John Dittrich was dubbed "The Genius" by Forum sports columnist Dave Kolpack in 1997, when Dittrich was the general manager of the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and everything the baseball club touched turned to gold.
Owner Bruce Thom was "The General," Dittrich was "The Genius" and manager Doug Simunic was "The Chief." Kolpack wrote a column meant to be sung to the tune of Terry Cashman's classic "Talkin' Baseball," with the chorus as "The General, the Genius and the Chief" replacing "Willie, Mickey and the Duke."
It was wonderful and, given the popularity and success of the RedHawks in those early years, a perfect tribute to the new franchise with just the right dollop of sarcasm aimed at the egos of Thom, Dittrich and Simunic.
Reminded Thursday, Sept. 12, of the nickname given to him during his time in Fargo-Moorhead, Dittrich chuckled.
"I think Dave was overstating it, but I'll take it," he said.
The fact Dittrich is able to laugh at a long-ago memory shared by a long-ago acquaintance is a good thing, given his circumstances.
The RedHawks' first GM, who with Thom and Simunic built the franchise from scratch, finds himself paralyzed from the chest down after a rare medical event that has the upbeat Dittrich saying, "I can't believe this is happening to me."
Dittrich suffered spinal cord bleeding in mid-August in the Phoenix area, where and his wife Lois have lived since (mostly) retiring in 2013. He required emergency surgery to stop the bleeding, after which Dittrich no longer had the use of his legs. He's wheelchair-bound, able to use only his arms. He spent eight days in intensive care, six days in the hospital and has been at a rehabilitation center for two weeks.
"It's hard to describe and hard to understand. I didn't have any trauma and I don't have some kind of disease that caused it. It's just one of those things that happened, which is tough to grasp," the 69-year-old Dittrich said. "If I'd had a heart attack, I'd understand. If I'd been in a car accident, those things happen. But I would've never guessed in a million years that something like this would happen to me."
Dittrich and his wife are baseball lifers, having spent 42 years in front offices around the United States.
"Fourteen cities, nine states, one province and two countries," Dittrich said. "In some places we never did unpack all the boxes before we moved again."
He came to Fargo-Moorhead in the fall of 1995 to get the RedHawks, a brand-new Northern League franchise, off the ground. If Thom liked to play the George Steinbrenner role as owner and Simunic was the crusty old-school field manager, Dittrich was the approachable front-office type who spoke to the media, businesses and civic groups singing the praises of independent baseball like the Music Man.
Except, what Dittrich said was spot-on. He said the fans would enjoy sitting in an outdoor ballpark on summer evenings, consuming affordable hot dogs and beer while the team on the field was trying to win games. All of that came to pass. In Dittrich's two full years with the RedHawks, they made the playoffs twice and in 1997 drew an average of nearly 4,300 fans per game.
It was a glorious time for the RedHawks.
He left mid-season in 1998 to take over a Northern League expansion franchise in Schaumburg, Ill.
"We loved Fargo. It was one of the top three places that we lived," Dittrich said. "I do think it's one of the nicest small cities in America. And I've seen a lot of them."
Since retiring to Arizona, Dittrich worked for the Cleveland Indians in Goodyear, Ariz., during spring training for eight weeks each year taking tickets or checking credentials. He and Lois liked to travel and generally enjoy the life of retired people.
Now that's in flux. While doctors have told Dittrich he might regain use of his legs in a year or two, nothing is certain. He hopes to move home in the next week or two. He'll need a wheelchair-accessible van. It will be a major change for the always-active Dittrich.
"I'm just sort of sitting here, wondering what's going to happen. Thank goodness for technology. I have my laptop, cell phone, iPad. The TVs here at the rehab center have about 95 channels so I can keep up with politics. I'm going to watch the debates tonight," Dittrich said. "I have the MLB TV app so I can watch ballgames on my phone. I can keep up with the Cubs, Diamondbacks, Indians. I'm still pretty upbeat since it happened, but it's not easy.
"It just shows you that you never know. Something could strike you at any moment, out of the blue. I'm trying hard to stay positive. I'm reminding myself that tons of people live with things worse than this. So I have to keep that in mind. I've got it better than some."