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For the Love of the Game

Times Staff Writer

The road slips between soft hills striped by cornfields as neat as cemeteries and not much noisier, rolling 20 and 30 miles at a stretch into the deep green August quiet without a town in sight.

The government men in Des Moines, in what is regarded here as not-so-perfect wisdom, have decided commerce would be better served if the steady stream of long-haul Peterbilts and Kenworths didn’t have to downshift, much less stop, when they lumbered through here en route to bigger, more important places. U.S. 151, which used to ramble through a half-dozen small towns on its eastern Iowa stretch, has been rerouted to avoid them all so effectively that you can’t even tell the towns are there.

When the bypasses opened over the last year, even locals sometimes had a hard time finding their own towns. It’s as if they’d been not just bypassed but erased.

Maybe they were -- or this one, anyway -- because something happened in Cascade this summer that, had it happened in some better-known place -- Keokuk, say, or Los Angeles -- it would by now have been emblazoned across the heavens:

The local baseball team, the Cascade Reds, has just finished its season with a 64-1 record. The loss, which occurred in a tournament in July, was by the score of 1-0.

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This is baseball, a sport in which the very best teams often lose four of every 10 games; a sport in which so much depends on luck, where the routine out, blessed by a pebble, becomes a bad-hop game-winning hit, where the umpire who had seen better nights could not see the play at third.

The Reds won 25 games before a loss, then the next 39 without another. They won wild slugfests, precise pitchers’ duels. They won with a dominating lineup and with banged-up substitutes.

They won despite the fact that some of these boys of summer haven’t been boys for a great many seasons of any temperature. The ace pitcher is 38. So’s the third baseman. The team’s spiritual leader, a slap-and-dash pinch-hitter, part-time first baseman and all-around in-your-face hard-case manager, is two decades past that age and in any event, this spring, in his first visit to a doctor in 35 years, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and missed the season.

There were other health issues beyond the usual sore arms and pulled hamstrings: the big slugger got hit by a car while riding a bicycle, not a very sluggerly choice of transport; the pitching ace caught a bat in the sternum before the season started, hit so hard he couldn’t talk for minutes, or even breathe for a while; and the team’s fastest base runner suffered some sort of mysterious, unnoticed injury to a knee, so serious that by the end of the season he was being pinch-run for by a man 15 years older. Asked by the bat boy what had happened, he could offer nothing more definitive than the sad explanation: “I’m not fast anymore.”

Add to this the normal human afflictions -- broken bones and love affairs, the car battery inexplicably gone dead, a shift change at the lumber yard, a National Guard call-up -- and, finally, factoring in the always present danger that what one player referred to as the post-game “beer medicine” might be over-prescribed, it’s a wonder how the Reds, who have a core of 12 players, even managed to field a team 65 nights much less win on 64 of them.

If you doubt the general seriousness of purpose of this type of baseball, ask anybody who has ever stood in to hit against the Reds’ longtime pitching ace, Yipe Weber, what a happy experience that was. Weber’s career-long habit of unsettling opposing batters with high fastballs somewhere in the region between their chins and their mortal souls has earned him respect from teammates and a reputation among opposing fans as a headhunter.

Ask Yipe himself and he’ll say he very seldom hits anyone above the neck. He has better control than that, he said, plus he’s not that fast anymore. He is nonetheless direct, he said.

“If I get a guy, 0-2, I’d rather throw a fastball up under his chin and see if he swings at that than throw the change-up to fool him.”

Yipe’s aggressive demeanor is not a late-career affectation. He has been a tough out since anyone can remember. Marty Sutherland, the Reds’ second baseman, grew up next door to Yipe, albeit a generation later. When Yipe would come home from college for the summer, Sutherland would bug him to come out and play a two-man pitching-hitting game popular in Cascade. Remember, this was a first-grader calling a 20-year-old. Yipe described the results:

“I was undefeated. I’d just go over there and beat the crap out of him. No way I was gonna lose to a 6-year-old.”

Was Marty any good at 6?

“I don’t know,” Yipe said, “but he sure had a temper.”

Cascade

For most of its mile-long length, Cascade is just a couple of blocks wide. You can look down almost any side street and see cornfields and pastures. Businesses have started to relocate out by the four-lane interchange, leaving behind still more empty storefronts on 1st Avenue, the main street that winds through downtown, over the bridge on the north fork of the Maquoketa River, up Town Hill and east out toward Dubuque.

If the bypass was supposed to be a death knell, it’s but one in a long series. These little farm towns in the rolling hills of eastern Iowa have been busy dying for decades: The great 19th century rural-to-urban migrations, cyclical economic-driven brain drains, farm consolidation, the warm glow of the Sun Belt. These were all at one time or another supposed to kill off these little towns. Yet, they’re still here. More than that, some have inexplicably thrived.

Cascade has become a small manufacturing center. A local man built from nothing a company that now employes 150 people making precision machined parts for an impressive list of international clients. Several other smaller machine shops have opened. A third-generation local lumber yard has been reinvented as a maker of wooden and steel trusses that are shipped all over the region. This once modest business selling hammers, nails, 2-by-4s, sheets of plywood and paint now sprawls across both sides of the old highway and keeps three shifts of workers employed, including several Red players.

As a group, this year’s Reds are mostly clean-cut and fit the way athletes of the weight-room era usually are. Advances in fitness training have contributed to longer playing careers, giving the Reds a bigger talent pool to draw from, but as much as anything, the rise of a local, non-farm economy explains the building of the baseball team. Almost all the players have local jobs, many supporting families, which would not have been possible in the past. Many, if not all of them, would have left town to find work.

In an era when amateurism is defined by Olympic performers with seven-figure incomes, when top professional athletes routinely make more money in a year than everybody in this town will make in a decade, when fame and glory and infinite riches are not enough to satisfy the slightest ego on the worst team in the major leagues, the Reds have run through a season and over all opposition as if it meant something, when in fact it meant little to anybody but themselves.

The Reds play what is known nationally as semipro baseball, which means you are allowed to be paid to play and teams in the past have often hired expensive pitchers or a big-time hitter for important games. These Reds never pay anyone. In eastern Iowa, they don’t even refer to the game as semipro. They call it town-team baseball, the town being the essential demographic unit of the state.

Iowa is the most settled place of any size on Earth. There is not a single acre of wilderness in the entire state and a remarkable 89% of its land is under active cultivation; even given its modest size, in most years more land is harvested here than in any other state. It is almost literally a farm state.

That said, even a place with lots of farms does not necessarily have all that many farmers. Contemporary agriculture is so efficient that it doesn’t take many people to do it. Its ability to feed people has very much outstripped its ability to feed farmers.

As a result, Iowa, according to census data, has more people with master’s degrees than tractors and very few -- about 6% -- of its 2.9 million people actually live on farms. Neither do they live in cities. By coastal standards, there are no truly big cities -- Des Moines, the capital, has less than a quarter-million people, and only one other city has even half that amount. But there are hundreds of little towns, spread more or less evenly, like frosting across a single-layer cake, covering the place end-to-end with not many swirls or dips.

Until the post-World War II dominion of electronic mass media, these little towns inhabited their own worlds and were as close to self-sufficient as you could get and still claim to belong to 20th century America. Some towns were little more than a church, a crossroads and a filling station. Most were more substantial, with local schools, newspapers, libraries, grocers and granaries. Cascade, with a dam on the Maquoketa River, had its own electric power plant, telephone company, even at one time its own opera house.

All the towns, no matter their size, had baseball teams. Many of these clubs started around the turn of the last century, often mowing pastures into playing fields. Some of the old fields are still in use. One, in the hamlet of Pleasant Grove, has a creek around the outfield instead of a fence, giving the baseball term “diving catch” an almost literal meaning. Other fields were so topographically challenged that when the catcher crouched behind home plate he’d lose sight of his outfielders.

High tide of the town-team era was just after WW II when returning veterans pumped up rosters of local powerhouses across the state. The Reds flourished in this era. The 1946 team won 28 games in a row, finally losing only when they challenged Davenport, a genuine professional team from the old Three I league.

The next year the ball club for the first time sponsored its own summer tournament. Other towns in the area did the same and these tournaments have become the focus of the contemporary teams.

There is a nowhere-in-the-whole-wide-world-you’d-rather-be quality to a steam-bath mid-summer’s night doubleheader late in the tournament.

The Team

What makes town-team ball unique is the blend of players. The Reds have often had a local high school player or two, and maybe a couple of college kids home for summer break, but their rosters have mainly consisted of local men, out of or never in college.

The younger players on this year’s team marvel at Yipe Weber’s conditioning and more at his extraordinary competitiveness. He is, several said, the kind of guy you would hate if he played against you. They’re right. Opposing fans react almost viscerally when he struts out on to the field, a sturdy man with thick, pitchers’ legs, chest stuck out, preening like a 4-H rooster.

Paul Sherman, an opposing manager, said it was this attitude as much as their skills that made the Reds special. “They bring intensity every night for nine innings,” he said.

Yipe credits the attitude to the erstwhile current Red manager, Loras Simon, who has missed managing this season because of the aforementioned tumor.

Simon comes from a family of six boys and five girls and at one time or another all the boys but one have managed the Reds. Simon has for the last five years, the best run in the team’s history.

He’ll turn 59 next month and until this year had not missed a season -- and rarely a game -- since Little League.

“I think I had one or two Ripken streaks in there,” Simon said, referring to Cal Ripken Jr., the major leaguer who played more consecutive games than anyone in baseball history. “I was never hurt. Never.”

Simon thinks this is the best semipro team he’s ever seen. That said, he also thinks they could get better. The core of the team’s best players is in its mid-20s and should improve. The foundation of the team’s success has been superb pitching and defense, the latter anchored by two of Simon’s nephews.

“We went 56-6 last year and I wasn’t happy,” he said. “People were talking about how well they’d done and I said, ‘No, folks, you should never lose six games.’ ”

Some opponents have taken to calling the Reds the Yankees of the Prairie League, but their dominance is newly found. Up until 1988, they had lost their own tournament 28 straight times. Just last season, when they won more than 50 games for the fourth straight year, the team from Farley beat them four of six times.

Simon missed the team’s lone loss this season, but has an opinion on it: “No doubt I would have complained. I would have. They should not have lost that game. We simply have more talent than anyone around us. We have the best team by a wide margin.”

The Reds this year played in eight tournaments, winning seven. They also played in two leagues -- one for teams whose fields all had lights and another for teams who largely did not. They won both.

“The season starts May 1 and runs through mid- or early September,” said Simon. “That’s about 120 days. You’re playing basically half of them.”

It’s a long run that requires a level of commitment few could make.

The key, Simon said, is simple: “You’ve got to be careful of women.”

Or, as he also said, to have found the right one.

Legion Field

Legion Field, the Reds’ home park, is one of the best in the area, with a manicured diamond, sturdy bleachers, an electronic scoreboard, a concession stand for food and another for beer. The field is owned by the local American Legion post and the Legion has installed a World War I cannon off the right field line, next to the dance hall and a Vietnam-era howitzer out by the parking lot.

The most distinctive characteristic of the field is what locals call the Green Monster -- an abandoned drive-in movie screen that has been set up beyond center field as a hitter’s backdrop and sun block. The screen solved a problem that had plagued the club since daylight savings time was adopted in the 1960s. The field is oriented east to west in such a way that the sun sets directly over the centerfield fence, blinding the hitters -- not to mention the catcher, the umpire and a good portion of the crowd.

At first, to block the sun a row of quick-growing poplar trees was planted beyond the fence, but they didn’t grow fast or thick enough. The team next tried a huge tarp that would be unrolled and hoisted up on telephone polls, but the tarp wasn’t sturdy enough to withstand high winds and became a maintenance nightmare. The movie screen saved the day.

The field is at the northern edge of town on the farthest reach of the flood plain of the Maquoketa River. You can sit in the stands and before dark, look out over the outfield fences and see black-dirt bottom land roll away to the horizon.

For the longest time, you didn’t have to get out of your car to watch a game. There was no fence along the foul lines, just a row of sawed-off fence posts. Families would drive their cars nearly up onto the outfield and watch.

On the stillest nights of summer, you didn’t even need to come to the park. The public address announcer could be heard all the way across the river to the western side of town. You could swat fireflies, sip lemonade and track a game’s progress without ever leaving your lawn.

At the field now, the players are separated but not hidden from the fans by a tall cyclone fence. Friends and family toss ice-cold water bottles over the fence between innings. They also toss, sometimes less helpfully, advice.

During a Prairie League Championship playoff game against Farley, with the score 1-1 in the fourth inning, a Farley runner, out by a mile at second base, was inexplicably called safe by the umpire, eventually allowing a run to score. At the end of the inning, as the infielder, Adam McDermott, returned to the Red bench, someone in the grandstand, shouted: “Didn’t you tag him?”

Adam, who at 18 was the youngest player on this year’s team, was in the course of a splendid run of games in which he had become the main offensive spark; he also pitched and played a credible second base. He didn’t even have to look up to identify the critical inquisitor, his father, Tom.

For the most part, the communion between players and fans is supportive. Everybody knows everybody, often on both teams, and there is a constant interplay between fans and players.

Yipe Weber was pitching this game a mere two days after pitching a complete game. Even someone as relentlessly dogged as Yipe could be expected to fade over the course of that much pitching. Between innings, concerned fans asked him how he was holding up, if his arm was tiring, how long he could go.

“Long as I need to,” he said.

He admitted later he was breathing fumes for the last couple of innings, but his teammates had purchased him a longer lease on life by opening up a good lead, allowing him to coast home to the victory, by his estimate the 254th of his career.

Maybe we should pause here to explain the name Yipe, which is pronounced to rhyme with pipe and is so much in the long tradition of local nicknames that no one even bothers to ask where it came from. Yipe said, “It’s one of those Cascade names.”

He’s not wrong. The town for whatever reason -- boredom? long winters? -- has had a whole zoo full of Squirrels, Rabbits, Moose, Gophers and generations of Toads. Plus, there was this somewhat odd habit of calling guys with normal names by some other normal name, so that a Loras would become a George or a Kevin a Cletus.

There were Bubbas and Curlys and Barrells, a Squinkus and at least one Booger. There were three brothers named Ditter, Snatch and Walleye and another pair called Dirt and Scurvy.

Just in Yipe’s own family there were a Tuba and a Snottsy. Yipe himself was originally (well, originally he was called Pat, but who even remembers that?) called Hippie, which was intended ironically because he wore his hair short, and which became Yippie because that was so much cooler, which became Yip because, well, Yip was sort of a nickname for Yippie, but which in any event became Yipe because, well, who knows? It was, you know, one of the those Cascade nicknames.

For Free

Visitors to the Midwest often describe the region as one giant flat plain where the fields form checkerboards. This isn’t that.

The patchwork of fields here in eastern Iowa is a crazy quilt of rectangles, triangles, circles, oblongs, long swooping curves and blobs -- almost every shape but a square, following the land’s soft swells, bound by limestone gravel roads, crooked rivers and stands of maples, hickories, black walnuts and oaks. It’s gorgeous country and I don’t get back as much as I should.

When I do, people ask:

“Which one are you?”

Mac’s boy, I say, the oldest.

“Umm. Yeah. Uh-huh.”

I left town in 1968 and Mac’s been gone for good since 1986 and still that’s all the information people need to file you in the proper drawer.

“And where are you now?” they ask, as if I had been a particularly hard one to track. They would ask what I was doing in Cascade.

“A story on the Reds,” I’d say.

“I’d heard that,” one man said. “Just wanted to get it from the horse’s mouth.”

This was in August. When I asked what people thought of the team’s phenomenal year, the conversation would proceed along these lines:

“What’s that record again?”

“Fifty-nine and one.”

Pause.

“That’s something, isn’t it?”

“Yup. Amazing.”

Pause. Long pause

“Another beer?”

Which is to say, the Reds have not exactly burned up the town this summer.

Cascade is and has been a baseball town. Banners strung along Main Street sport a sort of informal city coat of arms. Beneath the banal motto, “A place we call home,” are depictions of three things -- a bridge, a pair of cornstalks and a baseball.

But as in many small towns, the focus of local sports fans is the high school teams, which get prominent play at cafe counters and in the local newspaper, the Pioneer. The Reds are typically relegated to the inside sports pages and didn’t make an appearance on the first sports page until halfway through the season, and then it was in a story about the two-week-long, 16-team local tournament. When the tournament ended, the Red coverage went back inside. Most of the Reds played for the high school team at one time (many of them played for the Reds and the high school in the same season), so they understand the bias even if they don’t now appreciate it.

Even among themselves, they said, they didn’t talk all that much about the phenomenal success of the season as it unspooled. Appreciation or lack of it has very little to do with the reasons the men play.

“It’s not just us. Semipro baseball kinda slips under the radar,” said Sutherland, the regular second baseman.

“Hey, you get to play for free. They give you a shirt,” said Dave Swanson, an outfielder. “Let’s go play.”

The simple fact is the players get nothing out of this. There is no World Series down the road, no homecoming parades, not even much praise. To put it another way, they get everything there is to get out of every game. They play for the simple pleasure of playing.

Sutherland, the guy who as a 6-year-old used to bug Yipe Weber to come out and play, now has the pleasure of living next door to one of Yipe’s young nephews. Guess who’s always bugging Marty to come out and play?


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