GRAND RAPIDS — Bill Kinnunen has done it all in the Grand Rapids baseball programs.
From maintenance man to player to coach, he has served the local baseball programs in every capacity throughout the years. After his playing days, Kinnunen has carved out an impressive career as head coach of both the high school and American Legion programs. It is apparent that people have noticed as he will be inducted into the Minnesota State High School Baseball Coaches Association (MSHSBCA) Hall of Fame on Saturday, Nov. 13, at the Omni Hotel in Eagan. The social hour begins at 6 p.m. with the banquet set to start at 7 p.m.
“It’s a great honor to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the guys in there, and it just means I have been around a long time and they are waiting for me to retire,” Kinnunen laughed. “With all the accomplishments that the coaches in the Hall of Fame have done, I don’t feel that I am worthy. I have a lot of years left in me and it is a testament to the great kids that we have had in the program and the great families involved in Grand Rapids baseball.
“I also have been surrounded by outstanding coaches my entire coaching career and I have been lucky in the guys I have been able to get to work with me. That’s a testament to them and their commitment to the program. That’s why we have been successful; I just show up and unlock the equipment and let my coaches coach.”
As a friend of retired Grand Rapids baseball coach Bob Streetar’s young sons, Kinnunen would hang around the ball park and help the Streetar boys perform duties for their father. Meanwhile, he played baseball in the Grand Rapids youth programs, becoming proficient at the game as he entered his high school years.
In 1984, as a junior first baseman/pitcher, Kinnunen was a key member of the second and last Grand Rapids High School state championship team. Besides playing baseball, he also played football and hockey for the Indians.
Following his graduation in 1985, Kinnunen, 55, played baseball for two years at Itasca Community College before moving on to the College of St. Scholastica where he graduated in 1990. He said he probably would have played three sports at St. Scholastica but the school did not field a football team at the time.
Kinnunen’s first teaching job was at Toivola-Meadowlands where he stayed for two years, coaching football and track and field as there was no baseball program. His next stop was at Cotton where he started the baseball program in his second year there. After two years at Cotton, he moved to Grand Rapids where he starting coaching in the baseball program in 1996, and took over the head coaching duties from coaching legend Bob Streetar – also a member of the Hall of Fame – in 2001.
Kinnunen also has been the defensive coordinator for the Thunderhawks football team for the past 27 years. To show his proficiency in that capacity, he received the prestigious Butch Nash Assistant Football Coach of the Year Award in 2015.
Kinnunen has coached five baseball teams to the Minnesota state tournament, with Grand Rapids finishing second in 2005, and also in 2021. The Thunderhawks placed third at state in both 2008 and 2012.
“As long as they are keeping score, we are going to try to win all our games including the last one of the season,” Kinnunen explained. “That’s what we play for. Fundamentally, we do things correct and do them the Grand Rapids way. We expect to win a state championship every year; that’s our goal.
“We finished second twice and third twice in our five trips to the state tournament over the years, and the year we lost our first two and got knocked out, we probably should have been state champions. But we always strive to be No. 1 in the state and it would be fun to win one. But if we don’t, as long as we do the best that we can on that particular day, that’s all we can ask.”
In the summer, Kinnunen coached his first Veterans of Foreign Wars baseball team in 1988, and coached that team for five years. He then took over the duties as the Grand Rapids American Legion baseball coach from Streetar, and he has held that position for 21 years. During his tenure as Legion coach, nine Grand Rapids teams have advanced to the state tournament. He was named Minnesota Legion Coach of the Year in 2009.
Kinnunen also was player/coach of the Grand Rapids town team while he was still in college.
Kinnunen is a product of great continuity in the Grand Rapids baseball program. In the high school program, John A. Curran started coaching in the 1950s, with Streetar replacing him in 1969. Kinnunen replaced Streetar and is still at the helm, which means the high school and Legion programs have been coached by just three men in a time span of about 65 years,
“It is very important to keep that continuity going,” said Kinnunen. “The kids know what to expect when they get in the program. From summer to spring it doesn’t change where a lot of places have different Legion coaches in the summer and then they are working on different things than they are in the spring. So, it helps a lot.”
Kinnunen said he learned the game of baseball from Coach Streetar, and added that he couldn’t have learned from anybody better.
“Let’s get this fact straight right from the start, Mr. Streetar has forgotten more about baseball than I will ever know,” Kinnunen said. “The big thing I took from him is you have to work on fundamentals. If you can do the fundamental things and take care of yourself, you are going to be fine. You don’t have to worry about the other team.”
Another philosophy in the Grand Rapids program throughout the years is stressing the importance of pitching and playing defense.
“Defense and pitching is just playing catch,” the coach said. “You have to throw the ball and catch the ball; when you are pitching you are throwing and catching it and when you are in the field you are throwing it and catching it. So, that’s what we work on for the majority of our time.
“The kids always want to swing the bats because that’s the fun and where you get all the glory and get your name in the papers or get on TV. But we work on playing catch.”
Traditionally, northern Minnesota baseball teams don’t receive much respect from teams in the Twin Cities and southern Minnesota. But Kinnunen said those teams know who Grand Rapids is and what it can do.
“Due to the fact that the great history of the program that the coaches before me started and carried on, there was a lot of respect for the Grand Rapids program when I got the job and hopefully we have kept that up and played up to our ability. We have a lot of good baseball players in Grand Rapids and there are a bunch more coming down the pike here so we have a bright future to look forward to.”
Currently, Kinnunen is in 80th place in Minnesota high school baseball in career coaching wins with a lifetime coaching record of 312-182. Kinnunen said no changes are planned in the immediate future.
“It looks very positive the next few years and as long as we keep plugging away and doing what we are supposed to, we should be OK the next few years,” Kinnunen said.
Kinnunen said nothing would be possible without the love and support of his family, to include wife Teresa and daughters Bailey and Kaija.
“Up to this point, they have allowed me to do this and they haven’t asked me to shut it down yet,” Kinnunen said. “It takes a lot of time and it is a huge commitment from them to allow me to do this. They have missed out on things throughout the years because of the time I have to put in. Everybody said I have to make a sacrifice to coach this long, coach two baseball teams back-to-back and then roll right into football.
“I am doing something that I love to do and I would probably do it for free if I needed to. My family doesn’t get a choice; I am choosing to do it and my family have sacrificed a lot to enable me to do this and I am very grateful for that.”