*The 45+ Men’s Senior Baseball League World Series, that is
As attention turns to spring and America’s pastime readies to return, sweet memories of last fall are still fresh in the minds of a few local baseball players.
In their fourth try, the Brew City Bat Rangers from Milwaukee won the 45+ Men’s Senior Baseball League World Series in Arizona.
“Finally, we climbed the hump and got the monkey off the back,” Port Washington player-coach Mickey Pruefer said.
After two heartbreaking title game losses in heart-stopping fashion, this game wasn’t close. Brew City took a 5-1 lead after five innings over the then-undefeated Texas Redbirds and went up 11-2 after six.
They pounded out 20 hits while allowing five on their way to a 15-9 final score, avenging a close loss to the Redbirds in pool play.
The team, which plays its league games at The Rock in Franklin, includes many Port Washington names synonymous with baseball success in high school and adult leagues. Besides Pruefer, the list includes Port High School alum Jamie Uselding and Ozaukee alumni Matt Jacoby, Al Albert and John Dries.
For Dries, the trip to Arizona was even sweeter. His father, Fred, witnessed it all firsthand. The two live half a mile from each other in Belgium, and this was Fred’s first trip to see his son play in Arizona.
“He’ll fly but he gets nervous about it. He did well this trip,” John said. “It was a pleasure and an honor were his words. He couldn’t thank me enough for letting him come along.”
His son was about as moved.
“Words can’t express it. It was excitement and an honor,” John said.
“I’m kinda speechless when I think back about it. For me, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don’t know if I’ll get back there again.”
The MSBL World Series isn’t recreational league hardball. The Rangers play in one of the top leagues, one level below teams with former professionals.
“The games that you play in Phoenix are like championship games in your leagues,” Pruefer said.
“You’ll see some pitchers that still throw very hard for being 45 or older with good velocity and breaking balls,” Dries said.
Forty-five is just the minimum age in this league. The MSBL has several leagues, from 18+ to 70+.
“Our ace pitcher, John Arnold, is 65,” Pruefer said. “Two of our better players are 64 and 65. That’s amazing in itself.”
Ages are sometimes silently questioned, what with the baseball caps and all.
“A guy makes a great diving play and you think he’s not old enough,” Pruefer said. “And then you see him take off his hat — yeah, he’s 45.”
“We’re still old,” Uselding said, “but good for old guys.”
The Rangers played nine games in six days. The first six are pool play — they went 3-3 — followed by the playoffs.
That Fred Dries came home with any fingernails left was no small miracle.
Earning a 5 seed, the Rangers played 4-seeded Chicago in the first round. Up 7-6 in the ninth inning, Chicago had two runners on base with two outs.
On a 3-2 count, the runners were on the move, but the Rangers pitcher knew it. He stepped off the rubber and picked one off, ending the game and advancing his team to the next round.
Against the 2-seeded California Hogs, the Rangers built a 7-2 lead. The game ended 7-5 with the Hogs leaving runners on second and third.
By the time the title game arrived, the Rangers were confident. In pool play, the Redbirds beat the Rangers in the 10th inning after tying the game in the ninth with a three-run homer. With two runners on, the Rangers’ right-fielder dove for a ball and missed, allowing the homer to tie.
“We felt good. We were healthy,” Pruefer said. “It was just a matter if we could put our game together and in the championship — wow.”
Jumping out to a big early lead was key.
“When you see a team that’s struggling, they just try harder and harder,” Pruefer said. “And the wheels came off.”
The title was rewarding redemption after a blowout four years ago and near misses each of the two years after that.
Three years ago at the Milwaukee Brewers spring training park in Maryvale, the Rangers lost the championship game in the 12th inning.
Given the location of the sun for the 3 p.m. game meant seeing the ball in right center was difficult. It proved to be the title-changer as the Rangers’ right-fielder misplayed a fly ball.
“That’s how we lost the championship,” he said. “Sun ball in the 12th, we call it.”
Two years ago, the Rangers nursed a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth and had what Pruefer calls “a Billy Buckner moment,” comparing his team’s fate to that of the Boston Red Sox in 1986.
Just learning how to play in the MSBL World Series took experience. With nine games in six days, Pruefer said the first year they didn’t bring enough players.
“You can see that pitching is a premium,” he said. “We didn’t carry enough pitchers. By the time we got to the finish line the first time we were walking wounded.”
This year, the game ended with a big group hug, followed by championship hats, T-shirts, rings and a trophy.
“We finally did it,” Dries said.
The teams got to play at real spring training parks like the California Angels’ Tempe Diablo and the Chicago Cubs’ new Sloan Park.
“The diamonds you play on are just pristine,” Pruefer said.
The league uses hardball rules, with a few alterations to allow more people to play.
Teams may bat as many people as they want, Pruefer said. Defensive players don’t have to bat and may be subbed in at anytime.
“The focus of MSBL is all these guys wouldn’t be playing baseball. It’s really appreciative,” he said.
“It’s competitive but it’s more relaxed,” Uselding said. “There’s less arguing. Once you get older, that’s a little nicer.”
The number of birthdays may be getting higher, but the emotion is still there.
“I’m passionate about it,” said Dries, who as a child dreamed of playing professional ball. “I like the challenge of it. I like facing tough pitchers and being able to throw guys out from the outfield.”
Pruefer’s father, Don, a longtime player and Port High baseball coach, also was along for the trip. His son has won four rings but this was his first with the Rangers.
Playing baseball at a high level isn’t taken for granted.
“One of the funny things is as you get older,” Mickey said, “you learn to appreciate more and more.”
The Brew City Bat Rangers (from left) John Dries, Jamie Uselding and Matt Jacoby were among the Port Washington-area players on the World Series-winning team last fall in Arizona. The men enjoy top-notch competition in the 45+ Men’s Senior Baseball League.