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Birth of Fish Nation; town ball proves to be a hit in RF

Monte Hansen, center, and Bill Smith, both of River Falls, right, bring their lawn chairs to make sure they get front row seats behind home plate for every Fish home game. <i>Bob Burrows photos</i>

Bill Smith of River Falls hadn't been to an organized baseball game in nearly 50 years until the Fighting Fish amateur team came to town in 2008.

"When I was 11 years-old growing up in Maplewood, me and my brother used to caddie at the White Bear Lake Yacht Club and we'd work a quick nine in the morning and make $1.25, then hitchhike to the old Met Stadium and get 'knothole' seats for 50 cents," he recalled. "Since then, I really couldn't care less about baseball."

But when Nathan Brom, starting Fighting Fish third baseman and part-time bartender at Johnnie's Bar, talked Smith and his wife, Sue, into attending a game at the high school field after the team moved here from Spring Valley, "Smitty," as he's known, decided to give the Fish a shot.

And he's been, pardon the pun, hooked ever since.

"I love the outdoors," Smith, 60, said. "I love to fish but the lakes are all full of idiots on the weekends, so this is something fun to do."

Brom, a 17-year veteran of what's commonly called "town ball," remembers playing in front of "maybe a dozen" fans when the team was known as the Spring Valley Hawks prior to 2008. Now the Fighting Fish commonly draw 100-150 fans a game, and have had as many as 250 cheering them on at the high school field.

"The support has been amazing," Brom said. "It's a huge home field advantage. The players and the fans have really gotten to know each other and I think everybody enjoys it more."

Like Smith, Monte Hanson of River Falls said he'd rather watch a Fighting Fish game than the Twins or Brewers.

"It's old-time town baseball," he said. "I played on a team out of Turtle Lake years ago, and the baseball field was a place for people to come and hang out together. I enjoy the camaraderie, especially with the players.

"And it's free!" he added. "I'd pay to watch them!"

Keith Olson and his wife, Sandy, just started attending Fish games this season. He said the games remind him of his childhood growing up in Spring Valley.

"Before the Hawks the team was called Duffy's Little Darlings; he owned the dry cleaners in Spring Valley," Olson recalled. "Every Sunday and every 4th of July everybody would come out to watch baseball at that old park by the dam. The kids would line the bank shagging foul balls. We used to get a quarter back then too. This is just like that."

Sue Smith said most of the Fish players are connected to River Falls in one way or another, and that helps generate a spirit of community at the park.

"The players and the players' families; you get to see a lot of people," she said. "I was talking to the wife of one of the players and she said, when they build the new ballpark, make sure they have a playground for the kids. The kids just love it out there, chasing foul balls and playing together."

Steve Davison and his wife Rhonda also started attending Fish games at the urging of Brom. Turns out Steve used to babysit Fighting Fish second baseman Adam Stuessel when Stuessel was just a T-ball playing youngster.

"We love coming to games," Steve said. "It's a great way to meet some very nice people, and its great baseball."

Rhonda Davison, who is originally from La Crosse, made the mistake one day of telling Fighting Fish public address announcer Bob Brenna that she could see Iowa from the top of Grandad's Bluff in her home town. Now, at every game, Brenna makes sure to publicly thank "our fans from Iowa who made the long trip up to the game today."

Fighting Fish catcher, 36-year-old Joel Schaffer, remembers playing against the Fish as a member of the Hudson River Rats. At each Fish home game, the No. 3 batter in the opposing team's lineup is labeled the "hot dog batter." If the batter makes an out, hot dogs are half-price the rest of that inning.

Schaffer's introduction to Fighting Fish fans was as the hot dog batter for two seasons.

"They really get on the hot dog batter," said Schaffer. "The first time you get up and they announce that, you're not sure how to handle it. Baseball is a game of failure, and when you fail they let you know it."

The allegiance of Fighting Fish fans' isn't lost on opposing teams. Hudson manager Chris "Frenchy" LaBreche writes a blog on his team's website. Here's what he had to say before the River Rats' visit to River Falls last month:

Playing the Fishies on their turf, on the other hand, with the usual bunch of mouthy townies, is an entirely separate manner. In the effort to return baseball to its roots, River Falls takes the concept to its logical extreme, including hecklers and rowdy fans. Theirs is a group that loves its team wholeheartedly, and revels in the faults and frailties of its opponents.

LaBreche might have been talking about Mike James when he wrote that post. James keeps the spirit of rooting for the home team alive at every game, even if that mean's giving opposing players a little grief every now and then.

"I'm the DH," he said. "Designated Heckler. I figure that's what home field advantage should be."

Schaffer, a 19-year veteran of town ball who is married to former River Falls police officer Alta Painter, said while Fish fans can be loud, they also respect the game and its players.

"It's nice to come over here and be part of a program that is all about classy baseball," he said. "No swearing, keep the kids involved. This is for the community."

Schaffer said he believes the Fish, and their fans, have turned River Falls into a baseball town.

"My No. 1 goal after high school in Eau Claire was to play for the Cavaliers," he said, referring to Eau Claire's historic amateur team. "I hope kids here say, 'One day I want to play for the Fish.' I think that's an honorable goal."

The growing legion of Fighting Fish fans appear to agree.

"These guys, I think, have more fun playing the game than guys in the major leagues," Rhonda Davison said. "And the hot dogs are wonderful!"

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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