The old, red Ford pickup with a black topper on the back. A vehicle with baseball dents worn like a badge of honor. It was there, at the same parking spot at Jack Williams Stadium, on early summer mornings more often than not.
I often wondered what went through Jim Pettersen’s mind as he sat in his press box office, the only person in the park. The sun was probably rising, crawling over the nearby Red River and shining over the Post 2 Legion field.
Was the vice chairman of the program thinking about the next game? The future? Remembering the past? Perhaps it was a collection of all things baseball because that was Pete. Baseball was his happy place.
The sun set on Pete this week, passed away to the Field of Dreams above after a battle with COVID-19.
Pete was my college baseball coach for the two mediocre years that I played. In this world, some people you meet early in life tend to continue to be part of you year after year, for whatever reason.
That was Pete. He never went away.
I mean that in the best of ways. I would run into him at the North Dakota State sports information office. I would run into him at ballparks. I would run into him at gas stations. Press boxes. Wherever.
He even forgave me for that time when my NDSU team was in San Antonio for the annual spring trip to Texas.
I was a rag-tag second baseman as we left Fargo on an early evening for the 24-hour drive to Texas for games in the Dallas and San Antonio area. Somewhere between Watertown and Sioux Falls, most of the players were sleeping or not paying attention except for third baseman Doug Sabinash, who was seated in the back. He noticed the trailer full of our equipment was no longer attached to the bus.
Our trailer went missing.
It unhitched without anybody noticing. We circled back on Interstate 29 and found it just off the road, wrapped in a barbed wire fence that saved it from going into a deep ditch. Amazingly, the pin that secured the hitch to the ball was still intact, so we simply hooked it up and went on our way.
The season started predictably against good competition. With losses. At 0-7 and bummed out, Pete had seen enough of us with a day off scheduled the following day. He told us to get lost until curfew. So we did, with several of legal bar age finding a place on the famed San Antonio River Walk. After a while, somehow, Pete walked in.
Silence. He didn’t say much, shaking his head a little bit and then walked out. We thought maybe he didn’t care, but that night we got a notice that everybody was to get up early.
In a vacant field next to the parking lot, the entire team had an unplanned workout, with the underaged players thanking the rest of us for some nice, lovely, early-morning exercise in the warm Texas sun after every sprint.
Years later, Pete and I laughed about that story. We laughed about a lot of stories.
Lately, laughter turned to sadness. The baseball community across the country responded en masse to the Twitter hashtag #PrayersforPete. That included Excelsior, the best team Fargo faced last season, and that included any tournament, on its run to the American Legion World Series championship game.
After Fargo unexpectedly beat the team from Minnetonka, Minn., twice on a Sunday in Sioux Falls to win the Central Plains Regional in Sioux Falls, with the celebration winding down, Pete talked about his good friend Mark “Lunch” McKenzie, who was Excelsior’s program equivalent to Pete.
“I feel bad for Lunch,” he said, with true sincerity.
After a minute and the thought of Fargo heading to the Legion World Series, he said the following: “But not that bad.”
On April 2 at 10:28 a.m., I sent the following text message to Pete: “Hey Pete, sounds like you’re working your way out of a bases-loaded jam. You can do it! We rally all the time in baseball.”
It went unanswered.
I knew things were not good.
He was so good to our family, specifically our son Brandt. Such a booster of the kid, like so many other players that were in his Post 2 program. He constantly promoted the kid to colleges, made contact with Lunch, a coach at Concordia-St. Paul, saying CSP could use him.
Who does that?
Eventually, the University of Minnesota Duluth offered the kid and the kid accepted. I texted that verbal commitment to Pete at 8:44 p.m. on March 26. He replied minutes later.
“He will be great for them!”
I’m not sure when this will all set in. Most likely this summer when, with the sun rising from the east, the red pickup with the baseball dents will not be there.
I’ll miss that ratty vehicle. I’ll miss that unique voice.
I’ll miss my friend. My ol’ ball coach.