Some people’s perception of slow-pitch softball is a bunch of guys who get together, play a few league games a week, and tip a few beverages, maybe even during a game.
The level at which Brainerd High School graduates Mike Bjerkness and Joey Tautges play couldn’t be farther from that perception. The two Class A players play for the Easton BBS team that travels the Upper Midwest virtually every weekend to play in big-time tournaments.
“I don’t get paid to play, but I don’t pay anything to play,” Bjerkness said. “Part of that comes back to if you’re getting paid to play you’re considered a professional and insurance wouldn’t cover you.
“We’re very fortunate. All the hotels, cars, you name it, everything’s paid for. It’s a very neat experience. We all get 3-4 bats a year, bags, gloves, all the equipment’s covered.”
Tautges, who now lives in Iowa, joins the team for weekend tournaments.
“They pay for our hotel rooms, give us gas money, it’s not just to show up, have fun and drink beer,” he said. “It’s pretty serious and very competitive.
“Our sponsor pays quite a bit of money for us to play. The last thing we want to do is mess it up and make them look bad by drinking a lot. We take it very serious but we have fun doing it. That’s why I keep playing.”
Earlier this month, the two won possibly the most prestigious tournament in which they have ever played. Several Easton players joined players from Team Combat of Seattle for a tournament in Fleurimont, Quebec, where they helped the Minnesota Rice Tool Mac Kids team win the Yvon ‘Pif’ Depatie International Invitational championship, an event that invites the top 12 teams in Canada.
Their team was sponsored by Neil Teague, owner of Rice Tool and Manufacturing Inc. in Canada. Previous Teague teams had won four national titles, five provincial titles and Teague himself was a ‘Pif’ all-star. But in previous ‘Pif’ championship games, Teague’s teams were unable to capture the top prize.
The Minnesota Rice Tool Mac Kids won five of six games, including a 22-11 win in the open division final.
“It’s kind of the World Series of Canadian softball, it’s the largest tournament up there,” Bjerkness said. “At the games there were anywhere between 9,000 and 10,000 people. It makes any tournament I’ve been to in the U.S. look extremely small.”
Tautges, who played middle (fifth infielder) and batted seventh, said it was one of the most fun tournaments in which he has ever played.
“It was just unbelievable, all the people that come and watch,” he said. “There were about 10,000 people on Saturday night.
“Usually, we play the same teams over and over every weekend. It was nice to see some different competition.
“We played the Transit team the game before the championship. They had three guys from Canada who had played in the Border Battle (in Oklahoma). Their coach flew them back the night before to play in the ‘Pif.’ We ended up smoking them. That was pretty fun.
“Winning the whole thing ... they had champagne there, and sprayed it all over. It was the first time I had ever seen that at a softball tournament. It was pretty neat.
“It was just as cool for (Teague), who sponsored our team. He had been there about 17-18 years before and had never won it. It was pretty cool for him to actually win it and to have him there with us.”
Bjerkness, who played shortstop and led off, said most of the public address announcing and play-by-play announcing was done in French. Games were played on baseball fields.
“It was 340 (feet) down the lines, 380 to center,” Bjerkness said. “There were three bats, 26-, 27- and 28-ounce. They set them behind the fence and everyone swings the same three bats so you don’t have any of the complaining about cheater bats.”
Another unique aspect of the tournament was the use of a rubber mat that extended behind home plate.
“If the ball hits the mat or home plate it’s a strike,” Bjerkness said. “There were four umpires. The umpire at second base made the illegal call. If the ball was pitched too high, his responsibility was to yell out ‘illegal.’ The home plate umpire just calls if the ball hits the mat or the plate, or if it’s flat.
“I was really impressed. I thought that worked very well. It was different than anything you see in the U.S.”
Mike Bialka, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.