St. James men’s fastpitch

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Ultimate competitor Dan Nessler twice a Hall of Famer

Sunday, December 11th, 2016
DAN NESSLER of Happy Chef covers second base during the 1995 ISC World Tournament in which Happy Chef finished fifth. Nessler was selected an All-World player four times and was inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame in 2009. Photo By BOB OTTO

DAN NESSLER of Happy Chef covers second base during the 1995 ISC World Tournament in which Happy Chef finished fifth. Nessler was selected an All-World player four times and was inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame in 2009. Photo By BOB OTTO

MANKATO, Minn. – With a grunt and a leap, the pitcher hurls the softball from 46 feet, causing the violently spinning missile to jump or plunge a foot just before crossing home plate and slamming into the catcher’s mitt at 85 miles per hour.

The degree of difficulty of hitting such a frustratingly elusive projectile?

Nearly impossible for batsmen of modest ability. But for the very best, an improbability they handle with great aplomb.

Mark Sorenson was one of the best, as was Bill Boyer, Shawn Rychcik and Colin Abbott. This esteemed class also includes Dan Nessler of Mankato, Minnesota.

Nessler was a magician with the bat from the left-side batters box. He played small-ball as well as anyone, said pitcher Pete Sandman, a teammate with Nessler on the world championship Penn Corp teams of Sioux City, Iowa.

“Dan was a great hitter,” said Sandman, who pitched for Penn Corp and later National Health Care Discount (NHCD) from 1981 to 1991. “He was smart, could slap, drag bunt, hit balls to left, center or right. He was gifted with the bat.”

    ACCLAIMED PLAYER AND LEADER

With the likes of Sandman, Nessler, Sorenson and Boyer leading a stable of stars, Penn Corp / NHCD won four (1988, ’89, ’91, ’92) International Softball Congress World Tournament championships. During that reign, Nessler made ISC All-World twice.

Interspersed in those Penn Corp years, Nessler also played for Happy Chef of Mankato, helping the team finish fifth in the 1995 ISC World Tournament, and claiming the ASA Class A National Championship the same year.

During the Happy Chef years, Nessler earned two ISC All-World honors (1985, 1992), along with being selected ASA Second-Team, All-American.

Nessler took over as player / manager in 1992. A post he held for 10 years. He was a leader and an example to the younger players, said former infielder Scott Christensen, a three-time ISC All-World player with Happy Chef.

“He was always thinking about game situations and our strengths and what the other team might do,” said Christensen. “He was a very intelligent player who could anticipate and be in the right place to make a play. You can’t teach that. He could adapt (at bat) and bunt or hit the other way.”

DAN NESSLER played in 16 ISC World Tournaments. In the four world tournaments in which he was selected All-World, he batted .407 with 15 runs and nine RBI. Photo By BOB OTTO / 1995 ISC World Tournament

DAN NESSLER played in 16 ISC World Tournaments. In the four world tournaments in which he was selected All-World, he batted .407 with 15 runs and nine RBI. Photo By BOB OTTO / 1995 ISC World Tournament

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Will to win drove Craig Brown to become one of Minnesota’s all-time great fastpitch pitchers

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

1982-Craig Brown.1web Craig Brown, a left-handed pitcher from St. James, Minn. carved out a great pitching career for the James Gang of St. James, and Mankato Happy Chef. Photo BY BOB OTTO / 1982 St. James Dennis Johnson Field

SEMINOLE, FLORIDA – His speed was good, but not great. The movement on his pitches likewise.

But as for his intestinal fortitude, his work ethic, his will to win? Now that was great.

Craig Brown threw a fast-pitched softball in the 75 mph range. That wouldn’t put him in the high velocity class with ISC Hall of Famers Peter Meredith, Darren Zack and Michael White.

Or even with Minnesota Hall of Fame pitchers Leroy Jolstad, Al DeWall or Dale Root. All these aforementioned pitchers threw in the high 70s to 80s mph.

    BIG TIME GAMER

But the left-handed “Brownie” as he was known in his playing days, certainly is in the same class when it comes to the bottom line:

Winning.

He was all about that in his 27-year career. A career that began as a 12 year old in 1960 and ended in 1987 at the still young pitching age of 39.

During that span, he didn’t stray too far from his roots in St. James, Minn., where he grew up pitching at Memorial Park for the Merchants and VFW.

And later at the peak of his career, for the best team ever to come from the small town of 5,000 – the James Gang.

Comprised of mostly locally grown athletes, the James Gang was one of the best “small town” teams ever to play in the ISC and ASA Major divisions.

    TOUGH LEFTY AND RIGHTY COMBO

With lefty Brown and right-handed Charlie Engler toeing the rubber, the James Gang was always a threat to win state and regional tournaments. And they were always a threat in the ISC World Tournament and the ASA Major National Tournament.

No big-budgeted team dared take Engler or Brown lightly or the duo would knock them off their lofty perch.

St. James native Dennis Johnson watched Brown mature as a skinny 12-year-old into one of the state’s all-time great hurlers.

“Craig wasn’t scared of anybody,” said Johnson, who helped direct the state ISC travel league for about 20 years, and is an ISC Hall of Fame member. “And he had that change-up as his big pitch. It gave a lot of teams trouble, especially home-run hitting teams.”

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Long Lost Fastpitch Friends Reunite

Thursday, 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.

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Reconnecting with “Brownie”

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

FLORIDA – I met Craig Brown in the fall of 1973, while we were both freshmen at Mankato State University (now Minnesota State). We were in our early 20s and fastpitch fanatics. Pitching was our passion.

But Craig was much more talented than I.

His left-handed risers, drops and his great change-up far exceeded my much slower “junk pitches” from the right side. Craig went on to become one of the greatest pitchers in Minnesota fastpitch history. I challenge anyone to say he wasn’t.

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Mr. Softball enters the ISC Hall of Fame

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

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“Denny got the ISC travel league going. He ran it, and he took good care of it.” – Don Rotert, former St. James men’s fastpitch catcher.

ST. JAMES, MN – Dennis Johnson went 3 for 5 in his first fastpitch softball game as an 18-year-old in 1959. The excited teenager thought he had found a sport he could really excel at.

Johnson excelled all right. But not quite the way he planned.

That 3 for 5? It became his shinning moment on a softball diamond. Soon other players came along with stronger arms, better gloves, and more powerful bats. And the lanky first baseman and outfielder found himself riding the bench.

But in the larger scheme of things, that was the best thing that ever happened to the sport in Minnesota. And for the International Softball Congress.

“As a player it was all downhill from there,” said the 69-year-old Johnson with a laugh. “Finally, there were nine players better than me, so I grabbed the scorebook and filled in when needed.”

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