A fast-moving fire Wednesday destroyed the wooden grandstand and clubhouse at Waseca’s baseball field, named after a legendary Minnesota baseball coach.
Firefighters were called to Tink Larson Field around 8:11 p.m. Wednesday, but were unable to save the beloved ballpark that is a landmark in the community of 9,500 residents located on Hwy. 14 between Owatonna and Mankato.
Waseca Fire Chief Gary Conrath lives a block away from the field and “by the time I did a U-turn and got to the fire, it doubled in size and flames were rolling outside the roof.”
Hundreds gathered to watch the swift-moving fire at the ballpark, which was built in 1938 as part of a WPA project and was named after Clinton “Tink” Larson, who has coached baseball for more than 50 years and is a legend in southern Minnesota, Conrath said.
“He is a pillar of the community,” Conrath said.
Larson is a volunteer assistant coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato and was the caretaker of the field that was named for him.
Larson, who lives across the street from the ballpark, had just arrived home Wednesday night from attending a ball game with his grandchildren and saw the blaze.
“It was terrible, devastating,” Larson said Thursday morning. “Fifty years of my life just went up in smoke. It’s sad, it [the ballpark] was part of me.”
Larson said the charred remains are painful to look at and he didn’t sleep much Wednesday as he thought about a half century of memories and the hundreds of hours he spent coaching, dragging the infield and working on the pitchers mound.
“There are so many memories,” he said. “A lot players have come through here … lots of big games played here.”
Five teams play at the historic ballpark which featured seats from the former Metropolitan Stadium where the Minnesota Twins and Vikings played from the 1960s until the early 1980s.
“Waseca’s Tink Larsen (sic) Field is a MN treasure,” Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter wrote in a tweet. “Baseball community will rally.”
Others recounted pleasant memories at the ballpark in the center of town where games were played nearly every night during the summer and hundreds of fans watch from the stands and from pickup trucks parked along the first baseline. Often players and fans would grill steaks after games at the park, which was a gathering point for so many.
“So incredibly sad about Tink Larson field,” said Jonathon Curry in a tweet. “So many great memories, including my first varsity hit, there.”
As head coach at Waseca High School for 35 years, Larson compiled a 420-280 won-loss record and led the Blue Jays to the 1990 Class A state championship. He is a two-time Minnesota High School Baseball Coach of the Year and a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and 10 other halls of fame.
During his career, Larson coached more than 4,500 games and won more than 2,500 of them while leading the high school team along with amateur teams that included American Legion, VFW and the Waseca Braves town team.
A 2013 story from the Waseca County News described Larson’s connection with the field: “When the grandstand at the field was nearly torn down in 1971, Larson worked with city leaders to renovate the deteriorating stands. He raised money for new stadium lights and a scoreboard at the park. He purchased the first infield sprinkler system and a new mower.”
Hundreds rallied around the coach in 2006 when the Waseca school board decided not to renew his contract. He was released after violating VFW rules by playing kids who were a few months older than the official cutoff date even though the VFW team did not fall under the auspices of the school.
The field was not damaged in Wednesday’s fire, and the high school, American Legion, VFW and town teams will play there this spring and summer, Conrath said.
“The field is in excellent shape, it’s just the grandstand that was lost,” Conrath said. “We’ll put up something temporary.”
Larson hopes a new grandstand can be rebuilt.
“It would be a travesty if it didn’t,” he said. “Baseball has been a part of history in this town. But nothing can ever replace this.”
Conrath said the state fire marshal will be examining the site to pinpoint the cause of the blaze.