FARGO — An around-the-clock race to lay sod to open a yet-to-be-named, new stadium preceded a professional baseball game that featured 24 runs, a bench-clearing brawl and a standing-room-only crowd.
That was the setting more than two decades ago at what is now called Newman Outdoor Field.
It was 25 years ago, June 21, 1996, when the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks played their first game at what was then referred to as “The Nest.” They were members of the still-fledgling, eight-team Northern League.
“It was pretty wild,” said Josh Buchholz, the team’s clubhouse manager that summer who later became F-M's general manager. “The fans were totally into it, the stadium was really incomplete, but they did everything they could from a fans’ standpoint to give them a great show. … It was the start of something really wonderful that year and the last 25 years.”
Buchholz, in his early 20s in 1996, is now the deputy commissioner of the American Association, the league the RedHawks now call home in their 26th season. F-M starts a three-game series against the Chicago Dogs at 7:02 p.m. Monday, June 21, at Newman, the anniversary date of the first RedHawks game in the stadium.
The RedHawks were nearly 20 games into the 1996 regular season before they played their first game in their new home. It served as the team's second home opener of sorts as F-M played its first homestand that summer at Jack Williams Stadium before they settled into “The Nest.”
“By that time of the season, the support was already so intense from the fans, that we knew it was going to be crazy,” said RedHawks manager Chris Coste, the starting catcher on that 1996 team that made it to the Northern League championship series. “The expectations were a World Series-type feel and it was.”
The playing surface was the big story in the lead up to that second RedHawks home opener during that 1996 season. Only days before opening the new stadium, the team had to change sod providers. The sod company the team initially hired was unable to deliver on time due to heavy rains.
“The Nest” opener was on a Friday night and the race to install the sod started Tuesday afternoon. That last strip of sod was laid at 12:12 a.m. Thursday morning, the RedHawks general manager John Dittrich told The Forum in 1996.
“The place wasn’t complete. It was pretty messy, but we got it done,” Dittrich said, remembering that first game at Newman. “I don’t recall a lot of complaints from fans. Everybody was glad to have the new ballpark, excited about it, and so were we.”
Sioux Falls outslugged the RedHawks for a 13-11 victory before 4,054 fans on that June evening in 1996. Coste batted seventh and started the game at catcher. That F-M team also featured players like shortstop Chad Akers, third baseman Johnny Knott, first baseman Brian Traxler and outfielder Darryl Motley. They all became well-known figures in the franchise’s early seasons. Manager Doug Simunic, pitching coach/pitcher Jeff Bittiger and team president Bruce Thom were also central figures.
“Johnny Knott went over and just lifted it right up,” Coste said of the grass around third base. “There were like these large staples that would hold sod into the ground. It was pretty surreal. In a normal situation, we would have not wanted to play on it, but we all wanted to play so badly on that field that it was fine.”
In the seventh inning, RedHawks outfielder Aaron Iatarola and Sioux Falls first baseman Paul Carey got tangled up as Carey tagged out Iatarola on a slow grounder, according to a Forum article. That led to both benches clearing. Both players were ejected and Simunic ended up with a cut on his face.
“I remember (Traxler) saying, being the jokester that he was, ‘That’s a deep cut there.’ It was just a scratch,” said Simunic, who managed the RedHawks for 22 seasons. “It was quite a season. I remember that being quite a season. … I just remember that, that whole year the crowd was pretty electric."
The RedHawks posted a 53-31 record in 1996, knocking off the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the St. Paul Saints in the championship series.
“It was one of the most incredible and emotional seasons," said Coste, who won a World Series championship with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. “Other than the World Series, that ’96 season was the most emotional and amazing season that I personally ever had involving a team.”
Dittrich remembers selling tickets out of a small, portable trailer off the southeast corner of the stadium for that first game and first homestead at “The Nest.” The team dressed at nearby Dacotah Field as the clubhouse wasn’t ready when the stadium opened. The press box area was “wide open,” Buchholz said, and there was temporary fencing around the facing of the outdoor seating area for the suites.
“They were literally still working on things until the gates were opened,” Buchholz said.
“I don’t recall much about the game at all,” said Dittrich, who had a 42-year career in baseball that included 14 different cities. “We were probably putting out fires all over the place.”
Buccholz recalls Motley, a World Series champion with the Kansas City Royal in 1985, bolting into the fray during the bench-clearing brawl in the seventh.
“I remember Darryl Motley running from the dugout sort of jumping over the pile with a cocked fist,” Buchholz said. “I don’t know if he hit anybody or not.”
Even though the RedHawks lost the first game at their new stadium, Buchholz said that night helped set the tone in that first season.
“I think it probably exceeded anybody’s wildest expectations, that whole summer did,” Buchholz said. “It seemed like every week there was something new and crazy. Maybe we got spoiled that first year. It was a really wild summer. Everything sort of fell into place.”
A Fargo South graduate who also played baseball for Concordia College, Coste said for him it was a special feeling to play in that first game in “The Nest.”
“I wasn’t even supposed to make the team and now I’m playing every game and catching. I already felt like a Major Leaguer,” Coste said. “It was pretty clear that this was something that was going to last a long time.”