McFeely Blog: 25 Years Ago The RedHawks Were Like Our League Team – Intensity And Everything
This part didn’t seem so fun at the time. Twenty-five years later, perhaps clouded with nostalgia, it sounds wonderful.
At some point after 10-15 years, maybe even earlier than that, the intensity melted away and wins and losses didn’t matter as much. The RedHawks are still a big part of the Fargo-Moorhead landscape, but from the handful of games I’ve attended as a spectator in recent years (admittedly a very small sample size and none since 2019), it seemed like the fans were there 100% for the entertainment and 0% for the competition.
In a playoff game in 1996, the Winnipeg Goldeyes had to be barred from entering the stands after heinous rowdiness.
The times have changed. Drastically, if you were in the early years of the franchise. Especially this inaugural 1996 season.
It was wild, wacky, entertaining as hell and as competitive as anything. It was everything the resurgent Northern League was touted as in the days when independent minor league baseball was new.
Eric Peterson’s excellent comeback on the RedHawks’ first ball game played a quarter of a century ago at the stadium now called Newman Outdoor Field – freshly laid turf and a fight for the first game! – triggered memories in that old hazy mind. A trip to the Forum archives reinforced some of them and added others. I had forgotten how much of a wacky race that first season was – and how important the RedHawks felt.
Some quick info.
I was 29 years old and I was covering high school for the Forum in early 1996, I was a journalist for only a few years after starting my career in the press at the editorial office. The author of the RedHawks beat was Jay Osmundson, a veteran scribe (seemed old to me … he was 42) who was thrilled with the opportunity to cover a minor league club. The sports columnist at the time was Dave Kolpack, older brother of North Dakota state beat writer Jeff Kolpack (then and now Bison beat reporter).
Jay and Dave covered preparation for the RedHawks’ first season as the StarTribune covered the Minnesota Twins. Regular front page articles, comments, reports, latest news. The expectation for Fargo-Moorhead to have a professional baseball team for the first time since the old FM Twins left after the 1961 season was real. It helped that the owner of the RedHawks was Mid-States Development, a subsidiary of Otter Tail Power Co. that owned KFGO-AM, who was at the height of his power at the time and had just signed the talk show host Ed. Schultz far from his rival. WDAY-AM.
Combine coverage of the Forum and KFGO (as well as sister station 1280 AM The Ticket, the sports speaker that broadcast the RedHawks’ games) with that of sports teams from four local TV channels (KXJB had its own sports department in the area). ‘era) and the threshing train was rolling.
Different times, man.
Sadly, Osmundson couldn’t cover the RedHawks’ pace for long. He had been ill for some time and was diagnosed with heart disease which forced him to stop working shortly after the stadium opened. He underwent surgery in July, never made a full recovery and died in late August.
I picked up the pace when Jay couldn’t work and stayed there until August 1997 when I became a sports columnist.
The league at the time was filled with former big leagues (Daryl Motley was a former Kansas City Royals outfielder and a slugging star for the RedHawks) and there were many personalities as managers, starting with Doug Simunic in Fargo. There was also Ed Nottle in Sioux City (his nickname was Singin ‘Ed Nottle because he sang for children’s charities and had actually recorded an album), an old baseball man who seemed to eat mostly cigarettes. There was Marty Scott in St. Paul, who once had a sumo match with Simunic as a promotion in the game. There was Hal Lanier in Winnipeg, who was the National League Manager of the Year in 1986 with the Houston Astros.
Even the owners were part of the fun. RedHawks CEO Bruce Thom wore a silver army helmet, a la George Patton, and gave pep talk to the team.
Dave Kolpack has nicknamed Thom as “the general” and team general manager John Dittrich as “the genius”.
There were real rivalries. Simunic and RedHawks pitcher / pitcher / coach Jeff Bittiger was incredibly competitive and more than paranoid about events within the league and their own club. Simunic had led the Rochester Aces in 1993 and followed the franchise to Winnipeg, where she moved in 1994. The Goldeyes won a championship that year and were runners-up in 1995 before Simunic was fired after a falling out. with owner Sam Katz. Simunic was hired by the RedHawks.
So there was an intense feud between the RedHawks and the Goldeyes, two of the league’s top teams, and it spilled over into the fans and the media – especially when the teams met in the first round of the playoffs.
The RedHawks drew big crowds in 1996, of course, as they have for many years. They were regularly over 4,000 fans later in the season, including a rally of 4,680 spectators on August 9. Fans, as Simunic told Peterson for his article on the opening of Newman Outdoor Field, were “electric” this season – in baseball and competition.
It was never more evident than when the RedHawks opened the playoffs at home against Winnipeg in early September. Despite having a short window to sell tickets and having to rely solely on one-game sales and drop-in sales, the RedHawks drew 4,295 fans for a Wednesday night clash against the Goldeyes.
They were not disappointed. Rookie Chris Coste erased a 3-1 deficit by hitting a dramatic three-run homer on a full count with two strikeouts in the seventh inning – fans rocking the new stadium to cheers as the ball disappeared over the wall left field – and the RedHawks used a controversial shot to score the winning run late in the ninth to take a 1-0 lead in the series.
The energy inside the stadium was probably as high as it was in several North Dakota state football games in those days of Division II decline. Which seems strange to say after what has become of Bison football since 2011.
In the third and decisive game of the series, after a 90-minute rain delay allowed fans to dive into the night, some Winnipeg players had to be barred from entering the stands after rowdies at the end. eighth round. General Manager John Dittrich went on the PA system and urged fans to relax.
Imagine that kind of intensity at a RedHawks game these days.
The RedHawks won this game and the series, celebrating as if they’ve just won the World Series after shutting down Winnipeg to Fargo in the third and decisive game, before losing 3-0 to St. Paul in the Championship Series – the decisive game turning when popular third baseman Johnny Knott misinterpreted a routine ninth inning pop-up that hit him straight in the right eye.
The fans returned home an oppressed group. They cared about the lost home team.
Things have changed since then, through no fault of the RedHawks. The team have around 26 seasons now and the novelty for the most part has faded, although the crowds are still solid. While Fargo had a professional baseball team and a new stadium in 1996 was big business, the RedHawks (to their credit) are no longer part of the city’s daily fabric. The Northern League in the mid-1990s was fresh and different; the current American Association does not have that flavor.
The world of sport has changed. All sports are readily available on multiple platforms. And Fargo has grown into a Bison football mad city over the past decade – one that dominates everything locally in terms of attention.
The media landscape is also very different. Everything is fractured now, every sports fan has their own niche on the internet for finding information, and therefore the RedHawks are no longer necessarily force-fed the masses. The local media, frankly, stopped treating the RedHawks like a major league baseball club years ago – in part because the staff got smaller and it was no longer possible to staff every. match, but also because the interest in winning and losing was no longer there.
It might also help if the RedHawks could fight for a championship again. They haven’t won a title since 2010 and have missed the playoffs in aggregate six of the past seven years. The buzz might not return as it existed in 1996 or 1998 – those days are long gone – but more wins would help.
Bring back 50% of the intensity of those crowds in the 1996 season and the RedHawks would have something, including this old man who remembers the ballpark more often.