"I just want to play baseball": Pirates ready to take the field and see what happens
As the Crookston baseball team prepared to take their positions Thursday afternoon for their first outdoor scrimmage of the season, their coach gave them a reminder.
You guys are playing everywhere, Mitch Bakken told his players. You're getting reps at every position.
It's not that Bakken is prizing versatility for versatility's sake. He just hasn't seen most of his players in two years.
Last season, of course, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With an experienced roster led by 11 seniors, the Pirates had been expecting a breakthrough campaign. Now they're left with a squad composed largely of players in line for their first significant varsity action.
Bakken last remembers many of those players as eighth-graders. But two years is an enormous time difference for teenagers. They've gotten taller, stronger, faster and more skilled, and Bakken is trying to get used to that before he determines positions, batting orders or pitching rotations. He doesn't even like to distinguish between varsity and junior varsity.
"I honestly don't know," Bakken said when asked about a projected starting lineup. "It's gonna be a mix of a lineup offensively and defensively for a while, it really is."
The Pirates played a few informal, pickup style games last summer as an 18U squad. A handful of players from last summer are back this season. Among them are seniors Cade Coauette, Carter Bruggeman and Jacob Miller. There's also juniors Ashton Larson, Brooks Butt, Cade DeLeon, Gunnar Gunderson and Jacob Hesby.
That group constitutes as a "nucleus," if Crookston can be said to have one this season. Bakken knows more or less what to expect from those players from a relative standpoint.
Then there are underclassmen like Braxton Volker, Ethan Boll and Jack Doda. They'll contribute as well, but Bakken is still getting a read on them and how much they've progressed since the last time he saw them play.
In Thursday's scrimmage, Butt and Miller took the mound. Boll played third base; Doda and Volker got reps in the middle infield. DeLeon played in the outfield. Larson was behind the plate. None of that means Crookston's lineup for Thursday's season opener at Win-E-Mac is close to set in stone.
Truth be told, the 2021 season figures to have a lot in common with the Pirates' summer slate. Everybody who showed up got to play and played anywhere and everywhere. Bakken intends for the same to happen this spring, with the only difference being that these games will actually count.
Bakken hopes to take something else from last summer into this season: a different attitude. Make no mistake, he still wants to get on his players; he occasionally interrupted Thursday's scrimmage to remind infielders to set their feet to throw and outfielders to get both hands up to catch the ball. But in the informal setting of summer ball, he eased up somewhat, wanting to make sure the focus was always on having fun.
"They probably got to see me in a different light," Bakken said. "I'm gonna take it a lot lighter this year. I'm kind of a stickler for little things, but this year I just want to play baseball and I think they do too."
There's also the fact that baseball prizes hand-eye coordination and muscle memory as much as pure physical fitness. Many of Crookston's players have the latter already, having come straight from basketball, hockey or wrestling this winter, but the mechanics of swinging a bat and throwing a little round ball will take time to come back.
"It's just a totally different game than the other sports," Bakken said.
Bakken understands all of this. It's easy to take him at his word, then, when he offers up the familiar line of just wanting to play hard and have fun. If Crookston has any concrete goals this season, it's to play as many games as possible.
"It's not gonna be win a state title, it's not gonna be win the conference, it's not gonna be win 20 games," Bakken said. "It's let's stay healthy, let's play baseball and let's play it the right way."
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