Bats cracking and fans cheering will soon become commonplace sounds at the Excelsior Commons fields. Year after year in early May, the men's and women’s South Shore Softball Leagues kick off another season of a beloved American pastime on the picturesque shore of Lake Minnetonka.
Tradition runs deep in this organization, which sprouted from a men’s church league back in the day. Some teams have seen family dynasties play the same field. According to league manager Molly Bahneman, “A lot of the women went to high school together, so they know each other well. They played ball together when they were in school. Some of their moms were or are on the team.”
Joni Heinsch can attest to this. Forty years ago, she started playing in the league at the age of 18, and she’s hit the field every summer since. When Heinsch’s daughter was born, she became a regular on the field too. “She grew up just sitting on the bench,” says Heinsch. “And now she plays, and her daughter is only 10, but she’s playing the sport now and often says, ‘I hope I get to play with you someday.’”
But just because the league is steeped in longstanding tradition doesn’t mean they aren’t on the lookout for new blood. “I really try to reach out to new players,”says Heinsch. “I found someone at Early Childhood Family Education who had a softball shirt on. I said, ‘Oh, do you play softball?’ And she goes, ‘Yeah, I played in Oregon. We just moved here.’ And I go, ‘Well you wanna play on my team?’”
Support from the community in recent years has also added to the fun. The city of Excelsior has “been doing a lot in the park to get music and food trucks,” notes Bahneman. Many residents bring their kids when they come to cheer on the games because of the nearby park. And for the past few summers on Wednesday evenings, Excelsior Concerts in the Commons have “drawn a lot of people to come watch the softball games and that’s really fun,” Heinsch says.
Reflecting on her time running the league, Bahneman says, “The part that I think I found so interesting was the long-standing relationship that the players have with each other and the teams and how it was such a special part of their summer." She also appreciates how much people love playing on the fields of Excelsior Commons.
Heinsch echoes the sentiment. “I like the competition, I like the scenery—it’s on the lake and just beautiful. I like my teammates and the thrill of competition. My goal is to play until I’m seventy.”