Although baseball here in Wisconsin starts as soon as the snow melts in the spring, it doesn’t really heat up until summer. For many fans, baseball and summer go hand in hand, and high school baseball has been a summer staple here in Wisconsin for the past 54 years. All that is coming to an end though, as the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association Board of Control voted this spring to end summer baseball and move all teams to spring rather than giving them the choice of seasons.
On July 20, Kapco Park in Mequon played host to the last summer baseball state tournament. Before the game, a representative from each of the 53 summer baseball champions from around Wisconsin lined up around the infield, holding their trophies, to recognize the long history of summer baseball in the state.
One of those champions, Scooter Green, from the little town of Alma, just south of Eau Claire, made the trip out to Mequon for the the occasion. He was a member of the team that defeated powerhouse Sussex Hamilton in the 1971 summer baseball championship.
The WIAA originally offered only spring baseball, but added summer baseball in 1965 to allow schools to offer additional spring sports. Green has a unique perspective, as Alma switched from spring to summer during his time there, so he played baseball in both seasons during his career.
"Baseball and summertime go together," Green contends. "Spring has some challenges, and we had to put up with the weather and the cold and oftentimes snow." Despite the challenges that await the switch to spring, Green believes teams will be able to make the adjustment.
Ernie Millard coached baseball at Homestead High School for over 25 years. The last year of summer baseball is also Millard's last.
Not surprisingly, Millard has some strong feelings and emotions linked to the summer pasttime. Summer baseball, he says, "is distinguished from all other sports in that it's the only high school sport going on that time of year ... it tends to galvanize people and bring them together in a great environment."
Millard says he understands the reasons for the change, but, as a long-time proponent of summer baseball, he also sees some drawbacks.
Certainly, summer baseball elicits nostalgia for many, but Wade Lebecki, the Deputy Director of the WIAA, says the change to spring will be a positive one. Lebecki acknowledges the challenges of the switch, but believes players, coaches and families will appreciate having their summers free.
At its peak, summer baseball had around 120 teams in the 1990s, but the numbers have been dwindling ever since, mostly due to pressure from kids wanting to play with travel teams in the summer. The WIAA voted to make the change on March 2.
"When the board made that decision," Lebecki says, "there were really actually only 19 schools still in summer baseball. So, a lot of different factors went into those decisions, but the schools made those decisions, and once we had 19 teams there was no way we could host a tournament."
The long history of summer baseball has seen its share of exciting state tournaments, and the expectation for this year in Mequon was no different.
The championship game featured Milwaukee's Pius XI High School taking on Muskego High School. After a Muskego pitcher threw a no-hitter in the semifinals, fans were geared up for a pitcher’s duel in the finals. Sure enough, the game remained scoreless through the first seven innings and headed to extra frames. Pius plated a run in the top of the inning on a sacrifice fly, but Muskego answered in the bottom half with a double by Cooper Tamblyn, who advanced on a wild pitch, and then scored on a perfectly executed suicide squeeze.
With the game tied, two outs and the bases empty, it looked like another extra inning was in store, but two consecutive walks put Muskego’s Frankie Cistaro up to bat with runners on first and second. Cistaro hit a line drive up the middle, sending pinch runner Richard Wauer racing around third to score the winning run. Muskego stormed the field, dogpiling around the mound as Pius’ players fell to the ground in disbelief.
And with that exciting finish, a storied chapter of baseball history in the state came to a close.