FARGO — The intensity. That's what I remember about the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks' inaugural season. The games mattered. The fans and community were into the team, and hating on the rival Winnipeg Goldeyes and St. Paul Saints — vocally and sometimes profanely — was part of the fun. Covering the RedHawks was like being the beat writer for a big-league club, complete with being yelled at by the manager and questioned by ownership, management and players.
That part didn't seem so fun at the time. Twenty-five years later, perhaps clouded by nostalgia, it sounds wonderful.
At some point after 10-15 years, maybe even earlier than that, the intensity melted away and the wins and losses didn't matter as much. The RedHawks are still an important part of the landscape in Fargo-Moorhead, but at the handful of games I've attended as a spectator the last several years (admittedly a very small sample size and none since 2019) it seemed like the fans were there 100% for the entertainment and 0% for the competition.
At a playoff game in 1996, Winnipeg Goldeyes players had to be restrained from going into the stands after obnoxious hecklers.
Times have changed. Drastically, if you happened to be around in the franchise's early years. Especially that inaugural 1996 season.
It was wild, wacky, entertaining as hell and as competitive as anything. It was everything the reborn Northern League was billed as back when independent minor-league baseball was new.
Eric Peterson's excellent look back at the first RedHawks ballgame played a quarter-century ago at the stadium that is now called Newman Outdoor Field — stapled-down freshly laid sod and a brawl for the first game! — triggered some memories in this foggy old mind. A trip to The Forum's archives reinforced some of them and added others. I'd forgotten just what a goofy ride that first season was — and how big-time the RedHawks felt.
Some quick background.
I was a 29-year-old covering high schools for The Forum when 1996 began, a reporter for only a couple of years after starting my newspaper career on the copy-editing desk. The RedHawks beat writer was Jay Osmundson, a veteran scribe (he seemed ancient to me ... he was 42) who was thrilled with the opportunity to cover a minor-league club. The sports columnist at the time was Dave Kolpack, older brother of North Dakota State beat writer Jeff Kolpack (then and now the Bison beat reporter).
Jay and Dave covered the run-up to the RedHawks' first season like the StarTribune covered the Minnesota Twins. Regular front-page stories, commentary, features, breaking news. The anticipation to Fargo-Moorhead having a professional baseball team for the first time since the old F-M Twins left after the 1961 season was real. It helped that the RedHawks' owner was Mid-States Development, a subsidiary of Otter Tail Power Co. that owned KFGO-AM, which was then at the height of its powers and had just signed star talk-show host Ed Schultz away from rival WDAY-AM.
Combine The Forum's and KFGO's coverage (plus sister station 1280 AM The Ticket, the sports talker that carried RedHawks games) with that of the sports staffs of four local TV stations (KXJB had its own sports department back then) and the hype train was rolling.
Different times, man.
Sadly, Osmundson didn't get to cover the RedHawks beat for long. He'd been ill for some time and was diagnosed with a heart condition that forced him to stop working not long after the stadium opened. He had surgery in July, never fully recovered, and died in late August.
I took over the beat when Jay could no longer work and remained on it until August 1997 when I became the sports columnist.
The league back then was filled with former big-leaguers (Daryl Motley was a former Kansas City Royals outfielder and a slugging star for the RedHawks) and there were personalities galore as managers, starting with Doug Simunic in Fargo. There was also Ed Nottle in Sioux City (his nickname was Singin' Ed Nottle because he sang for children's charities and actually cut an album), an old baseball man who seemed to subsist mostly on cigarettes. There was Marty Scott in St. Paul, who once had a sumo wrestling match with Simunic as an in-game promotion. There was Hal Lanier in Winnipeg, who was the National League manager of the year in 1986 with the Houston Astros.
Even the owners were part of the fun. RedHawks CEO Bruce Thom used to don a silver Army helmet, a la Gen. George Patton, and give pep talks to the squad.
Dave Kolpack nicknamed Thom as "The General" and team general manager John Dittrich as "The Genius."
There were real rivalries. Simunic and RedHawks pitcher/pitching coach Jeff Bittiger were insanely competitive and more than a touch paranoid about the goings-on within the league and their own club. Simunic had managed the Rochester Aces in 1993 and followed the franchise to Winnipeg, where it moved for 1994. The Goldeyes won a championship that year and were runners-up in 1995 before Simunic was fired after a falling out with owner Sam Katz. Simunic was hired by the RedHawks.
So there was an intense feud between the RedHawks and Goldeyes, two of the best team in the league, and it spilled over to the fans and media — especially when the teams met in the first round of the playoffs.
The RedHawks drew big crowds in 1996, of course, as they have for many years. They were regularly over 4,000 fans later in the season, including an overflow gathering of 4,680 on Aug. 9. The fans, as Simunic told Peterson for his article about the opening of Newman Outdoor Field, were "electric" that season — into the baseball and competition.
That was never more evident than when the RedHawks opened the playoffs at home against Winnipeg in early September. Despite having a short window to sell tickets, and having to depend solely on single-game sales and walk-ups, the RedHawks drew 4,295 fans for a Wednesday night matchup against the Goldeyes.
They were not disappointed. Rookie Chris Coste erased a 3-1 deficit by hitting a dramatic three-run homer on a full count with two outs in the seventh inning — with the fans shaking the new stadium with cheers when the ball disappeared over the left-field wall — and the RedHawks used a controversial hit to score the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to take a 1-0 series lead.
The energy inside the stadium was probably as high as it was at several North Dakota State football games in those waning days of Division II. Which seems odd to say after what's become of Bison football since 2011.
In the third and deciding game of the series, after a 90-minute rain delay allowed fans to get sauced deep into the night, some Winnipeg players had to be restrained from going into the stands after hecklers in the bottom of the eighth inning. General manager John Dittrich went on the P.A. system and urged fans to chill out.
Imagine that type of intensity at a RedHawks game these days.
The RedHawks won that game and the series, celebrating like they'd just won the World Series after closing out Winnipeg in Fargo in the third and deciding game, before losing 3-0 to St. Paul in the championship series — the deciding game turning when popular third baseman Johnny Knott misplayed a routine pop-up in the ninth inning that hit him squarely in the right eye.
The fans went home a downtrodden bunch. They cared the home team lost.
Things have changed since then, through no fault of the RedHawks. The team has been around 26 seasons now and the novelty for most has worn off, even if the crowds are still solid. While Fargo getting a pro baseball team and a new stadium in 1996 was a big deal, the RedHawks (to their credit) are now just part of the everyday fabric of the town. The Northern League in the mid-1990s was fresh and different; the current American Association lacks that flavor.
The sports world has changed. All sports are readily available on multiple platforms. And Fargo has become a Bison football-crazed town the last decade — that dominates everything locally in terms of attention.
The media landscape is much different, too. Everything is fractured now, every sports fan has their own niche place on the Internet to find information, and so the RedHawks aren't necessarily force-fed to the masses any longer. Local media, frankly, stopped treating the RedHawks like a major-league ballclub years ago — in part because staffs got smaller and it was no longer feasible to staff every game, but also because the interest in the wins and losses was no longer there.
It might help, too, if the RedHawks could contend for a championship again. They haven't won a title since 2010 and missed the playoffs altogether six of the last seven years. The buzz might not return as it existed in 1996 or 1998 — those days are long gone — but more victories would help.
Bring back 50% of the intensity of those crowds during the 1996 season and the RedHawks would have something, including this reminiscing old man back at the ballpark more often.