Shoe Column: The Great St. Pete’s Softball Tournament
By Tim “Shoe” Sullivan
Stevens Point in 1978 was ruled by slow-pitch softball.
There were teams playing everywhere in softball leagues. Teams were jammed into Iverson and Goerke parks. Royal Wood Park in neighboring Plover also had a bunch of leagues.
So did Plover’s Memorial Park, and we can’t forget Junction City and the County Leagues.
Putting it mildly, softball was king. Almost anyone who could hold a bat or catch a ball was playing in organized leagues. Softball in the area was played six nights of the week, and weekend tournaments sprung up everywhere. Softball was the talk of the town.
And in 1978, KC Sullivan from the Morey’s Bar team had an idea. He said, “Softball was just exploding in the area, but my buddies and I noticed something. We’d play in our league and only get three or four at-bats a game. We wanted a lot more than that.”
So Sullivan and his pals did the next best thing. They discovered a softball diamond in Point that was perfect for their needs. It was the softball field at St. Peter’s on the north side.
The field used to host fastpitch softball leagues in the 1950s, but it had seen better days by the time KC and the boys came across it. He said, “On nights when we weren’t playing in the leagues or in tournaments, we’d round up a few guys and head over to St. Pete’s. We’d play home run derby. The left-field fence was only about 260 feet from home plate so a lot of home runs left the yard. The great thing was that a guy could have about 50 swings.”
After a few months of home run derby, Sullivan’s gang took the next step. They began playing actual games with five-man teams.
He explained. “We would have a left-fielder and another outfielder in center where the fence was about 300 feet. Then we had a guy at third base, a shortstop, and the pitcher. We played pitcher’s hands. Ran the bases and everything and kept score. You would actually get blisters on your hands from batting so much.”
And in the fall of 1978, they had another brainstorm. “We all gathered down at the old Unique Bar across from the Point Journal and decided to have our own one-day tournament. We held a draft and drew names out of a hat and formed four teams. We picked four managers and played a round robin tournament on a Saturday in October.”
And thus was born the First Annual St. Pete’s Invitational Softball Tournament. (SPIST). The thing took off like a rocket.
Bob “Ma” Pesch, a charter member of the tournament, recalled, “Oh my God — over the years, that tournament just grew and grew. Players were coming from everywhere. A lot of guys played in the Saturday tournaments.”
And they all had their own favorite stories. Pesch dug up an old newspaper clipping which read, “The Hurley Freaks beat the Whooligans in 1979 to win the second SPIST. The Freaks featured Mickey and Mark Gotta, Steve Erspamer, Thurman Wroblewski, and Randy Wievel. The Whooligans included Sullivan, Mike Thompson, Rick Fix, Ron Kurszewski, and John Kedrowski.”
Several awards were handed out, and Rick Fix was voted the first “MVP”.
I (the Shoe) played in the first 10, and so did Pesch, KC, , Mumbler Giese, Joe Sanders, Mike Duffin, Jon Cronce, and Dave “Jinx” Worzalla, among others.
Pesch noted, “Dave Worzalla was the only guy who always batted with a wooden bat, and Cronce always used a pink one.”
Other regulars were Bruce “Prune” Kinney, Mike Thompson, Colin Sanders, Dave Nachman, and Dave “Roundy” Kluetz. Roundy won the first prestigious “LVP” Award for the least valuable player in the tournament.
Sullivan explained, “Roundy iced his LVP award in his first game when he hit into a triple play. He grounded out to the pitcher. I forgot who the pitcher was, but he then tagged the guy running to second and kept on going and also tagged the guy going to third. He got ‘em all. Roundy won a big trophy that John Kedrowski had welded from a bunch of trophy parts. That thing had to weigh 15 pounds.”
The tournament always had a mixed bag of talent. There were big sluggers like Brian McCarthy, Jason Dorn, Eric Zimmerman, and Colin Sanders, and then there were some guys who hardly knew how to hold a bat. But one thing was for certain: everyone had fun.
Pat Witkowski. Randy Grywacz. Tom LaBoda. Mike Jamrosz. Jack Ellenz. Crow Zimmerman. Paulo Pavelski. All were tournament regulars.
Pavelski recalled, “Sometimes games would start at eight in the morning on Saturday and go until dark. More than once, the championship was decided by shooting darts at Papa Joe’s during the post-tourney party.”
Mark and Jim Engebretson’s team once played about seven or eight games in one day. Fred Hoerter. Kenny Hoerter. Dale “Futz” Varsho (whose brother Gary played for the Chicago Cubs), Gary Marquard, Jack Giese, Rufus Worden, and Joey Besiada could all be found at St. Pete’s.
Ma Pesch noted, “It was really hot and humid one day, and Jack Giese walked all the way out to center where they had a water bubbler. When he came back in, Prune Kinney asked him if the bubbler worked. Jack said, ‘No, it’s its day off.’”
It was not uncommon to enjoy beverages in the dugouts. and several brews were consumed during hot softball action.
Sullivan noted, “It was kinda like one big picnic. Some of the guys would play basketball on the courts while waiting for their softball games to start. Then they’d head over to the dugouts and grab a cool one. Other guys would take a can of Coke and go into Ma Pesch’s van and watch Notre Dame football on Ma’s little TV.”
And other times, players were occasionally banned. Woba Witkowski had to sit out one tournament because it was raining and he was spotted sitting in Northside Bar when he was supposed to be pitching. A clear case of not knowing that the games were rain or shine.
Left-handed batters like Paulo Pavelski, Brian McCarthy, and Joe Sanders were usually at a disadvantage because right field was out of bounds.
Pesch noted, “They ran a hose straight from second base out to deep center. Most of the school was in foul territory and if you hit the ball to right field, it was foul.:
Sullivan said, “I was the commissioner from 1978 to 1990. Over that 12-year span, we tried using pillows for bases, put beer banners on the fences, had cardboard cutouts you tried to hit, and we hung a bucket on the fence. If you hit a ball in the bucket, you’d win a Big Bob sausage sandwich afterwards at the Unique. Nobody ever won one. It sometimes cost $200 or more to play in an area tournament. We charged a $1 player fee which went for softballs, score books, pens…in my best year as commissioner, I only lost $27.”
Nick Wyhuske, Mike Vallin, Duck Shannon, John Dickrell, Mike “Sarge” Staley, Bobby Sanders, Arno Morton, Brian “Lumber” Woyak, and Danny Keehn all displayed their softball talents at St. Pete’s.
Prune Kinney never missed a day. He recalled, “Nothing surprised me. One time Bob Linzmeier had a team in it. He had guys like Pete Marsh, Mikey Thompson, Joe Graceffa. They all showed up in an old bus.”
Prune also appeared at St. Pete’s on a Sunday morning when the tournament had already ended Saturday night.
UWSP professor Jim Moe once sang the National Anthem. “We didn’t have a flag,” Pesch explained, “but someone noticed that a lady in a house down the block had a flag you could see through the window, so we all faced that during the anthem.”
For several years, an elderly gentleman on his walk home would take a shortcut right across the diamond during a game. He never seemed to care if a game was underway, and he never got hit by a ball.
Pesch said, “We were thinking about giving him an award for bravery.”
Players never knew what to expect next when it came to awards. Eric Zimmerman once won a three-pound zucchini for leading the tournament in home runs. He also won a Squirt cap. Zimmerman put a team in the 2000 SPIST called “Ma’s Children of The Millenium”.
He said, “We almost forfeited when someone hit a parked car with a foul ball and a few of the guys ran for their cars and headed out of Dodge.”
Paulo Pavelski and Jon Cronce both won at least two “LVP” Award — “The proudest days of my life,” Pavelski remembered. I (the Shoe) also won one which just shows you what going 1 for 48 can do.
Charter member Mike Duffin once brought a bee trap into the dugout. He noted, “There were bees all over the place. Guys were drinking beer and soda and we must’ve caught 100 bees.”
Duffin also said, “I believe the year was 2005, and I had my own team. I was pitching to Paulo Pavelski, and both teams were undefeated. With Paulo being a lefty, I pitched him outside hoping for a weak pop-up to our only ringer Jason ‘Stosh’ Kurszewski. Paulo turned on the second pitch and laced a rope square into my head. Stosh grabbed the careening ball and placed it in my glove. Paulo ran to the mound to see if I was okay instead of running to first. Bobby Sanders was umping and immediately called Paulo out. I was carted off the field and placed on the bench where I was given ice and beer. Colin Sanders conducted concussion protocol and said I had to leave the game. Jim Eberhard was recruited off of Bob’s team and came in to pitch. On Paulo’s next at bat, he lined the first pitch right past Jim’s head. I haven’t pitched since and neither has Jim Eberhard. However, I did return to form in 2006 and achieved a certificate of excellence.”
Some players just seemed to have bulls-eyes out there. Ma Pesch once played center-field in a St. Pete’s game. KC Sullivan’s team won, 52-13. and Sullivan had 10 hits…in one inning…all to center!
I had one memorable at-bat. I hit a short pop-up behind second base. John Dickrell was playing in center and Mike “Sarge” Staley, a former UWSP National Champion hockey player, was at short. Both guys were ultra-competitive. Dickrell came charging in and Sarge was running out and they collided head-on. Both were down for the count. Dickrell actually went to the hospital but returned later.
The game was held up for 20 minutes. Prune Kinney and Jon Cronce walked out to second and Prune said, “Not sure, but I think he gets a double on that.”
One guy who never was in the LVP running was big Brian McCarthy, a true slugger just like Eric Zimmerman and Jason Dorn.
KC recalled, “Mac was at the plate, and we usually only used the softest softballs when those bashers batted. But for some reason, Mac was up and they used a brand new ball. He blasted it about 350 feet. It flew over a light pole in the deepest part of center. We thought it landed on the school’s roof and that ball would never be seen again. This was in September. A few months later, some of us were sitting in the Unique when Jerry Meshak came by. He knew that we played some games at Pete’s. Jerry said he lived about 50 feet and down the block from the school. He said he went up into his attic to get some Christmas decorations and noticed a broken window. And in his box of decorations was a brand new Dudley softball. That meant that Mac’s blast must’ve sailed over the light pole, bounced off the school’s roof, flew over the street, over Jerry’s lawn, and crashed into his upstairs window. It truly might’ve been the longest homer in Portage County history.”
The Saturday five-man softball tournaments were still going strong when KC stepped down in 1990 after 12 years at the helm. He was replaced as commissioner by Bobby Sanders. Sanders was a great commissioner of the SPIST. He never ran out of score books, and arranged annual paties at Papa Joe’s when his dad Joe of S.S.Audio Express would play music all night while all the players dined on 100’s of grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, and Pittsville brats.
Bobby said, “Actually, we moved the tourney to Lake Pacawa in 2010, and it’s still going on. But we still call it the ‘St. Pete’s Invitational Softball Tournament’, and I believe I can speak for many when I say we were really lucky to have St. Pete’s for our ball yard.”
Bad-hop doubles. Pittsville bratwurst sizzling on the sidewalk grill. Fly-balls lost in the sun. Triple plays. Pinch runners. No walks. Two strikes you’re out. Foul balls off telephone poles. Mumbler Giese finally swinging at the 19th pitch of an at-bat. And you played all day for a buck.
The St. Pete’s Tournaments had it all.