Editor's Note: “A Look at Times Gone By” is an in-depth look at weekly Times Gone By entries compiled by the Enterprise's Debbie Kellogg since 2015. These articles will appear in each edition as local teams anticipate new seasons, whenever they should resume.
With the sun shining and the pavement hot, the Blair town team made 1980s Dodge County Baseball League road trips in style.
The semipro ballplayers had the rare treat of rolling up to opposing parks in Bill Drefs' 1960s school bus.
“There was some singing going on …,” Russ Nelsen said Monday, recalling the rides. “... and some drinking.”
Wives and girlfriends were along for the drives in those days, too. Steve Appel said the whole Blair crew would show up early and have cookouts before game time.
“That was one of the things that made us such a cohesive team,” Mike Janssen added.
Nelsen remembers an overheated bus on the side of the road during one drive back from West Point — and a Fourth of July smoke bomb prank that left Drefs thinking he had himself a bus fire — but he also recalls competitive games between Dodge County Baseball League (DCBL) clubs.
“Most of the teams were pretty good,” Appel said.
Blair, populated with Dana College alumni and strong community backing, was certainly one of them, but its Washington County neighbor to the west was, too. Rusty Hilgenkamp, one of Arlington's standouts, recalls the '80s' DCBL the same way the eastern county ballplayers do.
“It was a pretty healthy league,” he said.
And the county rivalry followed suit.
Blair versus Arlington
“Our battles with Arlington were memorable,” Janssen said.
Appel agreed, noting that, “They were pretty good.”
While competition was high between Blair and Arlington with the crowds easily reaching the 100s, the rivalry was never malicious.
“Us and Blair were good, healthy rivals,” Hilgenkamp said.
“It was never heated,” he explained. “Just a lot of respect for each other.”
Arlington games in Blair were almost always celebrated afterward with brews in the parking lot or at George's Tavern, Hilgenkamp added.
In 1988, both Washington County DCBL teams had plenty to celebrate. Arlington won the state semipro tournament in Scribner that year, besting Lincoln Runza 11-2 in the championship game.
Blair, meanwhile, clinched its league's regular season title with a 16-2 record. One of those 16 wins was a 2-1 July victory against Hilgenkamp's squad. The game was knotted up 1-1 in the 10th inning before Appel singled, giving Pat Marchese the chance to pinch run and score on an Arlington pick-off attempt gone awry.
The rivals wouldn't be strangers for long, though. They met again at the beginning of August in the DCBL playoffs.
“I hadn't done a lot of pitching up until then,” Hilgenkamp said, noting that the Arlington squad was a little thin in roster depth. But there he was, the starter at Vets Field against the regular season champs.
It didn't start well.
Blair built a 5-1 advantage early with RBIs by Kevin Rasmussen and Todd Enfield before Jeff Ellis hit a homer to centerfield. Arlington protested the home run call, suggesting the ball bounced over the fence, but the ruling stuck.
A Rasmussen homer and Appel's RBI pushed Blair's lead to 7-2 as the game went on, but Arlington didn't give in. It scored four runs — including three on Jeff Nelson's homer — during the sixth frame to even the score.
Then, Hilgenkamp and company made the comeback complete with two runs in the ninth. Pat Roll and he notched hits, but Blair errors were its downfall, resulting in a 12-10 Arlington victory. The visitors wound up scoring eight runs over the last four innings to earn the win.
Hilgenkamp pitched the complete game victory with 10 strikeouts, allowing just one hit over the last five innings after a shaky start.
That wasn't the last laugh, though, as Blair beat Arlington 11-6 less than two weeks later at the Dodge County Fair. Blair pitcher Tom Zahller allowed 17 hits, but Hilgenkamp's squad stranded 11 runners.
On top of that, Enfield had two homers, while Ellis singled and doubled for the winning squad.
Town team standouts
Thirty-two years later, the details of the rivalry games aren't as fresh to Appel, Janssen, Nelsen and Hilgenkamp as the people are.
Janssen said ballplayers were so talented that he “had to bust my behind to get on the field.”
Brian Greunke, Roll, Nelson and Kent Clements all had two hits in Arlington's DCBL playoff win against Blair and Hilgenkamp remembers playing alongside each one of them. Nelson was his catcher, even though he was a natural first baseman.
“He did fine,” Hilgenkamp said. “Jeff's a good athlete.”
Rasmussen, meanwhile, played second base for Blair even though he was probably the best catcher in the league. Janssen said the infielder was likely the best DCBL second baseman, too.
Appel, meanwhile, said no Blair town team story is complete without mentioning Tim Johnson. When reached by phone Monday, Appel knew exactly how many years it'd been since his teammate died in 2007. The bond remains.
Five Blair and Arlington baseball players made the DCBL All-Star team in 1988, including Johnson, who Janssen said had a “nasty slider.”
Rasmussen and Mike Urdahl joined Johnson as Blair representatives, while Hilgenkamp and Nelson represented their rivals. Arlington's Bryan Nelson was an alternate.
Drefs, whose bus made for so many memories, managed the DCBL All-Stars as they finished their summers with a game against a Western Iowa League team at Rosenblatt Stadium — the legendary former home of the College World Series in Omaha.
That was 1988 in the DCBL.