This serves as the third post in my fourth season of a series called “Down on the Farm” that chronicles visits to various Minor and Independent League ballparks throughout the 2014 campaign. (All prior editions can be accessed here.)
Situated roughly halfway between Minneapolis and Fargo, among many of Minnesota’s 12,000 lakes, is Alexandria. At just over 11,000 residents, the pleasant town is the least-populous market in the Northwoods League, which coincidentally includes the smallest venue on the circuit.
This is my second summer covering this college wooden bat league, and every new ballpark brings additional enjoyment. Now more than two decades old, the NWL remains as popular as ever. Enthusiastic fans flock to see their local squads throughout the brief northern summer — especially May 30 at the newest venue in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Northwoods has more teams (18), draws more spectators (nearly 1 million combined) and plays more games (72) than any other summer college baseball league. It is considered the second-highest collegiate summer league after the 130-year-old “Cape.”
Teams are predominantly located in Minnesota (six) and Wisconsin (eight), with two clubs in Michigan, one in Iowa and another in Ontario. Alumni include current MLB stars Allen Craig, Andre Ethier, Curtis Granderson, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Josh Willingham, Jordan Zimmerman and Ben Zobrist.
“The Shipyard,” as Knute Nelson Memorial Park is nicknamed, opened more than 75 years ago, was renovated three decades later, and since 2001 has hosted Northwoods League games. The facility is named for Minnesota governor, senator, congressman and Civil War veteran Knute Nelson. The park is home to the Blue Anchors – who replaced “Beetles” as the team’s name before last season – and two-time Twins World Series champion Al Newman is the skipper.
Holding roughly 1,500 spectators, The Shipyard is compact and unique. Like many small-town Minnesota ballparks, it’s situated by a lake, just a few blocks from the city center. Lake Winona actually borders the entire outfield fence, meaning home run balls frequently land in water. (The visitors from St. Cloud hit five round-trippers in the game, including three in the first two innings.)
The ballpark has an unorthodox outfield with the center field fence fewer than 350-feet from home plate and the corners even closer, so scores trend high. On a June evening with daylight lasting well past 9 p.m., the sun beat in from left field, making for an awkward view for fans behind home plate and perhaps even the batters. Because the ballpark is so compact, there are no bad seats.
Dugouts are small, so players lounge in plastic chairs or spread out on grass down the baselines, often interacting with fans.
The press box is below the covered grandstand seats, surrounded by pillars one finds at historic venues. The left-field line provides bleacher seating with ample room, and avoids the sun and netting you find behind home plate. The area also encompasses an All-You-Can-Eat-And-Drink “Sports Deck,” popular at many NWL stadia.
Right field has an area to keep kids occupied, and there’s much activity around the concession and souvenir stands (both run by local teenagers) and elsewhere with few, if any, ushers to interfere.
Though the Blue Anchors generally finish at or near the bottom of league attendance due to the park’s minuscule capacity, they have passionate fans. Thankfully, I attended on a cool evening and departed just before sunset, but due to lakes, this location is also known for mosquitoes. So if you visit, bring your bug spray.
Overall, Knute Nelson Memorial is small but pleasant venue. I enjoyed the setting, parking in the adjacent neighborhood, walking tree-lined, well-manicured streets down a short hill past “Geese Crossing” signs, along the lake and through the old gates to watch baseball.