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For the Olson’s and Duluth, a thriving time of men’s fastpitch

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

1988 ASA NATIONAL CHAMPION DULUTH STEWART TAYLOR PRINTING. Top from left: Dick Olson Manager, Jim Olson, Randy Hill, Mike Thomas, Brian Langeland, Corey Thomas, Paul Friesen, Brad Emanuel and Tom Olson. Bottom from left: Jerry Strange, Mike Morrissey, Bill Olson, Clay Kerr and Casey Frank. Team helper Mitch. Courtesy Photo

DULUTH, Minn. – Once upon a time a man could stand in the center of Minnesota and point to the east, west, north or south and as surely as the sun rises and sets, men’s fastpitch was being played in most cities and small towns of the state’s 87 counties.

That was the thriving times of the 1960s to 1980s.

Owatonna, St Paul, Minneapolis and Mankato? Booming. Winona and Rochester? Hot beds.

Scandia, Hastings, Red Wing, Lake Crystal, Wanamingo, St. James and Geneva? Teeming with teams, leagues and tournaments.

And up in the northern reaches of the state snuggled up to the western shore of Lake Superior, the game in Duluth was at its peak. That was back when Bill Olson started playing in 1973, barely a teenager.

“I started at 13 at Ordean Jr. High School,” said Olson, 56. “That was when they had fastpitch in the junior high schools. There were a lot of good teams in my era.”

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Thanking Roger Nelson for a fastpitch career

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

WANAMINGO, MN – Yesterday, I found an old friend that I lost touch with 45 years ago. Roger Nelson. Every week I visit the website of my hometown newspaper the News Record, searching for the latest news in Wanamingo, Minn. Sadly, that’s where I found Roger.

Roger was my first fastpitch softball manager. He launched me on my way to a 34–year pitching career. Roger took a chance on me when I was 15 years old. He started a team of high school kids with a few older guys mixed in. That very first year in 1965 we were awful. My pitching was awful.

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New book hails the heroes of fastpitch softball

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Pitcher Matt Stur, just 20 years old, helped his Star Prairie Construction team of Strobel, Wisc. finish second in the age 23-Under Division of the 2010 North American Fastpitch Association (NAFA) World Series to Waseda University of Tokyo, Japan. Stur is one of the young men who have found fastpitch softball a great sport to play.
(Contributed photo by Bob Otto)

Just For Fun column
By RUSSELL INGOLD / Editor, Fontana Herald News

FONTANA, CA – All over the United States, and particularly here in Fontana, fastpitch softball is enjoyed by multitudes of young girls, some of whom continue to participate in the sport as adults.

That’s great for the girls and the women. But what about the boys and the men?

Well, that’s a different story…

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A game to remember for the 1966-‘67 Wanamingo Bulldogs

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

By BOB OTTO
botto3@verizon.net

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YUCAIPA, CA – Larry Grove, a friend from Wanamingo, Minnesota emailed me the other day. Larry asked me about a basketball game in 1966 that rekindled a fond high school memory.

Hi Bob, “As a grade school kid I remember watching your game with Randolph (Rockets) that you won 109-69. I was so impressed with that game it seems as though it was yesterday. I would love to hear about your recollection of that night.”

But before I take a dip into nostalgia, a little background about my former hometown nestled in the fertile farmland of southern Minnesota. In 1966, Wanamingo had a population fewer than 500. It’s grown some over the years – a tad over 1,000 now I believe.

My 1967 Wanamingo High School graduating class was small and cozy. There were just 31 of us.

So anyone with a smidgeon of athletic ability was needed to play for the Bulldogs’ football, baseball, and basketball teams. And that included me. At 5-foot-9 and155 pounds, I was a slow, white kid who couldn’t jump, couldn’t handle the ball, and as my former basketball coach, Wayne Erickson would attest to, my rebounding ability was atrocious.

And my defense? Coach Erickson would surely say, “porous and a team liability.”

But the one thing I could do was shoot.

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My lucky shot

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

1964-Bob's DeerLR
The big buck taken from the West Woods near Wanamingo in 1964 with my brother John Otto.

WANAMINGO, MINN – When I was a young boy, I liked to hunt and I claimed my share of game – mostly squirrel, rabbit, and pheasant. But my biggest thrill came when I shot my one and only white tail deer. An eight-point buck, weighing over 200 pounds that I bagged in the West Woods near Wanamingo.

I was just 16 on that November Saturday in 1964.

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Riding JFK’s Catholic coattails

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

WANAMINGO, MINN – As a kid growing up near Wanamingo, Minnesota, I looked upon my Lutheran friends with envy. They seemed rich and popular. The religious ‘in crowd’ in which anyone who was anybody belonged.

I on the other hand, through unlucky fate, or so I thought at the time, was born and baptized a Catholic. There weren’t many of us in the little village of about 400. I can count the families I knew on one hand: The Otto’s, the Swarthout’s, and the Gombert’s.

We didn’t even have a Catholic church to call our own in Wanamingo. Mom packed us up early on Sunday mornings for our drive to Zumbrota and St. Paul’s Catholic Church where just a hand full worshipped from the two villages and surrounding countryside.

But Lutheran churches popped up everywhere. Wanamingo had three – Aspelund, Trinity, and Wanamingo Lutheran. And there are ten – count them ten – Lutheran churches in and around Zumbrota, Wanamingo, and Kenyon. All within 20 to 30 miles of each other.

Lutherans dominated the religious landscape. We Catholics were out numbered. How did a lowly Catholic boy stand a chance?

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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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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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