Amateur hours: Jamestown Merchants are kings in home of amateur baseball

JAMESTOWN, N.D. - Jackson Newark stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning on Wednesday night and muscled a home run to right centerfield.


JAMESTOWN, N.D. - Jackson Newark stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning on Wednesday night and muscled a home run to right centerfield.

When he batted again in the second inning, he took a fastball off the left shoulder. In the top of the third, as a pitcher, he returned the favor by plunking an opponent.

But no warnings were issued. Nobody lost their cool. No brawls ensued. Chalk it up to coincidence. The amateur teams from Jamestown and Enderlin just kept playing at Jack Brown Stadium as the sun fell into the west, beyond their pop flies and even their longest home runs.

There is a reason the fence in center field reads 'Jamestown: Home of N. Dak. Baseball.' At least three amateur teams survive every summer in this town of just under 15,000 people. This year there are four. Fargo has just one.

And if Jamestown is the home of North Dakota baseball, the Merchants are the heads of house. The Jamestown Merchants are the three-time defending Class 3A state champions and also have a Class 2A title from 1993. They have taken over as the top amateur baseball team in North Dakota after years of dominance from their in-city rivals, the Elks.


But don't expect the Merchants players to take themselves too seriously.

"It's more about fun," said Kevin Dobson, who has played with the Merchants for seven years. "We'll get our intense games, but we've all played so many that we just come out for the fun now."

The core is made of men who have been playing on the team for 5 to 15 years, most of them former small college players. Every once in a while, an American Legion youngster, a Japan native or a Major League Baseball No. 1 pick will join the roster.

Every one who's played on the team - about 75 in all - is listed on the back of a Merchants player's shirt as he tosses the ball around before the game. It's almost like a summer tour shirt for a rock and roll band.

And no matter where the former or current Merchants are - in Tokyo, playing for the Anaheim Angels or the Cleveland Indians or the Arizona Diamondbacks, or even just in Fargo - almost all of them make the trip back the weekend before Christmas for a yearly party.

"They try and make it a point to come," said Steve Bennion, who jokes he signed a contract on a napkin at the Christmas party before he started playing in 1993. "It's kind of unusual for them not to be there. It's a great time."

Their affinity for telling stories is obvious as they leap on tangents about past Merchants like Tomo Ohmori - the Japanese player who holds the Jamestown College team record with a .504 batting average in 1995 - and the three who have gone on to play in the big leagues (including Anaheim's Darin Erstad, who was the first overall pick in 1995).

They tell new ones and ones that have been told before, and an event like the Christmas party or even just the after-game barbeque is a chance to share.


Why they come back

About half the Merchants on Wednesday made the 90-mile trek from their homes in Fargo for the midweek game.

"These guys that come from Fargo - there's a reason they come back and play," said Dick Brown, the son of the stadium's namesake.

One of these reasons is Brown, who said he just doesn't have the heart to lock the gates of the stadium in case some kids want to come by and use the batting cages.

There are between 150 and 200 games played every year at Jack Brown. And when there's a game, Dick Brown is there, chatting it up with the players and running the concession stand.

"You need ice, he gets you ice; usually he buys beer and whatever you need," said Kevin Gall, a Merchant since 1994. "He'll ump if you need an ump. It's not very often, but he's just that kind of guy."

The other guy the players rave about is Tom Gould, father of Merchants center fielder Jeff Gould. Tom Gould organized the team from the start in 1989 and even filled in when it needed a ninth body on the field.

Raising money, finding opponents, hiring umpires and reserving fields are tough and thankless tasks in amateur baseball. That's why Jeff Gould calls his dad the MVP every year.


Tom Gould, who is 56, charges his players only a $25 fee to play every summer. Half of them don't pay, but he said he doesn't mind footing the bill.

He said it's a labor of love and it keeps him young to hang out with these guys, whom he coached in ninth grade basketball or Babe Ruth baseball before the Merchants came along.

He still calls these 30-somethings 'kids.'

On Wednesday, his days of batting ninth for the Merchants were long passed, and he sipped a beer as the first pitch neared, not too concerned with managing anything.

"When they were 18, 19, 20 or 24, 25, they needed a little bit of guidance I guess," he said. "But they're 32, 33, 34 years old. My God, you know, they can handle things."

Growing, growing...

Fifteen years have passed since Jeff Gould and Dave Fleming graduated high school.

Fleming insisted all winter long in 1989 that they were going to start this team, and Jeff Gould nodded and smiled.


"Sure enough, about April, he had 25 games scheduled," Jeff Gould said. "And there we started."

Just five years after the team's birth, the Merchants already had a state title to their name.

Their 1993 Class 2A state championship - which Ohmori helped them earn - was relieving and rewarding for their manager.

"That was a culmination," Tom Gould said. "We were so close so many times and had so many second places."

They made the jump to Class 3A soon after and broke through with their first of three straight titles in 2001.

Tom Gould sees three teams having a decent chance to unseat them this year: the Grand Forks Gerrells, the Wyndmere Braves and the Elks.

The state tournament is on Aug. 12-15 at Jack Brown Stadium.

That's when things get more serious than a lazy Wednesday evening game against Enderlin.


"You screw your hat on from the first pitch on," Gall said of the tournament. "In these games, it might take us awhile to get going."

Tom Gould doesn't seem overly concerned with whether the Merchants can repeat this year, adding that there aren't enough good teams committed to putting a solid product on the field.

Not so of the Merchants. He said his players have worked hard and paid their dues (except of course their player's fees).

"It's definitely gone on longer than we thought it would," he said. "But it's been a lot of fun, and we've got a lot of good guys playing. It's been very worthwhile."

A sunny day in July

It's hard to picture a more ideal evening for a game of baseball - 80 degrees and sunny. Wednesday was originally in open date, but was later filled by Enderlin.

Just 10 fans litter the five sections of wooden bleachers behind the plate and down the first base line. Several more stand near or sit on detached metal stands behind the Merchants dugout on the third base line. Among them are Dobson's wife Kristie and their golden-coated dog Wrangler, who wanders the stadium during the game.

Eight tall light posts surround the field, and the faded blue scoreboard and massive American flag in centerfield clash with the deep green outfield wall with a yellow stripe at its base.


Left-handed hitters feast on the 300-foot right field fence. Dobson's rocket off the wall there in the bottom of the third goes for just a single. The wall is so shallow that the runner on first can't even advance past second.

There are no basecoaches, just one umpire (former Merchants player Paul Hanson, who is taking a paycut to help out his old team), and Enderlin's players don three different colored jerseys.

Gall and Bennion said the team will use signs for hitters and baserunners during the state tournament.

"Just getting at-bats is the main thing for everybody," Gall said, "so you're ready when the state tournament rolls around."

But for now, they're just enjoying a casual evening that turns into a 16-7 slugfest in the Merchants favor.

And probably looking forward to the post-game barbeque.

"When you get to play at a place like this," Gall asked rhetorically, "what would you rather be doing?"

Readers can reach Forum reporter Aaron Blake at (701) 235-7311

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