, only 61,  has survived two quadruple bypasses and congestive heart failure. “Dr. Buffalino has saved my life three times,” Russo said on Monday afternoon.

The Four Hoarsemen: (L to R), Nick Russo, Dave Hoekstra. Jon Langford, Dan Long

The Four Hoarsemen: (L to R), Nick Russo, Dave Hoekstra. Jon Langford, Dan Long

* Jon Langford, Nan Warshaw, Rob Miller  and Bloodshot Records have been delivering real country music and rock n’ roll with consistent quality and utmost daring for the past 20 years. A Bloodshot Records anniversary celebration kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 10 at Metro in Chicago. Langford made the radio show despite the recent sudden loss of his mum Kit. He told me he is headed off to his native Wales on Thursday for the seventh time in something like the last 30 days.

Langford showed up on Saturday and even jammed with Russo on a velvet-drenched version of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

I sort of made them do that.

Facebook has become repository for whining and complaining about the weather, but Langford’s FB message about his Mom’s passing was a keeper: “Thanks so much for all the messages of sympathy love and support. Kit wanted to keep going forever. No quarter given to miseries and moaners. A life well lived and well worth celebrating at this festive time of year. “

You can smile in the face of adversity.

* Gregory Warmack, a.k.a. “Mr. Imagination” encountered an uncanny amount of misfortune in his life but it didn’t stop him from dreaming. Warmack died May 30, 2012 of an infection in an Atlanta, Ga. hospital. He was 64 years old. He is the subject of a major retrospective that opens Jan. 9 at INTUIT–The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.

In the summer of 1996 I visited Warmack in his crowded studio-apartment near Wrigley Field. He told me how he became “Mr. Imagination.” In 1978 he was a hair dresser and clothes designer, but he had never been an artist.

“I used to give this guy nickels and dimes for wine,” Warmack said. “One day he turned around and said, ‘I want all your money.’ I had like 40 cents. I heard what sounded like two huge cannons going off. I saw sparks. I saw fire. I realized this guy had shot me. It felt like someone opened up my stomach and poured in hot coals. I ran into a bar and told someone I had just gotten shot. My eyes went dim and I was in a coma for six weeks.” Warmack said that while in the coma, he traveled back into the past through a tunnel of light. He then pointed to rows of Aztec-influenced sandstone faces in his apartment.

He saw the faces while he was in the coma. He saw himself as “Mr. Imagination,” an African king.

He was liberated.

Mr.-I-with-Window

Mr. Imagination and his artwork in New York, 2009 in a show curated by the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md.

And he remained in the creative heavens despite the fact:

* His brother William broke his neck and died while trying to break into Warmack’s apartment. “It didn’t make Greg bitter or break his gentle spirit,” founding INTUIT member Cleo Wilson wrote in her notes to the exhibit. “In fact, he created an altar tribute to his brother at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.

* In 2000, Warmack became an artist in residence in Bethlehem, Pa. A January, 2008 fire gutted Warmack’s home while he was at an art show in Florida. He lost everything include his beloved dog and five cats.

Friends helped him rebuild and move to Atlanta in 2009 where he created an Angel Garden for children of the world to congregate.

Just like the fortitude I heard on Saturday night, there is no limit to imagination–especially when you nurture the kid inside of you.

“If there was a limit to using your imagination when they built the first buildings they would have all looked the same,” Warmack told me. “Architects had to use their imagination. Fashion is based on imagination. The whole world is built on imagination.”

Perseverance and imagination is what “Mystere” is built on.

“Being a musician, if you’re not a star, most of the times you’re not making a whole lot of money,” Rickerd said in a Monday evening conversation before his 90-minute show at Treasure Island. “And when you don’t play you don’t make an money. I was a band leader and lead singer back in the day. If somebody was out, nobody worked.”

What bands were those?

“I had a band called Equinox,” answered Rickerd, who grew up outside of Ottawa (On.) Canada. “And Hard Wood.”

Hard Wood?

Rickerd laughed and said, “I never thought of it like that. You just gave me a totally different perspective on it. But I was just being responsible with my work. Reputations get ruined real quick. If you’re a no show for a gig, they don’t call you any more. With Cirque du Soleil, it’s not the same thing. I could have taken a day off now and then, but it is a responsibility. If I can do the job I will.”

Over the years Eddie Van Halen, E-Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren and Michael Jackson have seen Rickerd perform at a Mystere. “Michael Jackson came here close to a dozen times,” said Rickerd, who also played behind John Lee Hooker as a 22-year-old in Canada. “Of course he was always incognito. We knew that because he was the only guy with a mask on followed by five seven-foot tall guys.

“Ronnie Foster (keyboardist George Benson, Roberta Flack and others) comes to the show. He’s a musical director at one of the shows here (“Smokey Robinson Presents: Human Nature”). Neil Merryweather is a bass player who produced Lita Ford records and played with Rick James. As a matter of fact I’ll be jamming with them after the gig tonight at a dive called Saddle n’ Spurs. After playing for 3,000 people I’ll go out and play for 30. It is way off the strip, a locals place.”

The work ethic never rests.