Column: Remembering one of the best Big 9 coaches ever

This column appeared in the Oct. 20, 2012, edition of the Faribault Daily News.

  • This piece was one of three columns submitted that won second place column writing (dailies under 20,000) at the 2012 AP Sports Awards.

By JOSH BERHOW

Dick Seltz spent a significant portion of his life in stirrups and dark sun glasses, polyester jerseys and red pinstripes. One cleat always rested two steps above the other on the top step of the Marcusen Park dugout in Austin.

Seltz was a baseball coach, one of the best this state has ever seen.

He coached Austin High School baseball for 36 years and never had a losing season. By the time he retired in 1987, he had piled up 509 wins, 23 Big 9 Conference titles, 16 state tournament appearances and two state championships. He belongs to six Halls of Fame and was named the 1987 National Baseball Coach of the Year. The field the Packers varsity team plays its home games on now bears his name.

But to those who really knew Seltz, who passed away on Oct. 11 at age 87, he was much more than just a baseball coach.

Seltz was a chauffeur.

When he retired, with no social studies classes left to teach or baseball practices to lead, he would drive one of his grandsons and a friend to preschool every day, the whole way singing, “We’re going to win Twins; we’re going to score! We’re going to win Twins; watch that baseball sooooooar!” with the kids tightly buckled in the back seat.

Seltz was a tutor.

With some free time on his hands, he invested himself into smaller projects. He used to take one of his grandsons to the baseball diamond by his house, and there — with the same fungo bat he used for 36 years — he would hit grounders to the 12-year-old on sticky summer afternoons. The session always ended with cloud-scraping pop-flies. The 12-year-old’s younger brother would tag along, too, but his job would be to shag stray balls and return them to the beat-up red duffle bag. He didn’t care; he was just happy to be with his older brother and grandpa.

Seltz was a golfer.

With his baseball swing a thing of the past, Seltz spent many of his retired days golfing at the Austin Country Club. He held his own, too, winning one senior men’s club championship and recording four holes-in-one in his lifetime. Occasionally, with the course cleared out and the sun setting, Seltz would bring one of his grandsons, an aspiring golfer, to the course and help him hone his game. Seltz would bring the grandson’s younger brother, too, letting him tend the pin and hit a couple of fairway shots when time allowed. Those who golfed with Seltz will always remember him whistling the harmonious tune of a songbird after every birdie putt he sank.

Seltz was an army veteran.

While playing in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league system — and rapidly making his way up the organization — Seltz was called into duty and served for 2 1/2 years in the South Pacific. At one point, his Second Battalion, 19th Infantry, was cut off from supplies for 13 days behind enemy lines. He made it home safely but always had trouble coming to terms with why he was the lucky one who returned when many of his friends weren’t as fortunate.

Seltz was a spectator.

Years after he played third base and shortstop under the lights of Marcusen Park for the Austin Packers in the Southern Minny League in the 1940s, Seltz coached his high school teams on that same field. Later on he would watch his grandsons play there as well, and he caught nearly every home game from the upper corner of the enormous grandstands. In khaki shorts, a golf polo, hat and sun glasses he watched with one leg crossed over the other. He sat alone, but he was never by himself. A revolving door of former players and students would periodically greet the coach and chat about baseball.

Seltz was a disciplinarian.

One season, one of the best left fielders Seltz ever coached refused to cut his hair that drooped past his shoulders. Years later Seltz would tell misbehaving grandkids to “shape up or ship out,” and in this instance he told the player to cut his hair or leave the team. To the coach’s surprise the player left, but the Packers went on to win state anyway a couple of months later.

Seltz was a storyteller.

The going rate for mowing the coach’s lawn was $15, a Coke and all the cookies — made by his wife, Rosalie — you could eat. It was a good deal for 50 minutes of work. The stories Seltz would tell afterward: about baseball, his time in the service or memorable players were incentives.

Seltz was, at least on one occasion, a writer.

One season, years after Seltz retired, a player made a couple of late errors that cost his team the game. But the next day, when that player got home from school, there was an envelope with his name written on it waiting for him. It was from Seltz, and inside the envelope was a hand-written letter, doused with black cursive writing and a touch of whiteout. The letter told the player to keep his head up and shake it off.

Seltz was not only a role model to his players but also an exemplary father who — along with his wife — instilled strong character in their four children and grandchildren. For the coach’s accomplishments went far beyond a baseball diamond. That letter, with its cursive writing and dab of whiteout, was addressed to me. The last sentence of the letter, which still sits in my nightstand, says this: “I was proud of the way you played — and proud to say, ‘That’s my grandson.’”

Not as proud as I am to say, “That’s my grandpa.” He was a better person than he was a coach, and that’s saying a lot.

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