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AUSTIN EDITION Austin twist on American tradition

While people across the country celebrated history with the annual Fourth of July festivities, baseball fans in Austin cherished the past by hanging out at Marcusen Park.

The occasion was the Spamtown Minnesota Challenge amateur baseball tournament. It featured eight teams, six from Minnesota, one from Chicago and one from North Castle, N.Y. The action on the field was fun, but the real treat was just being at the old ballpark.

Once destined to fade into historical obscurity through abandonment by the city, Marcusen lives on as a reminder of Austin's glorious baseball past thanks to a group of concerned residents. The people involved with the Marcusen Park Foundation saved this beautiful place from the wrecking ball, and they put on a great tournament.

Old ballparks

The New Castle Lookouts from New York journeyed so many miles over the holiday weekend because they love to play in classic old parks. Not only did the New Yorkers get to play at Marcusen, they also played games in Red Wing and Rochester.

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Chris Jones, Lookouts manager, talked freely with Austin Greyhounds shortstop John Frein between games Saturday night about how he loved old venues like Marcusen. The Greyhounds, along with the Austin Blue Sox, played hosts to the tourney and gave the folks from out-of-state a taste of Minnesota hospitality.

"I spent two hours on the computer the night before we left for the tournament just looking at the Web site about amateur baseball parks in Minnesota," Jones said of his experience. "My team had a great time playing baseball in your state. We'll be back next year."

High praise for a facility that wasn't even supposed to still exist. Marcusen shone like a jewel as the hub of activity throughout a long weekend of baseball.

Family atmosphere

A brightly colored mural painted on the wall of the grandstand at Marcusen reads, "Keeping the Memories Alive." Fans kept the memory of this grand old ballpark alive by turning out in fairly big numbers for the four-day tournament.

The atmosphere was like a family picnic. Youngsters were out shagging balls, and people brought their dogs to join in the diamond fun. During one game, a dog broke free and raced through the bullpen, grabbing a ball from the guys warming-up. Laughter could be heard as the runaway pet raced toward the infield with the ball in its mouth. Some folks speculated the dog was attempting to collect a quarter for shagging a foul ball.

Fireworks by the river

Rain on Sunday delayed the final rounds of action at the tourney, so the title game wasn't quite over when the fireworks at Lafayette Park began. Members of the Rochester Royals and New Castle Lookouts stopped play in the ninth inning and watched the colorful display.

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Another baseball fan from out-of-state stopped by to see Marcusen for the first time. My little niece, 3-year-old Kennedy Kolb from Arizona, came to town with her parents to watch the fireworks and take a walk through the park.

After the fireworks started, we walked back to my parents' van and told the little girl stories of long ago. My father, a former sportswriter, remembered a time when he saw Kent Hrbek play in the American Legion State Tournament and hit a home run out of Marcusen that, according to legend, was later found near the old swinging bridge.

The memories are truly alive at the venerable old ballpark along the banks of the Cedar River.

Scott Kolb is a Post-Bulletin sports writer. He writes a weekly Tuesday column and can be reached at skolb@postbulletin.com.

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