OSHKOSH - On the surface the Wisconsin State League and Northeast Wisconsin Baseball League look very similar to other baseball leagues. Checking out the action there is the familiar hum of stadium lights, pop of the mitt and crack of the bat. What makes the league different is who plays for teams like the Oshkosh Giants, who play in both leagues.
The Giants are made up almost entirely of college age players who are getting the chance to continue to improve while learning to hit with wood bats. Trey Demler, the Giants manager and first baseman, talked about the benefit of playing in these summer leagues.
"It's awesome. You get to play anywhere between three and seven games a week. You're using wood bats, you're really finding out where your weaknesses are as a hitter,” Demler said.
Neil Hebert plays with Demler both at UW-Oshksoh and with the Giants. Hebert is in his third season with the Giants and has seen the improvement in his game because of it. "I've become a lot better the last few summers playing with the Giants. You just have to get those innings in. You just have to play. The more you play the better you become," Hebert said.
While the average age of the Oshkosh Giants players hovers around 20 years old they face off with many teams who boast roster full of veterans. Among those players are former All-Americans, minor leaguers, and even one former major leaguer.
"You face a guy like Jack Taschner who used to pitch in the major leagues it kind of brings you back down to Earth,” Demler said. It makes you realize where you are as a baseball player. It's fun to talk about. It's fun to say you played against a former major leaguer."
Taschner's Menasha Macs teammate Ryan Hinske is another of those veterans. Hinske has played two full decades in the Northeast Wisconsin Baseball League taking hacks in the cage, running out ground balls, and testing himself against players half his age.
Hinske said he’s not ready for slow pitch softball and daily trips to the golf course. Those activities don’t hold the same luster as a day at the diamond. "Coming up to the ballpark, you know it's a feeling you can't really get anywhere else. You get that little nervousness going and adrenaline going and it gives me a reason to stay in shape year round so I don't embarrass myself," Hinske said.
Hinske said he'll keep playing as long as he can, continuing to scratch the competitive itch. You’re unlikely to see many managers chewing out their teams or players getting tossed by umpires but this league requires a certain competitive fire.
"Obviously you're spending four hours out of a week night at the ballpark so you're going to be competitive about it and you're going to want to win games so it's a good atmosphere and something guys take seriously," Hinske said.
Playing competitive baseball while having a good time seems like a good way to spend a summer whether you’re young or young at heart.