With assist from Osborne, community welcomes Sodbusters to Duncan Field

May 27, 2018

Hastings’ native son ushered in a new era of baseball Friday night at Duncan Field.

Legendary former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne delivered the ceremonial first pitch of the inaugural game for the Hastings Sodbusters collegiate summer baseball team, versus the Badlands Big Sticks of Dickinson, North Dakota.

Played under sparsely clouded skies, the season-opening contest featured a long home run over the left center field wall by Sodbusters slugger Justin Henry batting in the No. 9 slot and five shutout innings of pitching from Hastings’ own Vinny Schmidt, who struck out seven.

The Sodbusters won in dramatic fashion, 7-6, on a bases-clearing walk-off double by Jake Oblas.

Fans stood in long lines throughout the game to partake of the many concessions available, with a light breeze and cloud cover keeping the 90-degree heat bearable.

The family-friendly atmosphere resembled a Currier and Ives painting, with shorts-clad children devouring hamburgers and sweet beverages while adults took advantage of the beer specials that accompanied the strikeout of an opposing player.

While Osborne’s pitch from the mound only made it about 85 percent of the way before bouncing high into Schmidt’s outstretched glove, the Hastings native was nevertheless a hit with fans, including several who cheered him, then followed him off the field for autographs.

Osborne played virtually all sports while attending Hastings High School and starred on the football field at Hastings College before going on to play professional football for the Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers. After retiring from coaching at NU, he represented Nebraska’s 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives and was athletic director for the Huskers from 2007-13.

In 1991, he and his wife, Nancy, founded the TeamMates mentoring program, which pairs adult volunteers with middle school students. TeamMates was the nonprofit organization featured at the game.

“You couldn’t tell by the way I threw the ball, but I used to be a pitcher here at one time,” Osborne said afterward. “I didn’t do a very good job, but I hadn’t thrown a baseball in eight or nine years.

“I had a good experience here. We won the state championship the start of my junior year and were very competitive in my senior year.”

Osborne actually was offered a professional baseball contract, but turned it down to pursue his gridiron career. Even so, the pitcher/third baseman said he thoroughly enjoyed his experiences on the diamond in Hastings.

“It was not a very high draft pick,” he said of his offer to play baseball. “I think it was mainly (offered) just because I was an all-around athlete. I chose football, (but) I was certainly interested in baseball. I maybe had enough ability to give it a shot, but I thought football was my sport.”

After eye-balling the facility, he said it appeared the fences had been moved in since his playing days.

Duncan’s $2.8 million facelift to the park completed in June 2014 was to his liking, he said.

“The park looks familiar, but they’ve renovated it,” he said. “It looks very nice, and that’s good to see. I think particularly having all college players here will be good.”

Fans in attendance seemed to be enjoying the picnic-like atmosphere that pervaded the ballpark from one end to the other. Children kept the bouncy houses that were situated beside the bleachers down the left field line bouncing throughout the game, while

adults sipped various beverages and cheered loudly as the game transpired before them.

Donna Munsell, a nurse from Hastings, said she came to the game primarily to support local entertainment. And while not a huge baseball fan per se, she said she was rather enjoying herself under peek-a-boo skies with her daughter Elizabeth, brother Paul, and sister in law Lila.

“It’s a beautiful night, opening night, and I just wanted to be outside and support the team,” she said. “It’s just something to do in town. It’s nice being out in the weather.

“I like being outside. The field is great. It’s been fun.”

Pat Backer of Bismarck, North Dakota, was asked by the Big Sticks manager to photograph the historic first game. Her son, Karson, plays for Badlands. She said the 10- hour drive was more than worth it.

“It’s great for a community to have something like this to come to,” she said. “It’s entertainment for the family.”

Backer, a former teacher in Blue Hill, said she planned to spend the weekend re-familiarizing herself with her old stomping ground before returning home.

“This is not foreign territory for me,” she said. “I’ll just hang out and enjoy the weekend.”

Machinist Rick Ferguson of Hastings has attended several games at Duncan Field through the years. Though he never played there, he considers himself a big fan of the game and was impressed by the level of play he witnessed during the contest.

“It’s fun tonight,” he said. “Everybody has got a family atmosphere here tonight, and it’s really nice.”

The home run by Henry was a rare thrill indeed.

“I got to see it,” he said of the dinger. “I’ve only seen a few home runs hit here, and it’s been a long time. That was quite a shot!”

For 9-year-old Kyler Hayman of Grand Island, his first-ever baseball game turned out to be one for the ages. He outran a pack of seven or more children to grab Henry’s home run ball as it lay on the concrete across the street on Elm Avenue.

Returning to the field, he immediately turned the ball over to a Sodbusters official to give to Henry as a souvenir of his historic blast.

“The lady asked me, ‘Can you turn it in please? He would be appreciative if he could have that ball,’ ” he said. “They said he might sign this ball (one given to him in exchange) for me. I’m really excited. I want his autograph!”