We’re in Lake Norden, South Dakota, home of the South Dakota Baseball Hall of Fame! Where we’re still playing baseball and its only getting better… with age.
“You go down, field a ground ball, and you get that ball stuck in your glove and you pull it out and you pin point throw to first or second or something, and you get it. That’s a good feeling. Or you’re up to the plate and you get a good swing on the ball and you can feel that ball just right on the sweet spot. That’s a good feeling. And it doesn’t make a difference if you’re 20 or 81. It’s still a good feeling. It’s fun,” said 81-year old Phil Trooien.
Phil Trooien started playing baseball when he was 8 years old with his Dad and brother Rollie in the back yard. He is still playing today, only now he is 81. Howie Bich is his younger teammate. He is only 80. “You started playing on the town team, and I started out as a sub in the eighth grade. And then as a freshman, I was old enough and big enough and strong enough to play.
“And you’re still big enough, strong enough and yes, old enough to play,” said Mike Huether. “In the division we are, you, I guess you never get too old to play,” said 80-year old teammate Howie Bich. Howie and Phil play for the South Dakota Rushmore’s. Not only do they play, they win. All over the United States. Team manager and first baseman John Larson provides some background.
“The Rushmore’s won their first national tournament at the MSBL in Phoenix, playing on major league fields in 1995. And we have won 7 championships down there. We started in the 50 and older division, and now, we’ve graduated gradually to the 75 and older division,” said 80-year old John Larson.
The Rushmore’s also have captured 3 national championships at the Roy Hobbs tourney in Ft. Myers, Florida where the Minnesota Twins practice. John, Howie and Lee Goldhammer or Sioux Falls are the only 3 players left from the original Rushmore team from 1994/1995. Remember, they were in their 50s back then.
“There’s been a like a new division added, almost like when we were ready to go to a next division. So, we’ve really been kind of lucky that way,” said Howie Bich.
“So, your next division is the 80-year-old and older?” asked Mike Huether.
“Well, I don’t… I don’t look forward to… but it might. You never know,” said Howie Bich. “You never know,” echoed Mike Huether.
South Dakota baseball players on the Rushmore’s are from Custer, Huron, Lake Norden, Watertown and Sioux Falls.
“The bulk of our players are from South Dakota. Probably half of us, but we have players all the way from Texas to Michigan and California to Pennsylvania,” said John Larson.
The Michigan boy was recruited by John with a true South Dakota twist to it. “He was playing against us. We found out that he likes to hunt pheasants. So, I bribed him to come and play with us. I said he could come on, and pheasant hunt at my place if he’d play ball with us. And he’s been playing for over 10 years now,” said John Larson.
Playing for a winner has proven to be an effective recruiting tool, as well. “We’ve always qualified for the playoffs, and because of the success that we’ve had, that’s how we have acquired a number of our players. They all, everybody likes to play with a winner,” said John Larson.
“What was the first thought when they thought about a South Dakota team competing against California? What was the thought?” asked Mike Huether.
“Originally, I don’t think they thought that South Dakota was going to be very competitive, but it didn’t take them too long to figure out that we had baseball blood in South Dakota. And eventually, we have a reputation of being one of the top teams,” said John Larson.
Howie told me that “We’re not spring chickens anymore.” They looked darn good and play young on and off the diamond.
“Well, I hope to do this a few more years yet. So, it’s getting a little harder to run every year and, and my, I can’t throw very good anymore. So, I’ve done, like my left shoulder, I can’t use it because I wrecked it skiing,” said Howie Bich.
“Triathlons, skiing and hitting the ball for the Rushmore’s really well,” said Mike Huether. “I hear you are batting about 500,” said Mike Huether.
“Now, that might be. I don’t know,” Howie Bich.
The baseball fundamentals of hitting, catching and fielding that we learned in Little League, still play a big role for these athletes 75 years later. “We have an extremely good hitting line-up. So, I think that, and we field pretty good. And we got decent pitching. So, if you can hit, run. What else do you need to,” said Howie Bich.
“Just stay healthy,” said Mike Huether.
“Yeah, and then make it to the end of the week,” said Howie Bich.
Good sportsmanship is the foundation that drives the Rushmore team, their families and their fans. And folks from all over the country notice and appreciate it. “When the Rushmore’s are walking into the stadium, we walk in with our head high, and the other team, you can tell they look at us with respect. Because, they know that if they’re going to beat us, they’re going to have to play good ball,” said Phil Trooien.
“The tournament that you bat 1000, and you have no errors in the field, then you can start complaining to the umpire. So, we don’t have any umpire complaining. We just have a lot of fun playing,” said John Larson.
Spending the morning with these men got my heart pumping and you bet, my mind racing. I am seriously considering getting my old glove and cleats out and joining the 50 and over baseball league. Phil says I am not alone.
“It gives other guys the incentive to keep on playing. I know a lot of time when we’re at tournaments, younger fellows that are watching you know, say ‘Man, I wish I can play as long as you guy can”.’ Or ‘I hope I can play.’ Gotta keep at it. Once you quit, that’s gonna be it,” said Phil Trooien.
John, Howie and Phil have no plans on quitting just yet. And they can’t wait to defend their national championship. I love the Rushmore’s chances.
“I always walk off the field, and look back at it and say, ‘Well, this might have been it.’ You never know,” said Phil Trooien. “As long as a person doesn’t go out and just make a complete fool of oneself, I think I would like to be a part of the Rushmore’s. What a great group.”
The Lady Rushmores are also gaining notoriety across the nation as they sing the “National Anthem” before the games. They also sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” and “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch.