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Achterling: My summer with the boys of summer

After 25 years of not playing the game of baseball, I felt this was the right time, in the right place, under the right circumstances and with the right team. I would have never have guessed when the season finally began that the nerves, excitement, and odd aches and pains would lead to one of the most memorable summers of my life.

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Detroit Lakes Baseball Club designated hitter Michael Achterling smiles during an at-bat against the Roseau Royals on Aug. 6, 2022.
Contributed / Detroit Lakes Baseball Club
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It stung.

The sharp pain bit into the meat of my forearm, near the elbow, and reverberated down toward the wrist.

I grimaced and grunted almost immediately, but heard the loud cheers and calls from my friends in the dugout, "Wear it! Don't rub it!"

This caused me to smile as I trotted down to first base with my struck-but-untouched arm extended to the applause of my team mates. I had been hit by a pitch for the first time since I was 14 and I loved every moment of it.

I reached out to the newly formed Detroit Lakes Baseball Club on March 1 after learning they planned on resurrecting an amateur team to play at Washington Ballpark for the 2022 Red River Amateur Baseball League season.

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Detroit Lakes Baseball Club designated hitter Michael Achterling returns to first base between pitches during a game against the Roseau Royals on Aug. 6, 2022.
Contributed / Detroit Lakes Baseball Club

Baseball has always been a passionate love of mine unlike with any other sport. I would always watch when I could. Listen when I couldn't and imagine the at-bats of the Minnesota Twins through live-game-casts as a last resort. Even while serving in the Navy aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) in Sasebo, Japan for two years, I knew the Twins would be playing at 9 a.m., Japanese-local-time and I could follow along, if I needed to. However, I didn't always feel the same way, especially as a teenager.

After playing every year, tee-ball through 8th grade traveling baseball, the game began to feel like a chore. It was then, just like Kevin Costner's immortal "Field of Dreams" character, Ray Kinsella, I began to refuse catches with my father, making the teary-eyed ending of that film all the more meaningful. It was rebellion I wanted back then, more than base hits. So, I stopped playing the game. Santa brought me a bass guitar that Christmas and rockstar-status wasn't going to be easy to achieve, so, sports left my life for more than a decade.

It was only after the last of the rock bands broke up, and I found myself working at a bar that showed all of the Twins games on television, that baseball found me again. It was like I never left. Joe Mauer's batting titles and Justin Morneau's MVP award, along with consistently good Twins baseball, brought excitement to every game in those mid-to-late-2000s. I even convinced my father to purchase a partial season ticket package when the Twins would open up their new stadium, Target Field, for the 2010 season.

We would enjoy dozens of games together in 2010 and 2011 before I eventually left for the Navy. And now, when I think about going to Twins games, I always think about my dad because we shared so many moments and exciting plays at Target Field together.

And as I turned 39 years old this February in my single-bedroom apartment in Detroit Lakes, out of shape, old with creeky-and-crackly joints, I never thought in a million years I would ever play a sport again. But then I talked to Brandon Johnson, player/manager for the Detroit Lakes Baseball Club. I told him I was interested in covering the team for the Tribune and, if he had a roster spot available, maybe get an at-bat or two.

Johnson said he'd love for me to come out to the team meeting and also added the need for role players on any team. And that's when it struck me, I'd be part of a team again. I'd have team mates. People to joke around with. A reason to leave the apartment. Run around on an historic baseball field. Throw. Hit with wood bats. And maybe even have a chance to face live-competitive pitching, from hurlers who didn't leave the game when they were teenagers, but doubled down on their skills to become true craftsman.

At the player's meeting in April, Johnson said commitment was going to be the most important part of this team. Commitment to the schedule, practices when available, volunteer opportunities and a general effort were the only prerequisites for the members of the 2022 inaugural season of the Detroit Lakes Baseball Club. More than 18 other people, who I would gladly now call my friends, agreed to those terms and we were officially a baseball team after that moment going forward.

I didn't show much athletic ability during those first practices. It was always a coin flip on whether I would catch a fly ball hit to me (and it still is), but I always showed up and made the effort. Batting practice is what I really enjoyed. Hearing the crack of barreled-up ball from a wood bat can only be described as a "pure" sound, if we agree with the Clint Eastwood baseball drama, "Trouble With the Curve," and it's those sounds that are the sweetest musical notes to the true baseball fan. I loved them so much that I would volunteer to throw batting practice, something the other guys were more than happy to let me do, just so I could hear it more often and watch my friends make solid contact from my throws in the batting cage.

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The games brought back memories of my pre-14-year-old self, someone who I longed to regain contact with 25 years later. The non-stop chatter of baseball-coherent praise coming from each dugout, the cheers from every hit and high-fives for every run scored over the long season was the exact medicine I needed this summer. It was a sense of belonging and it was something I hadn't felt since leaving the Navy.

And, even at the amateur level, the guys I played with this year truly love the game.

Tristan Wimmer was a man who took hitting more seriously than I thought possible, and always lined up for extra pitches in the batting practice cage. It paid off. He would go on to lead the team in home runs and RBIs.

Zack Oistad, the 6-foot, 6-inch first baseman slash oak tree, showed, even as a young 19 year-old kid, some of the best qualities found in some of the greatest leaders I've ever known. He's the type of guy you go into battle with because they'll also have your back, make you laugh, and inspire you to be better. And he played a mean first base with the ability to truck-stick anyone who came into his path.

Blaine Henderson has one of the strongest arms I've ever seen. Throwing balls from foul line to scoreboard with the cockiness that only a shirt-less man is capable of.

The veterans, Matt Huberty, Tom Truedson, and Jon Tolbert, not only were a source of inspiration for their hitting and pitching ability, but made me feel welcome and just another one of the guys.

But, player/coach Brandon Johnson was the reason this team stayed together and were able to complete a truly memorable inaugural season. Without his drive, and love for Detroit Lakes baseball, this team and season would not have happened. And I wouldn't have made nearly as many friends this summer.

This baseball team is important for this town. And going forward I hope all the fans, parents, and community business continue to support this great game and its local town ball team.

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I will always feel a connection to this town because I wore the hat of its baseball team.

(Michael Achterling is lead multimedia reporter for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and Perham Focus)

Multimedia News Lead Reporter
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