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With alumni such as Lou Brock and Gaylord Perry, the St. Cloud Rox is a tough act for any baseball team to follow. The former minor league team was a sports staple in Central Minnesota through the '40s, '50s, and '60s, and sent on more than 60 players to major league teams, such as the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants. A new amateur team, the St. Cloud Riverbats, has decided to try and build on memories of the Rox - and maybe give them a run for their money.
IT'S THE FIRST DAY OF PRACTICE for the St. Cloud Riverbats and the college players from across the country are ready to play some serious ball. Other than the occasional crack of the bat and coaches calling out drills, the field is quiet - just the opposite of what's happening across town at a state high school championship.
These are two games from different leagues, but the players face the same high expectations of some of Minnesota's most enthusiastic baseball fans. General Manager Joel Sutherland says he's amazed by all the games to be found in St. Cloud.
Sutherland: They love their amateur ball. There's a lot of baseball around here, evident by the fact that we have to build another stadium next to Dick Putz field.... There's just so much baseball. There's good talent up here, there's great coaching here... they love the game.
Sutherland and other sports enthusiasts will tell you the popularity of baseball in Central Minnesota is due to the St. Cloud Rox. The team dominated minor league baseball for more than 30 years in Minnesota, and stories about Rox games and Rox players continue to circulate, even among young baseball fans.
Lehmann: Do you know who the St. Cloud Rox are, or were?
Fan: Yes, I do... they played here when my Dad was a kid, my Dad watched them quite a few times when he was little. A lot of major league players came out of there. Lou Brock and the Campanella boys - not Campanella, Campaneras.... But I was, they were gone before my time.
The Rox legacy could be both a help and a hindrance for the Riverbats. The Riverbats are the first league team to play in St. Cloud since the Rox folded in the early 1970s, and there is continual talk about whether the team can produce major league players like the Rox. Sutherland says he's not concerned about comparisons, because the Riverbats are a very different type of baseball team. They are one of six teams in the Northwoods League which includes players from Division 1 college teams. The players are not paid, and unlike their school teammates, they will be using wooden bats when they play. Sutherland says he has high hopes for his players, but would never try to make them what the Rox were.
Sutherland: When we were trying to name the team, people said, "You gotta be the Rox, you gotta be the Rox!" Well, we had made an early decision on that we wouldn't be just from the standpoint of... you know the analogy, when you were a kid, you went to a nice resort or you had a wonderful vacation, and the next year go back to the same place and it just wasn't the same. We could never be what the Rox were, and to try just didn't make any sense.
There are some baseball fans in St. Cloud who wouldn't mind if the Riverbats brought back some of the mystique of the Rox. At 70 years of age, former Rox player Nick Chanaka still lives in St. Cloud. He sees the Riverbats as a chance to create a new generation of fans:
Chanaka: The people that remember the Rox are getting along in age - and I'm one of them - and I think that if they can get the younger set to get interested in it again, I think that they would be stimulated more and oriented more towards baseball.
Joel Sutherland has a more sentimental goal.
Sutherland: I want this team, first and foremost, to become St. Cloud's team, and for the people around here, I want it to be their team.... When they talk about the Riverbats, I want them saying "we" and "us."
The Riverbats play their first game Friday against the Wausau Woodchucks and their home opener takes place on Monday, where they'll face the Rochester Honkers.