Play one for 'the coach'
Is it possible? Baseball season, already? The little kids pitching clinic is Saturday at old Memorial Field (following which, I'll teach my boy to throw the spitter), high schoolers are just waiting for the last of the snow to melt out of center field, BV's faxing back scores from the ballfields of sunny Florida, Storm Laker Eric Wordekemper is throwing the heat against Notre Dame this week, and the high-priced sissies of the major leagues are already rounded into mid-season whining shape.
But it doesn't seem like baseball season, not without The Coach.
I was born too late to see Joe DiMaggio play ball, but I always thought that Jay Beekmann was that kind of guy.
Tall and graceful and handsome still, many years after his last turn on the local mounds. Possessing that something that you can't put your finger on - style? Strength of character? Charm? Yeah, all of those. A true gentleman in a world that has few of those left.
It's been some time since he passed away, but I still expect to pass him on the street, where he always stopped to update me on his beloved Cardinals. The Coach has been a real part of Storm Lake for so long - as steady as a sweeping curveball and as perpetual as the coming of the green grass and the feeling that with each new season, all things are possible again.
I doubt that I'll ever watch a ball game again without thinking of him, and I doubt that I'll ever find anyone I'd enjoy talking baseball with more.
In case you didn't know about Jay Beekmann, let me tell you. It might as well be the baseball history of Storm Lake.
The lanky pitcher graduated from Buena Vista College in 1942 and went straight into the service. He returned home to the ballfields, and started coaching and teaching at Hayes school, also quickly ascending to the head of the Buena Vista College Board of Trustees.
"One day the President of Buena Vista called me up and said, 'I'm tired already of working for you, why don't you work for me.' At first we decided against it, but I guess we changed our minds," Beekmann told the story.
So in 1955, Jay found himself as athletic director, baseball coach, and assistant with basketball and football. "Little did I realize I would be there 31 years," he laughed.
His own baseball career is the stuff of local lore. While still in college, he once pitched against the legendary semi-pro White Caps team in Storm Lake.
"They must have thought that I had done pretty well because they asked me to try out for the team. I played with them from 1940 until I left for the war in 1942. Then when I got back I played with them some more," Beekmann remembered.
At their height, the White Caps played within the well-respected Iowa State League, attracted top players from several states, and paid better than minor league teams.
He spoke often of the evolution in the game.
"You don't notice the love of baseball as much anymore. Back in the '40s, it was fantastic to play the game and it created a better atmosphere and people could recognize it. Now, many players give the impression that money is the crux of the game," he said.
Back in the days of the White Caps, the community showed up at the ballpark to cheer on their hometown heroes. What attracted them was the camaraderie that is missing from today's game, he said.
"Everyone would be at the games. I remember the Connell's - the family that donated land for the lighthouse - absolutely loved baseball; they didn't a miss a game. They would show up with sweet corn and donate it to the team. Then the wives of the players would cook it and we'd all eat together. We had a great time."
Another difference that Beekmann saw is the caliber of character in today's athletes.
"I think character is one of the most important qualities of a baseball player. I'll never forget when Dale Murphy came and spoke at BV; he was a complete gentleman. He even stayed around for about an hour and a half longer than he was supposed to just to talk with the players. You just don't see that anymore," Beekmann said.
BVU recognized class - they even made a baseball card proclaiming Jay Beekmann the official "Dean of Baseball" before he retired in 1986.
I recall his coaching philosophy as good advice for life as well. "I used to tell my players that if you're honest with yourself and you can say 'I did the best I could,' then fine, I can't ask you for anything more," he said. "But if you can't honestly say that, then we've got problems."
Jay Beekmann rounded the bases with style, and touched so many along the way.
It's spring. Play ball. And do it with class, as if The Coach were watching from his familiar seat behind the backstop - because, I'll just bet - he is.