Thoughts from the penalty box

An interesting idea

After another spring of full of rainouts and snow, it came as no surprise that local high school sports teams had to squeeze as much as they could into the end of the spring season.

After an April in which it seemed that only one event took place as scheduled in a given week, and a very busy May schedule that saw several events take place in less than ideal conditions, I sat at my desk and wondered exactly what went wrong.

I have been writing for the Daily Mining Gazette for the last three springs now, and I have seen an alarming trend: our autumns are generally nice, if cool, our winters have felt harsh, but have actually been relatively light in terms of snowfall, and our springs have been nothing short of awful.

I have a proposal to someone or a group of people in the area with money and looking for a way to invest it: the greater Houghton, Keweenaw, and Baraga County area needs a domed facility.

I am not suggesting a building like the Superior Dome in Marquette, which is a football facility first and foremost. Our falls easy handle our crazed high school football scene, and certainly I cannot see the Calumet Copper Kings playing indoors, when they have developed such a home-field advantage at Agassiz Field, much like what the Lake Linden-Hubbell Lakes have built at Warner Field.

I am suggesting a domed facility that houses two fields, one baseball diamond and one softball diamond.

In the past few years, the number of schools who offer softball has grown from one, Houghton, to seven, allowing for the formation of a fairly competitive Copper Country Conference filled with eight squads. In the case of baseball, in three years, the area has seen Houghton and Hancock joined by Calumet, Jeffers, L’Anse and Gogebic, to form a six-team conference.

In the case of softball, this spring really wrecked havoc on the schedules of every team. The Hancock Bulldogs, Houghton Gremlins, and Copper Kings all traveled out of the area to get in some games, so they played in the neighborhood of 20 games this season. The Lakes, the Jeffers Jets, and the L’Anse Purple Hornets all struggled to get games in, with the Lakes and Jets having played 10 or so games by playoff time.

Ten games is hardly enough time for teams to set their lineups. Bulldogs manager Randy Heinonen shared with me that he was still making adjustments heading into the final week before they hosted the District Tournament and they were one of the teams who played double what the Jets did under first-year head coach Sean Connors.

With only six teams on the boys’ side, one might think it was easier to schedule games. The reality was that it was just as hard for all the teams involved to reschedule games. The Jets only played eight games prior their District Tournament, yet manager Steve Lishinski somehow managed to coax a runner-up performance out of his group on a short bench and little game time.

The biggest issue I heard from every manager this season is that the first time they were outdoors, they were playing games. That makes it tough to teach kids how the ball moves on a real field, as the teams do drills in their respective gyms until the snow melts and the ground hardens.

Add to the high school issues the fact that Finlandia University fields a softball and a baseball team of their own. The baseball struggled this season, but the softball team won over 20 games and then won their inaugural conference tournament as well. The Lions’ baseball team has hosted one home series a season for the last three. The Lions’ softball team has not been able to host any series in the three years I have been writing for the Gazette.

For these reasons alone, it is time the area invest in a domed facility. With such a building in place, area teams could schedule time at the batting cages inside as well as on the fields until the outdoor fields are ready. Teams could practice every day or every other day, which would help everyone sharpen their skills and potentially reduce the number of defensive errors that plague every team.

In season, the dome could also be used on nights when the weather would otherwise keep teams from playing. That way, every team could get in a 20-game or larger schedule, there would be a facility that could host early-season tournaments like the one at the Superior Dome, and everyone could benefit from being able to use the facility. Sure, scheduling could get complicated with 14 area teams vying for field time, but I am certain a schedule could be worked out.

This is something that could benefit ballplayers throughout the area at a time where both games have seen a significant uptick in participation at the little league levels as well as at the high school and collegiate levels.