*Reprinted with permission, check out the complete story at the Chaska Herald
By Eric Kraushar
Asked how Victoria pulled off five victories in four days in the Class B State Amateur Baseball Tournament in 2012, Manager Mike Poppitz's response was natural. It was genuine.
"You have to believe in your players and I believed in them," he said about the Vics' first state title. "And they believed in one another. ... I’m just so proud of what these guys accomplished."
Poppitz, manager of the Victoria Vics since 1982, spanning 36 seasons, he was one of the true characters of amateur baseball in Minnesota.
On Dec. 6, 2017, Poppitz was found dead at his home. Preliminary cause is a heart attack.
As Victoria player Jordan Bonk wrote on Twitter, "We lost a great one. We're going to miss you, Mike."
BASEBALL IN THE BLOOD
For Poppitz, one of four brothers that grew up on a farm in Augusta, just outside of Carver, baseball was something that ran in the family.
Their father, nicknamed Hubbel, played for and organized the Carver Black Sox in the late 1940s.
Like Hubbel, Mike was a catcher until hurting his arm in his mid-20s.
"The only way to get out of work at the farm with my dad was to play baseball,’" Mike said in a Patrick Reusse column in the Star Tribune in 2014. "You would be out there throwing bales for hours on a hot, miserable summer day and he'd say, 'Keep going. Baling hay makes you hit better.'"
After his playing days, he managed Carver, moving to Victoria to take over the team in 1982. Mike was the face of the Vics, and the ballpark at Lions Field ever since.
It was his leadership and dedication that took the baseball field to its current state. In 2009, the City of Victoria officially named the diamond, Poppitz Field.
"For Mike, maintaining that Victoria ballpark and running the Vics … those things are his life," Bob Poppitz, Chaska Cubs manager, said in the Reusse column.
BOND WITH PLAYERS
The 2012 baseball season was one made for a storybook. Qualifying for state for the first time since 1981, Victoria, a collection of guys of all ages, from all sorts of communities and high schools, came together for a special run.
Faced with winning five games in four days, Victoria pulled off the unthinkable, claiming the Class B State title at St. Cloud's Dick Putz Field. The Vics beat Cold Spring twice on Labor Day.
"They're just a bunch of blue collar guys. All they want to do is play baseball. These guys loved being out there. I'm sure they're sore today, but it was worth it," Poppitz said after the tournament in 2012.
It was that blue collar approach, love for baseball that drew area kids to Poppitz, Victoria over the years.
Mike was a big reason kids continued to come back each summer.
Former player Chris Baso, who moved north, playing for Midway most recently, called the 2012 season "special" on Twitter.
"Mike did a ton of work for the Vics and the City of Victoria, making that ballpark better each year. He had a lot of stories and always kept things interesting. ... I am glad I got to be part of the team that got him his title. Lots of time spent chatting about baseball with Mike at the field," Baso said.
OUTPOUR OF SUPPORT
Dozens of amateur baseball Twitter accounts sent out condolences Dec. 7, sharing stories, memories of Poppitz.
The common theme was love.
Love for the game of baseball.
Love for people.
Love for everything Victoria.
For one Victoria girl, Maddie Madejczyk, welcomed to the Vics team as a batgirl, she developed a special bond with Poppitz.
Part of the Victoria bench for two seasons, the summers of 2015 and 2016, Poppitz offered Maddie an opportunity to join the team in warding off bad luck during a playoff run two summers ago.
Sitting her down in the dugout, he presented her with her own playoff mustache. An eye black look.
"It was really a sweet genuine gesture that perhaps best symbolized, to us, the kind of man Coach Mike was," Maddie's mom, Tracy, said.
Maddie and her family live in the shadows of Poppitz Field. Tracy grew up in Carver County, a fan of Town Ball, something foreign to her husband, a Chicago native.
Neighbors Chris Thulin, Greg and Erik Winegarden, all Victoria veteran players at the time, hooked the Madejczyks into coming to a game.
Maddie, then nine, noticed at an early-spring game that an opposing team had a batgirl. An observant sport-loving young lady wondered why the Vics didn’t have a batgirl of their own.
"After the game she asked neighbor, Chris Thulin, if she could lend a hand and be batgirl for them. Chris checked with Coach Mike Poppitz who gave his approval and the summers filled with baseball began," Tracy said.
Being a batgirl was more than running to home plate, grabbing the bat and coming back. It was about the friendships developed.
"(They) would often joke and goof around with each other. The players would call her Sweet Caroline when Neil Diamond was played. They would share seeds on the bench. One time Maddie’s favorite player broke a bat at the plate. She ran out to pick it up, took it to Coach Mike and asked if she could keep it. Coach Mike told her she could –- then Maddie asked the player to autograph it for her," Tracy explained.
She ended up with six bats, three with autographs, including one keepsake signed by every player and Poppitz.
It was Poppitz that made sure his batgirl was safe, finding a helmet to fit her head. When she needed a ride to the ball park, the neighbor players were there to bring her.
"Maddie loved being batgirl for the Vics," said Tracy, who said Maddie spent the 2017 season involved in her own sports. "(Mike was) a gentle giant with a passion for the game and an even greater desire for players and fans alike to have a great overall experience."
Like so many people, for Maddie and her family, the loss of Mike Poppitz leaves a void that won't be replaced.