I wasn't home the afternoon the Star Tribune called for my thoughts on this story back in mid-May 1991 and I was kind of disappointed because selfishly, it would have been great to get a quote or two in the paper and maybe I also could have helped them avoid these errors:
> We were suspended for the last three games of the season, plus playoffs (or more dramatically, for the rest and best parts of our careers);
> Our coach's name was Jay Soule, not Jim;
> We were busted after playing one softball game, not multiple games;
> I believe we were 1-7 or 1-8 at the time of the suspension (probably more accurately called expulsion), not 1-11.
I remember the first baseball meeting of the season in the spring of 1989 - my sophomore year - and our introduction to the new head coach, Jay Soule. All of us were on board from the beginning: he had a presence, we ate his stories up, and he was just a cool guy. He had pedigree as a great player at Gustavus (just ask him), and that carried some clout as well. We liked him and he liked us.
The next story in my mind's timeline is several of us ballplayers having breakfast with the coach out at the new Hardee's (where I was the first customer ever, thank you very much) one morning in Belle Plaine, and I remember us kiddingly making a reference to playing softball, and Coach giving us the "you guys know what I think about that" smirk. It was something we joked about, openly. He knew we liked to play, and we knew he didn't want us to. But that was as far as that conversation ever went.
Another example of this understanding between us is a video I did for Doug Anderson's "Video Productions" class (greatest class ever) called "Kruschke Knows" based on the popular "Bo Knows" commercials of the time. Just like Bo Jackson, the video shows clips of me excelling at a wide variety of sports and people from those sports confirming, "Kruschke knows (name a sport)!" For baseball, I had Coach Soule say, "Kruschke knows baseball!" and then soon after, he cuts in to say, "Kruschke BETTER NOT know softball!" It was good stuff; I can borrow you the video sometime if you like.
For the previous couple summers, a bunch of us baseball-loving classmates also played a few softball tournaments together when our baseball schedules allowed; we loved it, because it was just another way to play ball and hang out together. Since t-ball we played every summer league the town ever offered - from Little League to Babe Ruth to Legion, and soon after our fateful spring of '91, town team baseball (of which I am the last of the Mohicans still donning a uniform among my classmates, although it should be noted that the majority of my uniform donning has taken place on the side of the chalk lines nearest the dugout). But softball was just another thing to do together; it was sports and it was fun.
I don't recall if 1991 was the first year we played on an organized team in the Belle Plaine men's slow pitch softball league or not, but I do recall us having some slight apprehension about playing before saying, "Let's just play." We had the uniforms, we were in the league; we were going to play.
We knew the coach didn't want us to, but we didn't understand or agree with the logic as to why we couldn't or shouldn't; it was just a harmless softball game to us. It's not going to screw up our swings... (we were already 1-8; how much worse could they get?!) I don't think we were too concerned that it would be reported, or if it was, that we would be in any real trouble. Put it this way: I think it's pretty safe to say that if we really thought we would have been kicked off the team - or even suspended at all - for playing softball, we wouldn't have.
I'm guessing we played our softball game on a Thursday night, because I believe it was a Friday morning when we showed up for school and were told to wait on the bench in the lobby as Athletic Director Donna Brinton-Hawkins needed to speak with us. We started to do a few "uh-ohs" and half-nervous giggles amongst ourselves, but had no idea what was in store.
Coach Soule was gone that morning but had heard we played a softball game the night before, and Brinton-Hawkins said we were to turn in our uniforms by the end of the day. Talk about floored! We had been with the "program" since 7th grade baseball, and here with a few weeks left in our senior year, our final season, it was over just like that?! Wow. Needless to say, we weren't happy and news of the decision spread through the school like wildfire. Pretty soon everybody had an opinion one way or another, most seemingly against us.
The next thing I remember is either that same evening or soon thereafter, all of us players and our parents met up at the ballpark and discussed the situation, deciding if we wanted to go ahead and fight it. We knew we could be in for some crap, but decided to do so because we felt we were being wronged.
In our view, we understood that we went against the coach's wishes and deserved some form of punishment, but we thought the sentence handed out was far too severe, considering:
> It was an unwritten rule, not a written rule, and we were never told we would be kicked off the team if we played;
> If we'd have been caught drinking alcohol, it would have been a 2-game suspension according to the rules of the Minnesota State High School League, and playing a softball game sure seemed like a lesser offense to us;
> Playing softball was not against the rules of the Minnesota State High School League.
I could get into the argument about whether or not the mechanics of hitting and throwing a softball screws you up for baseball (I think it's preposterous), and how we strangely had the blessing of the coach to play softball in the summer, but those were our key points.
So we appealed to the school board on the evening of Monday, May 13, and were reinstated by a 3-0 vote with two members abstaining and one member absent. The heart of the 1-8 Tigers was back, baby!!!
Coach Soule was not at this meeting either, but once he caught wind of the board's decision, the power play was on: soon we were hearing that he would resign - and so would a bunch of other teachers and coaches (personally I'd have loved to see that bluff called) - if the suspensions were not upheld.
So showing no backbone and succumbing to political pressure, the school board disregarded their 3-0 ruling from Monday night and declared there would be a "once-and-for-all" hearing on Wednesday night, to be held in the elementary school gym - primarily to accomodate an expected large crowd of townspeople, who had become enraptured with the whole ordeal.
Jump back a day or two into the halls of Belle Plaine High School - I was sitting in my mom's 3rd hour class and could hear a commotion across the hall. One of our softball players, Chad Behnke - whose dad also sponsored our team, the Behnke Machine "Screw Crew" - was defending our side of the story against a teacher and several classmates. Maybe not a great decision, but I decided to join the fray.
Arguing from the hallway, all I remember is walking away saying, "You don't know what the hell you're talking about!" (note: this blog is rated PG-13) and being very steamed, but I heard from more than one student that as I walked away, the teacher said, "I should rip his head off and throw it in a wastepaper basket!" (You couldn't make that quote up, could you?!)
Each side would be given a few opportunities to speak their case at the big elementary school meeting, but the truth is we had about as good a chance to get reinstated to the team as Delta House did at their hearing in "Animal House."
I also remember one of our moms telling the audience, "But these are good kids!" We got a lot of mileage joking about that one for months to come, at least.
We did have the school board chairman, Erv Malin, on our side, and that was a good feeling. As he stated in the Star Trib column, "The penalty was excessive," it was not "well communicated," and "They were being punished for something positive." Couldn't have said it better myself, Erv.
The story could neatly end there, but there's some other things I just have to include.
I'm not saying this entitled us to a "free pass," but none of us had ever been in much trouble of any kind throughout our high school years and 6 of the 7 of us that got booted were also on the 23-4 basketball team that winter that:
> Posted the best record in Belle Plaine boys basketball history, at 23-4;
> Won the first conference title in BP history, with a 13-1 record;
> Went further than any boys basketball team in BP history (lost by 2 points, in overtime, in the Region championship for a chance to go to State. We took it in stride, saying to each other in the post-game locker room, "Well, time to get out the sticks!" meaning it was now baseball season).
And just a couple short months later, here we sat as the pariahs of Tigertown. Again, I'm not saying we deserved any special treatment, it's just that I find that background dynamic fascinating. Maybe we were just lucky that they let us graduate...
Every year the Belle Plaine Herald recaps their "Top Ten Stories of the Year," and we were ranked somewhere in the middle - it was a huuuuge deal in town. More than anything, what I learned through this situation is that people tend to side with the powers-that-be, no matter what the truth may be or what common sense might say. I guess that was a valuable life lesson, anyway. But from teachers and coaches to fellow students and townspeople, I remain to this day shocked at how many thought we got exactly what we had coming to us.
If you think I'm kidding, check out the treatment we got from the yearbook staff:
I went out for baseball at Southwest State University that fall, and was redshirted. Since the B-squad replacements didn't win another game the rest of the year, I was able to put in the SSU baseball program, "Brett won all of his team's games his senior year at Belle Plaine HS." (I didn't mention the fact it was only one.)
Word is that one of the fathers of a current B-Squader at the time told Coach Soule about our playing softball, with the thought that it would get his son brought up to the varsity. I don't know if that's true, but it is a pretty interesting detail. And I have no problem with any of the B-Squaders, for the record; many of them were, or still are, friends.
I guess it's worth noting that years later, we did get an apology from Coach Soule for the whole mess. And while I will never agree with the opinion that anything more than two games was proper justice for playing a softball game, I harbor no ill will towards Jay and we get along just fine when we bump into each other at local high school sporting events. Heck - we're facebook friends! (And yes, I did trade a message with him that I'd be writing this story.)
I guess the only regret I probably have is that we didn't put a float together for the 1991 Bar B-Q Days parade: