GRAND RAPIDS — It is doubtful that there is a American Legion baseball tournament that has more prestige in the Upper Midwest than the Gopher Classic.
The Classic is a 96-team pool play tournament sponsored by Excelsior Post No. 259. Teams come from 10 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, making it the largest American Legion tournament in North America.
“This is the largest Legion tourney in the nation and often times teams from this tournament advance to the (American Legion) World Series out of this tournament,” said Grand Rapids Post No. 60 manager Bill Kinnunen. “We take our lumps like men down there. In the old days when they first started it, you had to finish in the top three in state to be invited so you were facing solid competition every time you went down there. Now that it has grown so big they recommend that you were at least in your state tournament last year.”
The tourney starts on today with the championship game concluding the event on Tuesday, July 16.
The tournament is conducted on 16 different sites from St. Cloud to Waconia and each team will participate in a pool of six teams while playing five games in three days. All of pool games will be played at the same host site with the exception of Lakeville North that will utilize its traditional two sites at Lakeville North High School and Elko Field in Elko, Minn.
The winner of each pool will move on to the final round of 16 that will play out on Monday, July 16, at four different locations. This year the playoff round sites will be Bloomington Gold (Red Haddox Field), Eden Prairie (Round Lake Park at the EP Community Center), Excelsior (Veterans Field at Minnetonka High School), and North St. Paul (McNight American Legion Field).
The round of 16 will be narrowed to the final four that will play out with the semifinal round and championship game on Tuesday, July 16, at Poppitz Field in Victoria.
Grand Rapids will open up play on Friday, July 12, at St. Michael at 3:30 p.m. against Chippewa Falls, Wis. Following that game at 6 p.m., Post No. 60 will take on the host of the site, St. Michael-Albertville.
Grand Rapids has just one game on Saturday, at 3:30 p.m. against Fridley Gold, the team made up of Totino-Grace High School players that just won the Grand Rapids American Legion Invitational.
Play for Post No. 60 continues on Sunday when it plays Omaha Burke from Nebraska at 8 a.m. Omaha Burke advanced to the regions last year but it suffered its lone pool play loss to Grand Rapids by an 8-7 score.
“We knocked their ace out of the game so they are going to want revenge this year,” Kinnunen said. It was Post No. 60’s only pool win in last year’s event and Burke’s lone loss.
Grand Rapids’ last game on Sunday will be against Chaska.
With so many games, teams must have good depth in its pitching staff in order to do well. Kinnunen feels Post No. 60 has that needed depth.
“We have a lot of guys who can throw and hopefully they can throw strikes and keep the ball down,” Kinnunen said. “If we can play defense behind good pitching, we can compete with anybody. We try to start with our best guy and work our way down because we when get to playoff time if we don’t win that first one, there is no second one. We go through them all; we have about four No. 1’s and four No. 4’s if you look at our staff so we can throw just about anybody out there and be almost equal.”
Kinnunen said a key for Post No. 60 is being able to make the plays that it should make out on the field.
“The key is to make every play that we should make,” said the coach. “We just need to make the routine play and we don’t have to make the remarkable plays. Just make the routine plays and do it all the time and we’ll be just fine.”
Kinnunen said his players are prepared mentally for playing tough competition as they are taught that it doesn’t matter who is the opponent, and that if they play well then they can win.
“We are playing against the game and ourselves,” Kinnunen said. “It doesn’t matter who we are playing, we are going to try to play as clean of a game as we can.”
Kinnunen said his team will be facing some top-notch talent during the tournament.
“It is tough early as everybody has their aces still fresh and going, but as you get deeper into it you start to see the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 guys and you get a little more of a chance to hit the ball,” the coach explained. “You have to remember that in Legion ball as long as you don’t turn 20 in 2019, you are eligible to play so we see a lot of college play
ers in the tournament.”
Kinnunen was asked what the keys are for a successful tournament and he said, “It is same as always; we have to pitch consistently, throw strikes and keep the ball down, and play defense behind our pitching. As long as we can keep our opponents’ runs down, we feel that with our small ball game that we can score a run when we need to.”
In Grand Rapids’ pool, Kinnunen said the obvious favorite is Omaha Burke. He added that the other teams in the pool also are good.
“Omaha Burke would have to be the favorite and I have heard from other teams that have played Chippewa Falls that they are loaded,” Kinnunen said. “St. Michael has been up there in the state rankings all year in Class AAAA ball and Totino-Grace just won our tournament. Chaska plays in the toughest section in the state in Class AAAA baseball and is always in the top two or three teams in their section.
“We are in a loaded bracket.”
Kinnunen said the goal for Post No. 60 is obviously to win the whole tournament, but he said it will be difficult.
“We just want to play our best baseball and if it’s not good enough to win, then we won’t win,” Kinnunen said. “If we do the best we can, that’s all I can ask if we play up to our ability and handle the pressure the way we are supposed to.”