By Brad Salmen
This is not the first time that the term “Hall-of-Famer” is attached to Jeff Neutzling’s name.
Neutzling, or ‘Nitz’ as he’s known to dang near everyone in the Minnesota baseball community, is already a two-time HOFer. He was inducted into the Albany High School Hall of Fame in 1998, and the North Star League HOF in 2012.
This latest Hall of Fame designation, however, is the big one.
In September, Neutzling will be inducted with five other players and managers into the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame.
There can be no doubt that from a stats perspective, Nitz is more than well-deserving.
One stat pops out the most: Neutzling played in 30 consecutive state tournaments, either as a member of his team, or by being drafted.
(For those keeping score: 13 state tourney appearances on his own team, 17 as a draftee).
Sadly, a decade of stats from his earlier years at Avon are lost, starting from 1971 when he was just a 16-year-old kid.
However, when his stats began being recorded in 1980 when Nitz was 25, to 2003 when he was 48, those numbers are eye-popping.
Translated into an MLB season of 600 at bats, Neutzling’s statline would look like this:
• 138 runs scored
• 221 hits
• 48 doubles
• 0.22 of a triple
• 28 home runs
• 162 RBI
• And, a .369 batting average.
Not bad for a skinny kid from the fields of central Minnesota.
However, stats tell only part of the story.
In truth, in regard to what the MBA committee is looking for in their Hall-of-Fame nominees, stats are important, but even more important is what the nominee did outside the foul lines.
The committee looks for things like character, community involvement, and work towards boosting baseball in the state of Minnesota.
In that regard, the Hall of Fame nomination for Mr. Neutzling is, in the words of DC Saints and town ball legend John Riewer, an “absolute no-brainer.”
Beyond what he did on the field at Albany, Avon, the University of Minnesota, Cold Spring, Maple Lake, and finally Dassel-Cokato: Nitz’s character is impeccable, and his dedication to baseball unparalleled.
When news of his potential nomination broke, letters poured in to the MBA committee from folks throughout the region. From former players and teammates, to opponents, co-workers, friends, and fans, over 70 people had a story to tell about Nitz.
Some described his sweet, sweet swing, or his defensive prowess behind the plate. There were plenty of laments from former opponents on how they simply could not get Nitz out.
Beyond that though, all of them – every single one – described some way in which Jeff Neutzling made a difference in their life off the field; as a coach, teammate, teacher, or friend.
Cokato Kernels manager Nick Corbin, a former, player, teammate, and opponent of Nitz, put it this way:
“If you are at a baseball field and tell someone you are from Dassel or Cokato, they will likely ask you if you know Jeff Neutzling. He has given a lot to the game of baseball and given a lot to our local baseball community,” he said. “Coach Neutzling is an elite baseball guy, and should be in every Hall of Fame.”
From humble beginnings in
Albany and Avon
Neutzling was a scrawny, if gifted, ninth grader when he first cracked the Albany varsity lineup in 1970 at 15 years old.
As luck would have it, the 1970 Albany baseball team had what is arguably their most talented class under head coach John Nett (who passed away just a month ago).
For those who watched Nitz behind the dish for so many years, it might come as a surprise that he started his career as a left fielder.
“We had Loren Schiffler in center, and Jimmy Glatzmaier played short. All I had to do was cover a small corner of the field,” Neutzling said.
After the high school season, Albany starting catcher Jack Hasbrouck signed with the Minnesota Twins, and left the team.
Neutzling recalls coach Nett walking up and down the Legion dugout with “the box”, an old cowpie catchers glove with no hinge, and tossing it to a young Nitz and telling him, “you’re the catcher.”
“Oh boy, that was a learning experience,” Neutzling said, noting that the team’s ace was Dick Glatzmaier, a ‘typical lefthander who couldn’t throw the ball straight if his life depended on it, as it dove all over.’
“I wasn’t given a choice. I was indoctrinated into catching,” he said.
Neutzling continued catching for the next three seasons with Albany. Though they had success, they never matched the 1970 championship season.
During that same time, Nitz began playing for Avon’s town ball team. (Albany’s town ball team, the Skeeters, had previously folded).
“Between Legion and Avon, we had a game or practice six days a week,” he said.
Nitz was a good enough catcher that even after Avon didn’t make the playoffs, the Cold Spring Springers (the New York Yankees of the area at the time) drafted him every season they could after making the state tourney, a trend that continued for a decade.
[In those days, teams could draft both pitchers and catchers. Nowadays, only pitchers are allowed to be drafted].
Dick Siebert and the
U of M beckons
Following the 1973 high school season, Neutzling’s last at Albany, his coach John Nett called up Dick Seibert, the longtime coach of the University of Minnesota baseball team.
I’ve got a kid out here who could maybe play for your team, Nett told Siebert.
Siebert said, I’m coming out to Melrose to do a baseball clinic for the young kids, why don’t you have Jeff come over?
Neutzling went through the clinic, throwing down, running, hitting, etc.
At the end, Siebert sat young Neutzling down and told him: Jeff, I can teach you the game of baseball, but you can do something that I can’t teach … just by watching you swing, you should be able to hit, and I think you can play at our level.
Siebert then gave Neutzling a few days to make a decision.
“I told mom and dad, and they said, well ok you’re not 12 years old anymore, you need to start making your own decisions,” he said. “So I told Siebert, ‘yeah that sounds good to me.’”
Siebert, an old school coach not one to mince words, told Neutzling early on, “you won’t throw anyone out [at catcher]. But, we want your bat somewhere.”
“I was like, ok, if I can crack the starting lineup I’ll carry Paul Molitor’s duffle bag,” Neutzling said.
The following four seasons – in which Neutzling’s bat kept him in the lineup as a starter for three of the four years (1975 was a tough one) – were among his fondest baseball memories.
“We won together, we lost together, we were a really close-knit team. You had guys from all over, but they were all good guys,” Neutzling said.
In 1977, Nitz’s senior season, the Gophers made a huge run through the playoffs, making the College World Series in Omaha (they remain the last Gophers team to do so).
Much like his freshman year at Albany, Nitz was stuck in left field as a Gopher, with Tommy Mee Jr. covering his left from center field, and shortstop Paul Molitor covering anything in front of him.
Mee went on to a long broadcast career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Molitor, well, he ended up in the MLB Hall of Fame.
That 1977 team had numerous players end up in professional ball, either in the minors or majors. Tom Jagiela was drafted by the Twins, as was LHP Perry Bauer. Danny Morgan (Montreal), Steve Comer (Texas) and Jerry Ujdur (Detroit) also were drafted and signed.
Neutzling said the closest he got to professional ball was after a scouting tryout, where a Cincinnati scout sat and talked to him, telling Nitz there may be an opening for him.
“Like a dummy, I didn’t wander too far away from the phone thinking there’d be a call,” Neutzling said. “There was no call.”
Real Life Sets In
The one thing Nitz didn’t have after four years of playing baseball at the University of Minnesota was, a degree.
“I had a great experience at the U. But all of a sudden, my four years were up,” he said.
Neutzling moved back home, and worked at Kraft Foods in Albany, while finishing up his degree at St. Cloud State.
He continued to play baseball, of course, with the Avon team, and continued getting drafted by the Cold Spring Springers if Avon did not make the tournament. He would play with Avon through the 1984 season.
The best thing about his time at the U, however, had nothing to do with baseball.
In Neutzling’s junior year (1976) he met Carol Chamberlain, an Augsburg student, at a baseball gathering at the U of M campus.
“I should have proposed to her on the spot,” Neutzling recounted.
Instead, he courted her for six years, and the two were united in matrimony in 1982.
Jeff said Carol was a “city girl,” and didn’t really understand the town ball atmosphere when they first were dating.
“We were going to a game in Cold Spring, and I had to forewarn her. She had been watching me play with Paul Molitor, Brian Denman, Tommy Mee … I told her, town ball is not the same caliber as these D1 kids running around,” Neutzling said.
It didn’t take long for Carol to come around and see things from Jeff’s point of view: there’s no better place to raise a family than at a town ball field, with a town ball baseball team.
Jeff and Carol had three daughters: Emily (born 1983), Katherine (1986) and Margaret (1989).
“The folks in Avon welcomed everyone with open arms. Maple Lake, DC, it was the same,” said Neutzling. “When you have kids it almost becomes a social gathering, their friends are there and they’re running around having fun. I’d ask Emily what the score of our game was, and she’d say, ‘I dunno.’ She was too busy having fun.”
Jeff played for Avon through 1984, and after securing a job as a teacher at Dassel-Cokato in 1982, joined the Maple Lake team for five seasons, as DC did not have a team at that time.
Neutzling said he tagged along with DC legend Joe Harmala to play for Maple Lake, and head coach Gary Porter. He played for Maple Lake for five seasons, from 1985-1989.
Just as in years past, if the Lakers did not make the state tournament, Nitz would be drafted by a Region team that did.
Neutzling the Coach
So many people who wrote in to the MBA Hall of Fame committee preferred to talk not about Jeff Neutzling the sweet-swinging baseball player.
Instead, they preferred to talk about the impact Jeff Neutzling, teacher and coach, had on their lives.
Neutzling taught in the DC school district for 28 years.
As a teacher, it is not hyperbole to state that his door was always open, and that he was always listening to his students.
Neutzling also coached many different levels of basketball, football, and, of course, baseball.
He worked with kids across all skill levels, from pre-K, to elementary, to junior high, to varsity.
“Jeff built a successful program because he took the time to work with and organize all levels of the program,” said Roger Jansen, a fellow coach and teacher with Neutzling in the 1990s and 2000s. “I believe a word to describe Jeff’s coaching is ‘respect’. He always demonstrated respect for his players regardless of skill level, along with respect for opponents, opposing coaches, and officials. Jeff is responsible for many young players developing a love for baseball.”
The Saints come marching in
When the Saints started up again in 1990 under the guidance of Mark (“Whitey”) Forsman, Neutzling moved over to Saints Field.
Neutzling recalls meeting with Mark Forsman soon after he accepted his teaching job, and gazing out at Saints Field, which at the time had snow fencing, a rickety stands and scoreboard, and an outfield that could charitably described as “wavy”.
“Whitey was standing there and he says, ‘yep, some day we’ll be hosting the state tournament,” Neutzling said. “I thought, man I gotta buy some of that snus you’re chewing, because you must be on something.”
Of course, the rest is history. Whitey did, in fact, restart the DC Saints team in 1990, with Neutzling and a Cokato Elementary teacher by the name of John Riewer joining the first season of Saints reincarnation.
“It was a nice 1-2 punch; Riewer could either beat you on the mound, or he’d beat you at the plate,” said Neutzling.
Just four seasons after their reincarnation, the Saints advanced as far as the Class C State Title game in 1993.
Forsman was also true to his word. Phase by phase, he turned Saints Field into what it is today, one of the best town ball ballparks in the state.
Watching and helping Forsman turn Saints Field into the gem it is today, piece by piece, is one thing Neutzling will always remember from his time with the Saints.
“It’s been quite a project. I’ll always remember jackhammering the old dugouts out through a foot of cement,” he said. “Looking back, being a part of the Saints Field revival is something I’ll always be proud to be a part of.”
Moving on From Unspeakable Tragedy, x2
There’s a saying: no parent should have to bury their child.
Unfortunately, Jeff and Carol had to do just that with their oldest daughter Emily.
Emily was killed in a car accident November 5, 2003.
Less than three years later, Carol Neutzling passed away due to cancer Jan. 7, 2006.
With the loss of his daughter, and then shortly thereafter his wife due to a battle with cancer, Neutzling said he has relied on a maxim instilled through his Catholic belief:
Faith, Family, Friends.
“With grief, I often thought if I could fast forward the tape of time just five years ahead, everything would be a little bit easier, a little bit better,” he said. “But that’s not how it works. That grief, you have to embrace that every single day, you get up in the morning, that doesn’t disappear.”
Neutzling recalls an elderly gentleman coming through the line for Emily’s reviewal. Jeff said he had never met him before.
“Jeff, I bet a lot of people have come through the line and told you, ‘time will heal everything,’” the elderly man said.
“Yes sir, they have,” Neutzling said.
“Well that ain’t true. I lost a child 42 years ago. All that time does is help you cope with things better. That part of your heart that’s missing with the one you lost, that doesn’t grow back. That stays there,” said the old man.
His words remain true, said Jeff.
“You gotta get up, gotta face the day, remember the great memories you had together. Faith tells you that some day we’re going to be reunited again, and that keeps the head above water,” Neutzling said.
And baseball, as part of family and friends in a small town, has played a big part in keeping him afloat.
“The support I’ve had, not just from the DC community, but Maple Lake, Albany, Avon, Cold Spring, the U of M … It gives you hope. It keeps you going.”
Neutzling is the third player/coach, and fourth person associated with the DC Saints, to join the Minnesota Baseball Hall of Fame. He joins Joe Harmala (inducted 2002) and Mark “Whitey” Forsman (2014), along with Brian “Bookie” Larson (2005).
The induction banquet will take place Saturday, Sept. 16 at the River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud, home of the Minnesota Baseball Hall of Fame Museum.
Tickets to the banquet can be ordered by downloading a form on the Hall of Fame website, www.mnbaseballhof.com.
Tickets can also be ordered from Hall of Fame secretary John George by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tickets must be ordered by Sept. 1. No tickets will be sold on the day of the banquet.
For more information, please cotact John George at 218-298-0434, or visit the website www.mnbaseballhof.com.