The first note I made in my notebook says, “I can’t believe the size of this crowd for an American Legion baseball game.” This was my first impression of the Rapid City Post 22 Hardhats game versus Minot. The TV sports reporter, from Sioux Falls, told me the day before that I am going to see a town that loves their American Legion team. Also, he said, “Their baseball complex was pretty sweet.” He was not exaggerating in the least bit. This is Rapid City, South Dakota as of 2010. There were 67,956 people who lived here, and this American Legion Post is the most successful of all of the sports programs in South Dakota. The reason is that they had the same baseball coach for 47 years, who demanded that the team come before individuality.
Dave Ploof coached the Hardhats from 1965-2011, compiling a 2,483-808 record, making him ‘The Coach’ in the history of American Legion baseball with the most wins. Under Coach Ploof, Post 22 won 33 state titles and advanced to the Legion World Series eight times. In 1993, Post 22 went 70-5 and won the national title. From 1970-87, Post 22 won 18 state titles in a row – a national record. He never had a losing season. When Coach Ploof stepped down in 2011, Mitch Messer took over the program and he is in the middle of his third year. In his first two seasons, Messer has a record of 98-45, winning the South Dakota Class A State Championship in 2013. Coach Messer played American Legion baseball in Rapid City from 1993-1997, winning state and regional championships in 1995 and 1996, earning back to back trips to the American Legion World Series.
Coach Messer was an excellent choice to replace the legendary Ploof. I took the following from a last year’s yearbook as the coach addressed what it meant to be part of Post 22 baseball. I was so impressed with it, I have included it in its entirety: “We love our baseball players at Rapid City Post 22. It is enjoyable to be around a group of young men who sacrifice so much individually in order to promote their team.
At Rapid City Post 22, things are different in comparison to some other programs. We do not try to impress players and their families. We believe in giving an honest look at who we are and what we are doing. We want to leave no false impressions. A player should be thinking about what he can do for the team and be aware that it is an honor for him to be here, not a privilege for Post 22 to have him.
We are extremely disciplined and make no secret of this. A player who does not like to work hard or be told what to do will not be one of ours. Our appearance is a strong concern as well as our off-the-field activities. There are things which we just do not do. A positive image must be upheld. Thus, it becomes a challenge to play baseball for Rapid City Post 22. If you want to be treated as a prima donna, complain because the official scorer did not award you a hit, throw equipment in frustration and begin all of your sentences with the word “I”, we suggest you choose a different program. However, if you want to play in a strong program and be a top contender for National American Legion Tournament play, be with a group of talented and classy people, play a strong schedule on a good facility, have good coaching, sacrifice like you never have before and, most importantly, GET BETTER, then come meet the challenge here at Rapid City Post 22.”
I was introduced to Tom Rudebusch, General Manager for Post 22, and Play by Play announcer (if you just thought, they have a GM and a Play by Play announcer?, that is exactly what I thought), who came by the merchandise stand as I was questioning the lady working. My mind was going crazy with questions. I had fallen in love with the place and the tradition of Rapid City before I even watched a game. This place had history and tradition that I crave. They have a coach that was teaching young men what it was like to be a man. A stadium that had beautiful site lines. A fan base that was as loyal as some of the great college programs in the South. Tom was expecting me on this night, he heard I was going to be here from the State Commissioner for Legion baseball, who was also in attendance. The commissioner heard about me on the radio the day before in Sioux Falls, which is five hours to the east of Rapid City. I felt important. People were talking about me, the commissioner was attending the game, he found out that Rapid City was playing because of me.
I talked with Coach Messer and Tom for about 15 minutes before the game. I was interested in why they were called the Hardhats. When Coach Ploof took over the program back in 1965, he required all the players to wear the hard helmets in the field for safety reasons. Tom said, “He was way before his time in that regard.” Therefore, local paper started referring to them as such. About three years ago the name was officially adopted and the tradition has stuck for the last 50 years. Tom explained that he had seen three pitchers get hit in the head during his 28 years as the play by play broadcaster. “The helmets limited the damage that could have been much worse,” he said.
I was impressed with the entire complex. They have a baseball academy that operates year round, which helps to support the three teams that are part of Post 22. Post 22 operates like a miniature MLB team. The top team is the Hardhats, which all the top players are on. The next level down is the Expos. Players on this team are usually a year younger or need more seasoning. Some players are shuffled back forth between the two teams depending on need. Then there is the Bullets. I equate this to Rookie Ball in the Majors. These kids are just coming into the league learning what it takes to be a ball player for Post 22. Tom told me that any kid that comes into the program can participate, no one is cut. They currently have about 60 players on the three teams, there is no cost to join besides purchasing a season ticket for home games. Yeah, I said that it doesn’t cost anything but a season ticket – not a high price to play. This is a program that has an operating budget of $400,000! 1200 season tickets are sold yearly at a cost of $75, the rest comes from the baseball academy! All three teams play at least 40 games, the top team plays around 70 and they travel to different tournament’s. They went to Las Vegas this year and it cost the program about $14,000. The players were only responsible for the cost of their bag on the flight, about $50 bucks.
To play for Post 22 requires a commitment for most of the year. Your summer will be dedicated to playing baseball and that means no summer jobs (I wish I had a place like this growing up). You are expected to hone your game during the off season, with most utilizing the baseball academy but isn’t required. Since the academy brings in enough money to support the teams, they also have great coaching utilizing the top conditioning techniques. I spoke with one parent, Shelly Daly, whose son Ty is a pitcher for the Hardhats. She said, “Ty dreamed of playing for the Hardhats growing up. Lots of kids do.” Shelly told me that members of her family have been coming out to this ball park for over 40 years. She made the statement that she would miss it when Ty moves on to college this fall at Jamestown in North Dakota. However, she plans to continue to come and support the team next year. She says, “I love the tradition. This is a baseball community through and through, it is ingrained in the culture.”
As far as the game between Minot and Rapid City, Rapid City won, 9-0, which ended on the eight-run rule after five innings. The game was 1-0 going into the bottom of the fourth inning, but the Hardhats bats came alive! Matt Minnick had a stand up triple to lead off the 4th, as did Zach Solano. I was impressed I made a note that said “Wow! Two stand up triples in the same inning!” Following suit, Connor Merriam decided to hit one. He slide into third for whatever reason he didn’t need to. That’s right, three stand up triples! The Hardhats batted around, Matt Minnick came up again. For good measure he hit another stand up triple! I have never seen that, I chuckled, the game ended. I congratulated Coach Messer, and headed out of town thoroughly impressed.
As this trip has progressed, I am seeing more and more how this beautiful game interacts with everyday life. I love the fact that when I have gotten off the “beaten path”, exploring such places as Rapid City, Lexington, Grand Junction, Starkville, Bourne, Hyannis and Alexandria, that baseball is part of the backbone of these towns – the coming together as a community is such a wonderful thing. Baseball is the National Pastime for so many reasons. It supports, encourages, unites, and helps these communities thrive in the spirit of America.
This is another story I could write another 1000 words about, but for this post – I am way over my limit. If you have read this far, thanks for the loyalty! If you are ever in Rapid City, head over to Fitzgerald Park and catch a Hardhats game. You will not be disappointed. Try to get there on the 4th of July, they have fireworks and about 3000 fans show up!
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