FARGO — Former Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks pitcher Jake Laber was immortalized Monday night, July 19, as his No. 19 jersey was retired at Newman Outdoor Field.
“When your number is retired, that’s as big as it gets,” said Ken Laber, Jake’s father.
Jake, who died from natural causes in 2016 at age 30, was one of the top pitchers for the RedHawks in franchise history. He still holds multiple team records. During a pregame ceremony, Jake was honored with a video presentation before his parents walked onto the field behind home plate with RedHawks general manager Matt Rau. Rau was a high school teammate of Jake at Fargo North.
“This is really great closure for us,” said Deb Laber, Jake’s mother. “The RedHawks have always felt like they are part of our family. For them to do this and for us to have Jake’s number up there, we feel really close to them.”
The RedHawks played the Winnipeg Goldeyes on Monday night in American Association baseball. Jake joined pitcher/coach Jeff Bittiger (35) and center fielder Joe Mathis (7) as the only former RedHawks with their numbers retired. Major League legends Jackie Robinson (42) and Roger Maris (8) also have their numbers retired by the team.
During the pregame ceremony, a curtain was lifted to unveil Laber's number on the façade right above the suite level at Newman Outdoor Field. Rau stood between Deb and Ken with their arms around each other as Jake's number was unveiled.
“We knew it was going to be special and emotional, but I don’t think any of us realized how much it was going to be until it started," Rau said. “Being there to help support them was an honor and at the same time was extremely difficult.”
Jake retired from professional baseball in 2014. The Fargo North graduate and North Dakota State standout spent six seasons with the RedHawks and holds the F-M team record for career pitching wins with 46. He also holds the franchise record for starts (102) and innings pitched (648 1/3).
“I think he would have been impressed and he would have been grateful to them,” Deb said of how Jake would have reacted to the honor. “I think he knew how much they appreciated him. It would have meant a lot to him.”
Deb and Ken, both retired, said they still attend around 10 RedHawks games a summer and having Jake’s number retired will make trips to Newman Outdoor Field more special.
“To me, I feel like when I go to the RedHawks from now on, I know it will warm my heart to know how much they appreciated Jake and all he did for the organization,” Deb said.
Rau and his family have been longtime friends with the Labers.
“It makes it really special that Deb and Ken appreciate it," said Rau, who helped coach Jake for one season with the Fargo Post 2 American Legion baseball program. "They’re great, great people and did an amazing job raising their son. Anything we can do to help with their process and if it brings a little closure or little comfort knowing that Jake will always have a presence, it’s more than our pleasure to do it.”
Ken estimated around 70 friends and family were at Newman on Monday night to honor Jake’s legacy with the RedHawks.
“I think it just really completes the whole story of Jake’s time with the RedHawks,” Deb said. “It means a lot to us. When people bring up Jake or ask about him or honor him, that really helps us with remembering Jake.”
Former longtime RedHawks manager Doug Simunic and former general manager Josh Buchholz were in the pregame video that was first produced in 2016 and updated for Monday night's ceremony. The video was more than four minutes.
“You couldn’t ask for a stronger guy that worked out, that knew how to take care of his body," Simunic said in the video. "He was that guy around here, that’s what made him the face of our organization for two or three years. He’ll be sorely missed in this community."
A few years ago, Ken said the RedHawks gave the Labers an old pitching rubber from Newman Outdoor Field, one that Jake pitched on multiple times. That pitching rubber is in the garden of the Laber’s home in north Fargo.
Fargo Post 2 retired Jake’s jersey number in 2017 and he was also inducted into Post 2’s hall of fame. Deb and Ken are thankful for each honor.
“A person can have lots of records, you can even be in the hall of fame, but having your number retired is the top,” Ken said.
Deb said the number retirement created a stir of emotions.
“It makes us miss him all the more,” Deb said. “He’s been gone five years and sometimes it feels like forever and sometimes it feels like it just happened. This makes all those memories come to life again.
“It’s just very, very special for us that this is happening. It’s so nice.”