Winning Beyond the Scoreboard

Minnetonka Millers build a baseball dynasty.

The Minnetonka Millers could be considered Minnesota’s equivalent of the New England Patriots in amateur baseball circles.

They’re the winningest team in state Class A history, with 13 state titles, nine state tournament teams and 26 conference titles—unprecedented in a league with records dating back to 1926. The Millers went into the 2017 season with a chance to become the first Minnesota Class A team to win three straight state titles. Everyone likes a winner, and the Millers have certainly been that, with a record of 1,102 wins and 227 losses over the past 25 seasons, and 109 and 10 over the past two years.

But winning isn’t the only thing that makes the Millers special, according to past and present players, fans and other community members. They cite the team’s high level of cohesion, mutual respect and solid values, demonstrated in its contributions to the local community, and the mutual admiration between the team and  community members. Former and current players say the man most responsible for setting the tone is general manager and former player Kevin Hoy.

“Kevin is the reason the Millers are the Millers,” says Paul Twenge, Minnetonka High School's baseball coach. “He is all about doing the right thing in the community.” Twenge praises the Millers’ community fundraising and other outreach efforts, including their youth baseball clinics. “That team is a family unit. And people who know and love baseball know they are watching some awfully good athletes who are moving on in time but love the game so much they don’t want to quit.”

Hoy gives all the credit to “great players, and a lot of community support. The Minnetonka Diamond Club is really committed to supporting baseball around the area. They make no money off this, but they put in tons of hours. They do so much for youth baseball, and they back us hard,” Hoy says.

And winning is “self-perpetuating; the more we win, the more the college teams want their players to play for us. The game means way more than wins and losses, but we’re pretty proud of the championships we’ve won,” Hoy says.

Hoy played for the team for 11 seasons before becoming a full-time manager and still holds the team record for hits in a game with six. He’s a member of the state Class A Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, a former University of Minnesota-Duluth team captain, and has also served as head baseball coach at Southwest Christian High School in Chaska.

Hoy’s job includes everything from scheduling to ordering equipment to signing players to planning promotions. The team’s home schedule includes occasional promotions such as games against the U.S. Military all-star team and USA National team, Hall of Fame induction nights, youth baseball nights (with free hamburgers donated by a local restaurant), and “faith and family” nights. At home games, young fans are invited to take turns as batboys or batgirls.

Of course, baseball might be a young person’s game, but for those who hear music in the crack of bat against ball, it’s tough to give up. First basemen Steve Schmitz, a Hopkins native who played college baseball in Georgia and independent minor league ball in North Dakota, has been with the Millers since 2003. At 43, Schmitz is the oldest Miller, and thinks 2017 will be his final season. But he’s not sure about that. “I’ve said that before,” Schmitz says. “We had so much fun last year and it’s such a good group of guys.” Another reason to come back for another season is that the Millers have never won three state tournaments in a row, but have a chance to do that this season.

“I’ve been playing so long, it becomes part of your life,” Schmitz says. At the same time, he realizes that because the Millers’ success continues to draw some of the best players in Minnesota, “everybody is replaceable. If I were to be gone, they’d find somebody bigger, faster and stronger. They definitely get the pick of the litter.”

It’s fun to be winners, but winning is not the only thing that makes playing for the Millers enjoyable, says retired catcher Tony Richards, a former North Dakota State and professional minor league player who was a Miller from 2000 to 2008.

“The team is successful because of Kevin, not just because it’s loaded with good players,” Richards says. “He is an unbelievable manager who takes care of everything. Your job is to get there and play hard. The level of expectations draws a certain type of guy to him. He expects you to give as much effort as he does toward the team—the time he puts into it, and the community as a whole,” says Richards, a two-time state MVP and member of the Minnesota Class A Baseball and Millers halls of fame.

“And everybody on the team is concerned about getting everybody else enough playing time,” Richards says. “It all promotes a family-like atmosphere. With that group of guys, if you ever needed something [away from baseball], 99 percent of them would be there for you.”  

Pitcher Don Erdal, a former Winona State and Frontier League (independent pro baseball) star, ranks third among Millers in all-time wins, and second in strikeouts. He also loves playing for the Millers. “It’s the best amateur team you can play for. But more importantly, we all get along very well. When you have a lot of talented players, egos usually get in the way. But even having so many alpha males, it’s more important to win and have fun together, rather than personal stats and accomplishments," says Erdal. "Kevin does a fantastic job of fostering that, and we have a lot of talented leaders who carry that torch and preach the message. Young kids coming in either get it or they aren’t asked back.”

Minnetonka resident Steen Erickson is a fan of the team for reasons that go beyond winning. His son Jake, who attends college in Bemidji, served as batboy for the Millers during his junior high and high school years. Jake was a sixth-grade ball player using the batting cages at Williston Center when he met one of the Millers. Learning of Jake’s interest in becoming a catcher, the player gave him a catcher’s mitt and invited him to come out and watch the games. A sixth-grader hanging out with college-age guys might make some parents apprehensive, but “they put me at ease really quick,” Erickson says. “They are an outstanding group of guys and they made it clear they would watch out for him.” As a batboy, Jake wound up in several championship team photos.
“From a fan’s viewpoint, it’s clearly a tradition with these guys; it’s not only a dynasty but a family,” Erickson says. “We can see that after every game, when they pray in a circle together. It’s nice to see them so close and such a great group of guys… It’s a treat to have them in the city.”