By PATRICK SLACK
Year after year, Scott Biniek watched.
Stuck in one of the state’s toughest amateur baseball regions, with that region’s perennial power in their own division, Biniek watched other teams go onto the state tournament before his Upsala Blue Jays.
But after 25 years of waiting for the Blue Jays, with Biniek in his 22nd and final season with the club, Upsala clinched its first-ever trip to state with an 8-3 win over St. Stephen, Aug. 3.
When the Blue Jays were founded in 1987, they began with the simple goal of providing a team for friends to have fun playing the game together.
With a state-caliber amateur team already in town, the Upsala Cardinals, playing time was limited for many younger players.
A small group decided to start a second team in town and to keep it local, with only Upsala residents or graduates on the roster.
“We’ve always had the numbers so we’ve thought, ‘As long as we have enough players from our own town to play on our team, it wouldn’t be necessary to get players from others,’” Biniek said.
“Not saying the way we do it is the right way,” he said. “We kind of thought when this day would come it would mean a little more to us.”
Just getting to its state play-in game against St. Stephen, the first opportunity it had since 1994, was a challenge for Upsala. The Blue Jays were down to their final set of outs in extra-inning playoff games against Randall and Buckman.
But the game against Randall in particular, a 15-inning marathon in which Upsala was down to its final at bat, summed up the team’s season, co-manager B.J. Lange said.
“(We) used every guy on our bench, fought through injuries and kept battling,” Lange said. “It took all 15 guys to win that game and to get us where we are today. We never lost confidence or put pressure on ourselves.”
Biniek, who also managed the team for 11 years, said he tried not to think about potentially playing his final game while on the field.
“As the game’s going on you really don’t think it could be the end,” Biniek said. “The cliche ‘game’s not over until the last out’ is something we’ve always believed.
“We had a wide range of players step up,” he said. “Our pitching has been really good for us all year – Matt Swanson and John Fuchs have had great years. Eric Lampert has stepped up … he wasn’t even born when I started playing with the Blue Jays.”
While their backs weren’t firmly pressed against the wall, they were getting close against St. Stephen, with the two teams deadlocked 3-3 after seven innings.
Upsala came through with two runs in the eighth to take the lead, then put the game away with three more in the ninth, allowing everyone on the bench to celebrate.
“The final out of the St. Stephen game was a big sigh of relief,” Lange said. “I instantly congratulated Scott and Barky (co-manager Joe Bartkowicz). I knew what that win meant to them.
“We had a very tight team this year,” he said. “It was really about everyone sticking together and being confident in each other, no matter who was on the field each game. The best part of all this is that we did it in Upsala, with Upsala guys. That is the Blue Jay tradition and always will be.”
Upsala will now open play at its first state tournament in franchise history against the runner-up from Region 16, Saturday, Aug. 17 at 4 p.m. in Delano.
“It’s always been my goal and kind of our team’s goal,” Biniek said. “I wanted it for myself, but I also wanted it for all the players I used to play with that no longer play.
“The excitement level is high,” he said. “We’re all kind of proud of what we’ve done, but we’re not satisfied with just making it. We’d like to go down there and do some damage.”
And prolong Upsala’s unprecedented run, as well as Biniek’s career, a few more games.