Long Lost Fastpitch Friends Reunite

Written by Bob on June 12th, 2014

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YUCAIPA, Calif. – Reuniting with old friends is such a wonderful feeling. 1995 marks the last time I had seen or heard from Craig Brown. And shortly after the 2000 ISC World Tournament in St. Joseph, MO, Merle Brendeland fell off my radar as well.

But thankfully we three have revived our friendship through a phone call from Craig, and my email to Merle a few years a go.

I found out that a lot had changed in their lives. Not all pleasant. Both had divorced. Both had lost extremely successful careers when the economy tanked, and so on.

But both have bounced back in fine fashion, which hales the toughness of their backbone.

Craig, now remarried, is semi-retired and living in Florida, and Merle is back to his roots, farming in Iowa.

As for fastpitch, Craig is one of the best pitchers in Minnesota history, and maybe the state’s best lefthander all-time. And Merle – like myself – was of average ability, but loves the game like I do.

More importantly, both men are my two best friends.

I’ve known Craig since 1973 when we were students at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minn.

The first time I met Merle was in 1983 at a fastpitch game at the old ball yard at Ninth & Mt. Vernon in San Bernardino. A new job had brought him to Southern California. He was in the stands watching our ball game.

A teammate on our Yucaipa Merchants team said, “I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet. He’s from your part of the country and he’s looking for a team to play on.”

This teammate figured since Merle was from Iowa and I’m a Minnesotan, we’d have something in common. He was right. We were soon talking weather, farming, and Minnesota and Iowa fastpitch. We were soon fast friends and teammates.

But like I said, over the years we drifted apart. I figured the friendships lost. Fortunately I was wrong.

Now we three are calling or emailing back and forth at least a couple times a month. Last night I was on the phone with Craig for over an hour talking kids, grandkids, the differences in Florida weather versus California, and of course fastpitch.

Most of our topics would start, “do you remember…” And off we would go, often interrupting each other to tell our side of the tale.

I think a pleasant side of growing older – all three of us are over 60 – is that we can often laugh about our early life failures and put them into a more acceptable perspective with the passage of time.

Failures, however, that weren’t quite so funny in our younger years.

Craig was telling me that when he was about 18, he was pitching for the St. James Merchants. Fielding mainly a roster of kids, the Merchants played in the St. James VFW Tournament and upset Fairmont, 3-2, to reach the finals.

Back in the late 1960s, Fairmont was one of the state’s best ASA teams, led by the pitching of Marley Johnson, a Minnesota state Softball Hall of Famer.

Feeling perhaps a bit puffed up over this huge upset victory, the young Merchants had to play Fairmont the following week in a league game; and the results weren’t exactly pleasant said Craig.

“They weren’t happy losing to us and wanted revenge,” Craig said. “They beat us something like 21-2 on (the following) Tuesday in league.”

Craig laughs about it now. But knowing his bulldog-like nature, I’m sure he wasn’t quite so jovial back then after taking such a licking.

But don’t feel pity for the left-hander. I figure that he’s won about 500 games in his long, stellar career, along with several state and regional championships, and numerous trips to the ASA National Championship and ISC World Tournament.

I’ve met many people in my fastpitch travels, and along the way made a few friendships. But none I treasure more than Merle or Craig’s.

Will we drift apart again? Not going to happen.

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