Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Characteristics, winning part of Carl M. Kuss Field lore

Daily News (West Bend, Wis.)
Published: July 5, 2014



Characteristics, winning part of Carl M. Kuss Field lore

By NICHOLAS DETTMANN
Daily News

As a child, it was cool.
As a teenager, it was intimidating.
As an adult, it holds memories three-quarters of a century old. And more are on the way.
This week, Carl M. Kuss Memorial Field at Regner Park turned 75 years old.
“The number of people, the number of players and the history of the people that have played here is phenomenal,” said Craig Larsen, a board member with the West Bend Baseball Association.
“When you look at some of the stuff that’s happened at this ballpark, you shake your head and ... it’s a privilege to play at a place and be involved with a place that has so much history in a community that cares so much about baseball,” he added.
Baseball was a new thing in West Bend almost a century ago. When it was introduced to people starting just after The Great Depression, it caught on. In the years and generations since, baseball has been a beloved sport in West Bend and Carl Kuss Field was and remains the centerpiece of it all.
The field was named in honor of Kuss in 1987. Kuss died in 1966 and is considered a founding father of baseball in West Bend. He coached hundreds, maybe even thousands of kids eager to learn about baseball.
During the 1960s and 1970s, playing at the field later named Carl M. Kuss Memorial Field was something every baseball player wanted to do because of its unique characteristics.
The green ivy hanging on the outfield fence is one notable characteristic. The other is the outfield light posts are inside the field of play, a rare sight at any ballfield at any level of play, even to this day.
For kids growing up, seeing games at Regner was like seeing games at another famous baseball facility: Wrigley Field. Watching the games at Regner was like watching the big leagues.
“What made it special for all of us growing up in the community as a young player, a young kid, you got to watch the high school players play there,” said Doug Gonring, a West Bend East graduate who won two state titles with the Suns as a coach. “All the kids that worked at the Rec Department were the guys that played at 5:30 in the afternoon and you couldn’t wait to watch those guys play.”
“That was the big leagues to us,” he added. “They were the idols because there was no television.”
In addition to the characteristics of Regner, the competition was often a thrill to watch.
That’s what makes playing at Regner a thrill to this day.
“I can’t believe it’s been 75 years,” West Bend native Adam Rohlinger said. “This place has always been special to me.”
The games between the West Bend Lithia and the West Bend Company packed the place almost every time. The East-West games of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were some of the most hotly contested high school games one could remember. There was the 1999 WIAA regional final between East and Campbellsport, where the heavily favored Suns needed a last-inning rally to beat the upsetminded Cougars. There was the 1979 WIAA summer baseball state championship game between East and Arrowhead.
To give an idea of the level of talent that often graced the diamond at Regner was in that 1979 game, where two Hall of Fame coaches were in the dugout: Tim O’Driscoll (Arrowhead) and Gary Perkins (East).
It is estimated that more than 30 players who went to play some form of professional baseball at one time played at Regner.
“There’s nothing like Regner Park,” said Gonring, who played in that 1979 championship game.
Larsen was in awe when he heard the stories of the crowd at Regner that day. He couldn’t imagine what it was like to play for a baseball state championship in your hometown, a town that has embraced baseball for three quarters of a century.
Even losses were memorable at Regner.
In the 1979 title game, East had the bases loaded in the final inning, but a diving play in right field by Paul Vanden Heuvel, who is now the Land O’ Lakes commissioner, preserved the game for the visiting Warhawks.
“From what I understood, the grandstand was packed,” Larsen said. “People were lined up all around the field, standing on top of trucks and tractors; you can’t beat that.
“Everybody who plays wants to play in front of a big crowd. To play a state championship game in your hometown had to be a special thing.”
There is so much more to the glory, the mystique of Regner and Carl Kuss Field.
“Every time you come into this ballpark, you’re going to be entertained,” Larsen said. “Special baseball is being played here and this is a crown jewel of this town.”
Other memorable moments between the lines at Regner include the West Bend 7 UP’s Andy Hetebrueg pitching a no-hitter in 2010, Billy Bynum, also of the 7 UP, hitting a walk-off grand slam on his 30th birthday in 2012, the 7 UP winning the Land O’ Lakes Grand Championship in 2010 and East graduate Mike Mueller hitting a home run in his first varsity game in 1995.
“Kids came to the ballpark because they wanted to watch champions,” Gonring said.
Family traditions have been built at Regner, such as the Muellers, the Gonrings, the Rohlingers, just to name a few. Couple that aspect with generous support by the city’s big companies, like Lithia, 7 UP and the West Bend Co.
“It was one of those things everyone could attach to,” Larsen said. “Baseball was the one big thing going on back in the heydays of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. It was the only game in town.”
Outside of the ivy on the fences and the light posts, the size of the park was another eyecatching experience, especially for the kids.
“I remember watching my dad play softball and I’m standing there watching hardball games here and just thinking about how big the field was,” Mueller said. “You see the grandstands when you’re 7, 8, 9, 10 years old, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, those are huge.’” That first game at Regner, which Mueller wondered if it’d ever come as a boy, was an eyeopener.
“It was kind of surreal for a lot of reasons,” he recalled. “For one, I was a freshman. I was 15 years old playing with 18-yearolds. It just felt like everything was so big, so much faster. It was quite an experience.
“It was a snap of the fingers and the game was over with. It was a rush.”
About 20 years later, there is still excitement to play at Carl Kuss Field.
“Oh yeah,” Mueller said with a smile. “It’s fun.”

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