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Winter Wonderland In Wells, Minnesota

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010


Photos By Pat and Wally Stenzel / Wells, MN

WELLS, MN – This morning I stepped outside dressed in jogging shorts and a t-shirt. I reached up and plucked a ripe, juicy Naval orange off my citrus tree that grows just outside my back door. I lifted my face to the sun’s morning rays feeling its soothing warmth gently bathing my tired skin.

The weather report calls for mid-60s to low 70s temperatures. Ah, what a beautiful Southern California day.

I went back inside and checked my email. Up popped a message from my sister, Pat Stenzel, and her husband Wally, who live in Wells, Minnesota.

Pat attached pictures showing her small southern Minnesota village buried under an avalanche of snow. Her street was piled high on each side with mounds of snow four feet high.

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A reminder Minnesota, winter is on its way

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009


On the “sunny” side, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival (January 21-31) is a great winter event to attend in Minnesota.
Photos of 2009 Saint Paul Winter Carnival By BOB OTTO / Photographer & Writer

YUCAIPA, CA – I bow my head in shame. For I have shirked my duties as a journalist. It is my obligation to investigate and inform.

And in some cases, to enlighten and remind.

So with deep humility, please accept my apology for …

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Twins say goodbye to the comfy Metrodome

Monday, October 12th, 2009

in front of apartment building  12 Oct 2009
Photo of Minnesota’s first 2009 snow fall by my sister Metta Marie Rogers of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINN – The New York Yankees ousted the Twins from the American League Division Series with a 4-1 victory Sunday. And with the defeat, a 28-year run of playing “under cover” in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome comes to an end.

In 2010, the Twins will open their season on April 12 against the Boston Red Sox in their new Target Field in downtown Minneapolis. The Twins $412 million outdoor stadium.

Now, had the Twins won on Sunday, the playoffs would have continued today under miserable playing conditions “IF” the game had been played outdoors at Target Field.

About 4 inches of snow has fallen and the temperatures hover in the 30s. Just ideal for riding a snowmobile or ice fishing.

But outdoor baseball?

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Let me sit behind the wheel for a few minutes

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

YUCAIPA, CA – I’m jealous and green with envy. Rick Burian has one. Joe Edmonds has one. And if only I could have foreseen the future, I’d have one too.

Rick and Joe are the proud owners of vintage Chevy Bel-Airs. Rick’s black beauty is a ’56 Nomad, while Joe tools around Yucaipa in his ’56 two door, two-tone, brown with white trim that turns heads up and down Yucaipa Boulevard.

Now this is where I start crying.

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The Scheevels and Preston, dedicated to fastpitch softball

Friday, July 31st, 2009


Photos taken at the fifth annual Preston Men’s Fastpitch Tournament.

Photos courtesy of Barb Scheevel

PRESTON, MINNESOTA – For 25 years Lynn Scheevel barnstormed from one ball diamond to another in southern Minnesota plying his trade with his sure handed glove at third base, and wielding a powerful bat at the plate.

Playing slow pitch softball.

But fastpitch fans, don’t hold that against him.

Call it enlightenment, a transformation, listening to a higher calling. Or maybe because his kids got involved with the fastpitch game. Whatever the reason, Scheevel, along with his wife Barb, are now strong supporters, promoters, and leaders of the fastpitch side of softball.

Years ago, Lynn and Barb got involved with fastpitch when their sons, Wade now 29, Ryan, 25, and Brett, 21, began playing the sport in the Minnesota / Iowa Border League. A youth fastpitch league for girls and boys.

And even though their sons are long gone from the co-ed fastpitch league for youth ages 6 to 18, the Scheevels have stayed involved as directors of the league. Why?

The sport has grown on them in a big way. For not only do they lead and direct, but they are also huge fastpitch fans.

“It’s a great sport and we want to keep it going,” Barb Scheevel said.

The co-ed fastpitch league is comprised of teams from several surrounding towns, including Fountain, Cherry Grove, Granger, Ostrander, LeRoy, and Preston – just to name a few. Lynn and Barb, along with son Ryan – the Preston Summer Recreation Director – work with dozens of coaches and fastpitch enthusiasts to make the league a success.

And in this league the positions are wide open. Every youngster has a chance at playing any and all the positions, said Barb.

“It’s mixed with boys and girls playing equally,” she said. “The girls get no special treatment. We have about 50 kids from Preston alone. It’s an awesome thing for the kids and it’s how our boys got started.”

The league’s success has reached as far as national tournaments. Teams from the league have gone on to play in Amateur Softball Association (ASA) youth national tournaments. And in 2007 the 18-Under team (all boys) finished third in the national tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

And a few of the boys have even tried out for the USA boy’s national team that plays in international competition against the likes of New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.

But boys and girls playing fastpitch together? Co-ed fastpitch? In some areas boys would frown on that saying it’s a girls game. And why not stick with baseball, a boy’s sport?

“No one has ever said a word against that,” said Ryan, who began playing in the league at age 8 and who helps teach girls and boys how to pitch. “The girls and boys learn skills from each other.” And as far as pitching goes, it’s about 50-50 between the too genders, Ryan added.

Because of the co-ed league, many of the boys have graduated into the men’s side of the sport. Four years ago the boy’s 18-Under team became the nucleus of the Preston Merchants team. A team that has developed into one of Minnesota’s up and coming young men’s teams. Of which, Ryan and his brother Brett pitch and catch respectively.

The Scheevel and Miller names have long been associated with youth fastpitch in Preston. Including Barb’s father, Lyle Miller, who coached and was a big fan of the youth game.

And after Lyle passed away in 2006, a special honor was bestowed upon him for his contributions.

“A scoreboard was named the Lyle J. Miller Memorial Scoreboard in his honor,” Barb Scheevel said, adding that her mother, JoAnn Miller has worked the concession stand for the past two years at the ball park.

“Dad was first my sons’ coach and then later, their best fan, rarely missing a game even when they traveled,” Barb Scheevel said. “Mom and Dad were their in their lawn chairs or bleachers every game.”

When it comes to fastpitch softball, the Scheevel’s involvement doesn’t stop with the youth. Five years ago Barb and Lynn organized the Preston Men’s Annual Fastpitch Tournament. From an initial five teams, the tournament has grown to 14 teams.

And it has become one of the top and in demand tournaments in the state. “I had twenty calls from teams wanting to get in,” Barb Scheevel said, “We could have easily had 16 teams.”

But the Scheevel’s had another motive. “We wanted to bring a men’s tournament to Preston so the boys could see that the game continues on after they leave the youth league,” Barb Scheevel. “Now, our 13 to 15 year-olds are chomping at the bit.”

But she’s quick to give credit for the success of the tournament. The city and the park and recreation department throw their support behind the tournament. And volunteers willingly step forward to lend a hand.

And the whole town of about 1,400 comes alive when teams from Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota mix it up on Preston’s two-diamond complex.

“We have a great amount of people in Preston who want to see the tournament grow and be successful,” Barb Scheevel said. “Preston is wonderful about that. And we always have a good turnout of fans.”

This year the tournament, held on July 25 and 26th,was won by Odin, Minnesota – their third trip to the tournament. Grumpies of Ackley, Iowa took second; Jonny’s Saloon of Elba, Minnesota, finished third; and Life of Iowa from Oelwein, Iowa finishing fourth.

But Preston isn’t the only small town in southeastern Minnesota hosting tournaments. St. Charles, population 3,295, hosted the Whitewater Classic. And Whalen, pop. 64, has hosted a tournament for three decades.

“The Whalen tournament has been held for thirty plus years,” Barb Scheevel said. “It’s put on by the only church in town on the 4th of July. The ball field has these old wooden bleachers that wrap around the infield. It’s like a Norman Rockwell scene.

And as for the future of the sport in little towns like Preston, Whalen, LeRoy, Elba, and St. Charles?

“The little towns are where fastpitch still is a tradition,” Barb Scheevel said. “But it only happens because you have to be dedicated.”

Love for the game keeps fastpitch alive in Odin

Monday, July 27th, 2009


By Bob Otto / Writer & Photographer

ODIN, MN – Lou Heller admits that his body aches more than it once did. And that his rise and drop ball pitches don’t “pop” as hard into his catcher’s mitt as they once did.

But never-the-less, the 55-year-old Heller’s love for the sport hasn’t faded as he continues on in his 40th year of playing fastpitch softball. And all 40 of those years Heller has played for only one team and one town: Odin, Minnesota.

Heller’s 40-year playing career is remarkable. But even more impressive is Odin’s legacy in the sport. 2009 marks the 59th consecutive year of men’s fastpitch softball in the little village with a population of 125 located in the southwestern part of the state.

And the Heller name has been linked with the team for most of Odin’s impressive run. Before Lou, another Heller graced the lone softball diamond in Odin: Lou’s older brother Gerry.

“Odin has had a fastpitch softball team every year since 1950,” said Bob Harder, a retired Odin player himself. Harder is also the part-time game announcer and team’s historian. He has kept detailed records of the team’s and its players’ exploits over the years. “Gerry has played for Odin since 1968,” Harder said. “He has played for the team for 37 of those 59 years.”

    HELLERS FOR OVER 100 YEARS

Since 1968, Lou and Gerry have a combined 87 years of lacing up the spikes for Odin men’s fastpitch. And before Gerry and Lou, their dad, Gerald, played in the 1950s. And both had sons who played for a while with their dads. That’s three generations of Hellers wearing the Odin colors for over 100 years.

While other teams in southern Minnesota have folded, Odin continues to survive. Well, not just survive. But thrive. Thrived as in claiming state championships and playing in many Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and North American Fastpitch Association (NAFA) national tournaments.

Harder’s records reveal some amazing numbers: From 1972 through 2008, Odin has played in the Minnesota state ASA tournament for 36 consecutive years. And in 1978 and 1982, Odin took home the state championship trophies.

Along with those two state championships, Odin has also claimed two runner-up spots; two thirds; and five fourth place finishes. And during an 18 year period from 1977 to 1994, Odin carved out an enviable 240-43 record in league play, winning 17 league championship during that incredible run.

And in 2007 Odin finished second in the 32-team NAFA “A” Major World Series Championship at Des Moines, Iowa with a 6-2 record. And Lou Heller was named as a first team All World pitcher. And his pitching partner, Justin Davis, claimed the Most Valuable Pitcher award.

So how is it that this little village with but a few streets nestled in a grove of trees in the middle of thousands of acres of corn and soybean fields survive and thrive in the sport?

While cities, such Long Beach, Lakewood, Riverside, and San Bernardino, California – with millions in population from which to choose and hone ball players – have seen men’s fastpitch wither and die?

    LEADERS KEEP GAME GOING

Odin fastpitch carries on, say Harder and Heller, because of the commitment of a few outstanding men. Outstanding leaders, who refused to allow the team to fold.

“Lou (Heller) has kept it going by managing and pitching,” Harder said. “But there are many people responsible for keeping it going. Vern Meyers was the player / manager for most of the 1950s. And during the 1960s Butch Nordby was a player / manager and he was responsible for keeping it going and playing for 21 years.”

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Murky creek leads to higher education

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

WANAMINGO, MN – I stood in the creek up to my waist. A murky, smelly, mosquito infested creek that cattle urinated in. My blue jeans were caked with black, gooey mud. The hot July sun bore down, its blistering rays burning my bare back to a bright red.

What in the hell am I doing? Why am I working such a crappy job? I asked myself.

“Push it (culvert) to your right!” yelled Wagner Swee. The construction boss was upset that I wasn’t moving fast enough, or following his orders well enough to suite him.

“I’m trying!” I yelled back, wanting to drag his butt into the creek with me.

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Greatness measured in nanoseconds

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

WANAMINGO, MN – Oh, how I was jealous of him in my high school years. He had athletic ability, and he was smart. Oh so smart – especially on the ball diamond, football field, and basketball court.

I had little of the afore mentioned qualities that separate the good from the great. But blond haired, blue-eyed Grant Hoven had both.

Now 42 years later, I recently stumbled upon a picture of Grant while researching old Wanamingo area news from the now defunct Wanamingo Progress at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

The pictured showed Grant ready to launch a jump shot. The year was 1967. The picture highlighted an article about Grant breaking the all-time Wananmingo High School basketball scoring record with 961 points.

So what separates an athlete – such as Grant – from the rest of the athletic pack? After all at about 5-foot-9 with good, but not blazing speed, and of modest jumping ability, Grant wasn’t showered with an over abundance of physical gifts.

What then made him special? Nanosecond thinking.

Grant and athletes like him have that special ability to make decisions very, very quickly. While the rest of us are still thinking about what to do, athletes such as Grant have already made the play.

During my fastpitch softball career, I’ve been privileged to have played with some very fine ball players – Teddy Dominguez, Ron Quinn, and Jeff Nessler will be remembered as three of the best in my book. They, like Grant, weren’t blessed with exceptional physical abilities such as foot or bat speed, size or physical strength.

But all three were exceptionally intelligent athletes. Exceptionally quick-thinking athletes.

Let’s start with Teddy. The stocky left-handed hitting outfielder played with the Lakewood Jets and Lancaster Chameleons during the heyday of the Western Softball Congress in Southern California.

Teddy had this uncanny ability to wait on the ball. Regardless of how fast the pitch, Teddy seemingly followed the ball almost into the catcher’s glove before deciding if the pitch was a ball or strike and whether or not to swing or keep the bat back. Even though he waited and waited, and waited some more, Teddy still had the lightning-quick thinking to judge the pitch a ball or strike, and the timing and power to drive the ball.

Ron Quinn was the best catcher that I’ve ever chucked a ball to. Ron was of average height, speed, and arm strength. But squatting behind the plate, Ron was a mastermind. He remembered every hitter’s weakness and strength. I never doubted his pitch selection when he flashed his fingers signaling he wanted either the rise, drop, or change up. And I never doubted the location where Ron set his glove.

I once asked him how he remembered so many hitters. How he decides what pitch and where to throw it to each and every batter we faced.

“I watch where they set up in the box, where their hands are, their body language, and how they swing the bat,” he said.

“But how do you do all that and still catch the ball?” I asked.

“It’s all done at once physically and mentally,” he said. Ron made it sound easy, but never have I had a catcher call and catch a game like Ron Quinn. He once said: “You just throw the ball and let me do the thinking.”

Jeff Nessler played shortstop for one of the finest ball clubs in the U.S. back in the 1970s and ‘80s when the great Mankato team was a frequent qualifier in ASA and ISC national tournaments.

Jeff had average foot speed, good bat speed, and a good glove. Although those skills can make for a very good ball player, it doesn’t constitute greatness.

But the ability to think and react in a split-second, Jeff – as with Grant, Teddy, and Ron – had that innate gift in abundance.

A gift that the some of us can only wish we had. With a bit of jealousy, I might add.

Squirrel hunting with dad

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

WANAMINGO, MN – Dad aimed his rifle high up in to the leafy oak. He squinted his left eye, lined up the sights, and slowly squeezed the trigger. Crack went his .22 rifle. Down tumbled a fat, fluffy red squirrel.

“Good shot dad!” I said as I ran up to fetch the squirrel. Dad seldom missed.

I was about eight when dad started taking me along on his squirrel hunting trips. “If you want to go along hunting you’ll have to get up early tomorrow,” dad would say on a Friday or Saturday night.

Dad had a keen hunter’s eye. When his hand went up like a stop sign, it meant he had spotted a squirrel hidden somewhere in a thick jungle of fluttering leaves. He’d point with his finger and whisper, “right up there.”

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Tractors on parade

Monday, July 6th, 2009


Photos By Bob Otto

CANNON FALLS, MN – The Cannon Falls 94th annual 4th of July parade drew about 7,000 spectators to the little town of 3,800 just 28 miles southeast of St. Paul.

I am one of those happy spectators who enjoys parades. My brother John not so much. At the crack of dawn he straddled his motorcycle and hightailed it out of town to escape the hoards of visitors who would soon overtake most of the streets and available parking spaces along the parade route. And the parade route passed too close to his otherwise quiet street for his comfort.

I on the other hand with camera and lawn chair in hand, walked the one block from John’s home to Minnesota Street to pick out the best spot to see and shoot the parade.

As a reporter and photographer, I’ve covered parades in Yucaipa, Fontana, Hemet, San Jacinto, Beaumont, and Banning, California over the past 10 years.

But none compares with little Cannon’s parade. Why? Tractors. I grew up on a farm. I learned to drive a tractor when my feet could barely reach the pedals at the age of nine. John Deere’s, Massey Harris, Allis-Chalmers, Farmalls, Minneapolis Moline, Case, Oliver, Ford – I love them all.

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