FOX 9 Town Ball Tour: Town ball in Howard Lake all about community

It takes a community that has a passion for baseball to make town ball work, and there's not a better example than Howard Lake.

It's not a Minnesota summer night without taking the family to the ballpark watching the local amateur team.

Week 3 of the Fox 9 Town Ball Tour brings us to Memorial Park in Howard Lake, also known as "The Orphanage." It's the home of the Howard Lake Orphans, a name the team has embraced since its start in 1995. Howard Lake is a small-town about an hour west of the Twin Cities with a little more than 2,000 residents, and they love their amateur baseball.

The Orphans have been to 11 of the last 13 Class C State Amateur Baseball Tournaments, and have made a run to the Final Four in two of them. They've finished their season at the state tournament the last two seasons. It's a community tradition that goes all the way back to the 1920s.

"The thing about it here is like most town teams, it's dedication. Some of these ballplayers on this team, at one time there was a lot ballplayers that played 10, 15, some even up to 20 years," said Dan Fogarty, who spent 21 years as the team's play-by-play announcer at Memorial Park. "You've got to be dedicated to do that."

Every Minnesota amateur ballpark has its signature, and it's no different in Howard Lake. That signature piece is the lake itself, which wraps around the entire outfield of the ballpark. It's a similar setup to McCovey Cove with the San Francisco Giants. They've also got a perfectly-placed American flag in dead center field, and seats right behind home plate that came from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The ballpark has had a series of renovations, all with helping hands from members of the team itself and community volunteers.

They were also truly Orphans from May 2002 to June 2003. The Howard Lake area was drenched with more than 16 inches of rain over about a week. Memorial Field became part of the lake, and it was unplayable for more than a year.

The Orphans got their start in the 1920s as the Howard Lake Blue Sox. The team came to an end in the 1930s due to World War II. Don Mitchell brought the team back in 1947, but they didn't have a home field they regularly played at. Several players called themselves "The Orphans," and the nickname stuck.

The team disbanded in the 1960s, and returned in 1995 with the help of baseball-lifers Mike Gagnon, Kevin Gruenhagen and Bob Heber. It coincided with a work stoppage in Major League Baseball from August of 1994 to April of 1995.

"The thing about is it's small-town USA. You have to have something to do. The Twins were on strike so there was no baseball," Fogarty said. "The Orphans kind of started up and people were hungry for baseball and this is what they did, they came to the park and we've always had good support with the community."

Gagnon, Gruenhagen and Heber blended a mix of experienced players with a group that had just graduated high school.

"I think the community was excited about it. The Orphans had a proud tradition in the 40s, 50s and early 60s and I think there were some old timers that had fond memories of that era. There was support from the old veterans, so I think the community was ready for it," Gagnon said.

The Orphans are in the Northstar League, which includes Dassel-Cokato, Cokato, Loretto, Hutchinson, Delano, Maple Lake, Maple Plain, Buffalo, Litchfield and Waverly. Delano leads the league at 10-1, and Howard Lake is currently third at 7-4. The Orphans' opponent Wednesday, Cokato, is 5-4 on the season.

Gagnon's No. 10 was retired before Wednesday night's game against the Cokato Kernels, and he threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

For the Howard Lake Orphans, amateur baseball is all about the community. Like many Minnesota town teams, they're run largely by volunteers. City workers help maintain the field, and family of the players run the concession stand. They also have life-long fans who live just blocks from the ballpark.

"It's been a family thing. My wife has been real supportive. She was the leader of the concession stand, but both of us admit it takes a lot of people. It takes a lot of dedicated people behind the scenes that are willing to put in the volunteer hours," Gagnon said. "We certainly couldn't' do it by ourselves, it was that support that we felt from a lot of people."

Howard Lake is a gorgeous backdrop for an amateur team that now has had a place to call home since 1995.