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George Ellis, left, and Bucky Burgau talk Friday at Matson Field, revisiting a memorable American Legion baseball game from 25 years ago. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Blues, Post 2 had "a night to remember" 25 years ago

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sports Fargo, 58102
Fargo ND 101 5th Street North 58102

Fargo - Jack Williams Stadium and Matson Field are separated by a river and about a 10-minute walk. The home fields of the Fargo and Moorhead American Legion baseball teams have hosted their inter-city battles over the years.

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There is no known record on the series record, although the memories of those who played and watched the games will go on forever. But perhaps no game will be remembered more than the one fought on a 1989 hot July night – a matchup of two teams that were among the nation’s best with three players from that game who went on to professional baseball.

“Holy buckets, it was baseball at that age group at its best,” said former Blues coach Bucky Burgau.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of an 8-7 Fargo win.

It wasn’t the victory itself that stands out for those involved, but the every-pitch passion that ended in a melee at first base. Keep in mind the Blues returned the bulk of a team that reached the 1988 Legion World Series, including Brad Keenan, who played in the Cincinnati Reds organization.

Fargo’s 1989 team also reached the World Series. It had Rick Helling, who went on to a 12-year major league career, and Tim Sandy, who played four years in the New York Mets organization reaching the Class AAA team. Both teams had athletes who excelled in high school or college in other sports, and both teams reached the Central Plains Regional in New Ulm, Minn., the previous year.

“This game was intense from the first pitch,” said Darrell Olson, who was the home plate umpire that night. “It seemed like every half-inning there was a call or an event that made me think that this thing was slipping out of control.”

For Olson, it came early when he ejected Helling for arguing a called third strike.

It was intense for umpires Olson, George Ellis and Jack Peterson from the minute they got to Matson Field. Olson said he recalls the following conversation:

Olson: “How do we want to work this game tonight?”

Ellis, in reference to Fargo coach Jerry Harter: “I’m not taking the plate. Harter is still mad at me from a game last week.”

Peterson: “I don’t have very good night vision.”

So Olson went behind the plate and Ellis took first base – usually an umpiring position that has the occasional bang-bang play but not much more than that. On this night, that bang-bang play came on the last out of the game.

Fargo scored seven runs in the first inning and looked to be on its way to an easy victory. But the Blues rallied, pulling within 8-7 on a two-run home run by Jeff Bergman in the bottom of the seventh and final inning.

Moorhead wasn’t done. Tony Kunka reached on an error on a play Fargo fans thought he was out. Keenan, the next batter, sent a ground ball to second baseman Matt Boudjouk, who bobbled the ball but recovered to throw to first to nip Keenan to end the game.

“You have to call them the best you can,” Ellis said, before starting his next sentence with a chuckle. “Then we had a little altercation. It was a night to remember, that’s for sure.”

Burgau, not agreeing with the call, sprinted across the diamond from his third base coaching box and he and Ellis did their best Billy Martin/major league umpire confrontation. Both had to be separated. Forum sportswriter Jay Osmundson termed it a shoving match in the next day’s newspaper.

Olson said in his umpiring career he rarely felt threatened after a game, but he said this was different. After the game, he took a game ball, wrote the date on it and brought it home.

He still has it.

Olson, who was formerly a teacher in Maple Grove, Minn., would sometimes bring it out whenever he felt the need to change his mood with a baseball thought.

“Whenever I can’t stand winter, I pull it out and smile and laugh about that night,” said Olson, now a staff development specialist in the Osseo (Minn.) School District.

Twenty-five years later, Burgau and Ellis still chuckle about it. It was a rare confrontation between two friends who for years played in a fantasy baseball league together in the winter, but also coached against each other in the early 1980s – Burgau as the head coach at Concordia and Ellis the head coach at North Dakota State.

Earlier this week, Burgau said that incident was a teaching moment for him as “a leader of young men.”

“I blew my cork and that was probably the lowest point of my career,” he said. “To be honest, that changed my perspective not only as a baseball coach but making sure nothing like that happens again. George loves baseball and was a very good umpire. You could always count on him.”

The scuffle in front of the Moorhead dugout ended when Blues chairman Joe Baker separated Burgau and Ellis. The frustration was probably boiling leading up to the game considering Fargo had beaten the Blues 12 straight times, with six of the previous seven being decided by one run.

The one that wasn’t, a 4-1 Fargo win, was played earlier in the week at the Metrodome when Helling was dominant on the mound. It was a rare trip away from Jack Williams or Matson for a Burgau vs. Harter matchup.

“In a way, both of us hated those games, but in a way both of us loved those games,” Burgau said. “Those rivalry games are fun, especially when they’re over and you win. I’m sure the umpires were nervous when they got on the field for those games, too.”

Nervous, perhaps, but rewarding.

Olson has a game ball from July 19, 1989 to prove it. He calls Burgau a close friend and said that night was an example of “his great passion for the game and, between the lines, he wanted to win.”

“It was a gorgeous night with a big crowd,” Olson said.

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