It’s time to play ball

Teams arrive Wednesday, action begins Thursday in state Legion tourney

by Nick Wognum
Months of preparation, not just for teams but local organizers, all lead up to this week.
Baseball fever is set to take hold in Ely with the start of the Junior Legion Division II State Tournament.
Teams from all corners of the state will arrive Wednesday for check-in and photos at Veterans Memorial Field, and the action begins Thursday morning at the community’s historic ballpark.
About 150 players and coaches, as well as hundreds of parents, relatives and fans will be in town for the three-day event.
A state champion will be crowned by Saturday, Aug. 6, completing another chapter in Ely’s lengthy and rich history of holding major American Legion baseball tournaments.
This marks the 10th time in five decades that a state Legion tournament has been held in Ely, and the first time since 2019.
Ely was originally scheduled to host the 2021 Junior Legion event, which is for teams with players age 17 and under, but the cancellation of the 2020 season because of Covid-19 pushed the calendar for tournament hosts back one year.
Like previous tournaments held in Ely, this one figures to be an event that fills not only the ballpark but the town.
“It’s a huge, huge event for our community,” said Tom Coombe, who is on the state board of directors for Legion baseball and is one of the local tournament organizers. “The atmosphere at the ballpark, starting even on Wednesday when the teams arrive, will be special and there will be an air of excitement all weekend. You’ve got players, coaches and fans coming from all over the state.”
A ballpark that once held the American Legion World Series - and is home to several tournaments and more than 100 games each year - has been spruced up for the occasion.
A grounds crew headed by Ely teacher and coach Max Gantt is getting the field in prime condition, and the ballpark got about $45,000 in improvements, including new see through netting and a paved pavilion area, prior to the 2019 tournament.
Festivities begin in earnest on Wednesday with teams checking in at the ballpark from 1 to 3 p.m. Tournament committee members and local dignitaries will welcome the teams, who will get on to the playing surface for team photos.
That evening, they’ll gather at the Grand Ely Lodge for the tournament banquet. It starts at 6 p.m. and will include a keynote address from Steve Gust, head baseball coach at the University of Minnesota-Crookston. Tickets are $25 and will be sold at the door.
Thursday’s 10 a.m. tilt is the first of four quarterfinal games, and all eight teams will gather on the field at 6 p.m. for the tournament opening ceremonies.
That’s part of Veterans Night at the field, with all veterans admitted free and invited to join the teams on the field for the ceremony.
The host Ely team has an automatic bid in the eight-team tournament, which features the top teams from communities with high school enrollments under 400, and will meet the champion from southwestern Minnesota at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Led by longtime coach Jim Wittrup, Ely compiled a 16-7 record during the regular season and includes numerous players who contributed to an Ely high school team that finished second in Section 7A.
Play continues Friday with two consolation semifinals, a seventh-place game and two championship semifinal matchups.
That leads up to State Championship Saturday presented by Twin Metals Minnesota, with the consolation and third-place games at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., followed by the state title game at 3 p.m. All kids age 12-and-under will be admitted free that day, courtesy of Twin Metals.
The local committee must cover a roughly $35,000 budget that includes lodging for all seven visiting teams and tournament officials.
They’ve lined up several major sponsors, including Twin Metals Minnesota, the Ely DQ Grill and Chill, Mesabi Bituminous/Nemanich Trucking and the North American Bear Center.
They’re also offering a pre-tournament special, with tournament passes available for $10 until July 30.
Passes are good for all tournament games and include a chance at numerous prizes including $1,000 cash.