By Matt Kane
Delano Herald Journal Sports Editor
State brings back memories of dominance for Traen
LORETTO, MN When Loretto’s Tom Traen delivered the first pitch of the Larks’ opening game of the Class C state tournament in Arlington to the Stewartville-Racine leadoff batter Sunday, some of the veteran fans in attendance, who were not associated with the Larks, might have been asking themselves, ‘Where have I seen this guy’s name before?’
That’s a good question.
From 1982 to 1987, Traen’s name appeared all over the country on minor league lineup cards with the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins organizations. Before that in the Cape Cod League. Before that Traen pitched for Creighton University. And, before that, he was a star on the Delano High School team under the late Dick Traen, his father, until he graduated in 1979.
There’s a section on the wall at the Delano Applebee’s dedicated to Traen’s baseball career, so maybe fans know him from his Creighton jersey that hangs on the wall.
Loretto pitcher Tom Traen gets a high-five from his manager Herb Koch Aug. 7 after Traen completed an inning against Belle Plaine in the Region 6C playoffs. That weekend, the Larks earned a trip to the state tournament, a tournament Traen left a mark on 17 years ago, when he pitched a no-hitter.
Or, maybe, just maybe, the long-term memories of those state tournament fans in Arlington Sunday were flashing back to Aug. 23, 1992, and the Class C state tournament in Jordan. It was at that state tournament where Traen, who was a member of the Delano Athletics at the time, pitched a no-hitter in the A’s 1-0 win over the heavily-favored Cold Spring Springers.
One fan who witnessed Traen’s no-hitter is his current manager with Loretto, Herb Koch Sr., who was also a high school teammate of Traen’s.
“All of a sudden, it’s the fifth inning, and nobody wanted to say anything, but the scoreboard told the tale,” Koch remembered. “Cold Spring was the favorite that year, but the game kept going and going. Then all of a sudden it’s the ninth inning, and Delano beats Cold Spring with a no-hitter. It was a big deal to throw a no-hitter in the state tournament, especially against a team like Cold Spring.”
Traen’s state-tournament no-hitter is the final listing on page seven of the Minnesota Baseball Association’s state tournament record book. At the time, it was the 16th no-hitter ever thrown in the state tournament. There has been one more thrown since by St. Patrick’s Bill Dunker, a draftee from Eagle Lake, in 2002.
A pair of Traen’s Delano teammates in 1992 remember his no-hitter vividly.
“It was the best combined pitched game I was ever a part of. Dave Hinkemeyer from Cold Spring was almost as good. I believe he only gave up three or four hits,” said Jeff Janzen, who was in left field for the A’s that day, and just completed his 19th season with the team. “Tom had complete command of his curve and change-up that game. Not to mention he was still throwing hard.”
Nobody knew about Traen’s control better that day in 1992 than his catcher, Steve Eilen.
“What I remember from the catcher’s viewpoint, is it was easy. Simply because my main focus was to keep him in his rhythm,” said Eilen, who currently serves as Delano’s manager. “He was really amping it up that night. Early on, he was figuring out where the umps were calling it, and his control was awesome. We didn’t try to fool guys, we went right at them.”
Eilen wasn’t initially in the starting lineup, but Traen convinced then A’s manager Jack Lynch to put the youngster behind the plate. It was a good coaching decision by Lynch.
“Steve and I were always on the same page,” Traen said. “That game, I never had to shake him off once.”
Eilen could tell Traen was on that day in Jordan.
“In the mid-innings, he still had some good stuff going through the lineup a second time,” Eilen said. “That’s when I thought these guys might not hit him much.”
The typical protocol when a no-hitter is being thrown is to not mention it. Traen said he couldn’t help but know what was going on.
“They kept announcing the scores over in Belle Plaine ‘Delano 1, Cold Spring 0’ and that there was a no-hitter,” Traen remembers. “All the fans left Belle Plaine and came over to Jordan to watch the rest of our game. The crowd kept growing. That was kind of neat.”
Those fans who left Belle Plaine for Jordan made the right decision, as Traen completed the no-hitter. The only thing Traen gave up to Cold Spring that night was two walks. Traen admits surrendering those walks bothered him.
“I thought I could have thrown a perfect game. I was more upset about the walks than I was happy about throwing a no-hitter,” the left-hander admitted.
According to the article written about Traen’s no-hitter in the Aug. 24, 1992, edition of the St. Cloud Times, Traen used 103 pitches, and had a perfect game through 6 2/3 innings against the Springers.
He remembers the final out.
“There was nothing Cold Spring could sit on. I painted the whole night. With the final guy, I said, ‘Well, here we go,’ And I threw him everything I had. And he swung through it for a strikeout,” Traen recalled. “I know I had to sign the baseball after the game, because it had to go to St. Cloud to the hall of fame.”
St. Cloud Times columnist Tom Larson wrote a sidebar piece in the same edition of the 1992 newspaper, and included a quotation from then Cold Spring third baseman Pat Dolan that backed up how Traen described his pitching that night.
“‘I don’t know how the hell he ever got released,’” said Dolan, who is now the head baseball coach at St. Cloud State University. “‘He wasn’t overpowering, but he threw all his pitches for strikes when he needed to. I don’t think he threw me five fastballs all night and every one was on the outside third of the plate.’”
Dolan’s comments today echo those he voiced in 1992.
“I think they were hard, heavy balls, but I don’t think they were fastballs,” he said.
Dolan knew his Springers had their work cut out for them going into the ‘92 game.
“It’s not like we got beat bad, we just couldn’t get any runners on base,” he said last week “We knew we wouldn’t score too many runs, but I don’t think we thought we were going to get no-hit. It’s the old thing good pitching always beats good hitting.”
Seventeen years after getting no-hit by Traen, Dolan is still impressed with Traen’s performance.
“You don’t like remembering losses, but you remember when you get a no-hitter against you,” he said. “With aluminum bats, to throw a no-hitter in the state tournament is unbelievable.”
A veteran arm
At 48 years of age, Traen doesn’t have the same velocity on his fastball that he did when he was a 31-year-old in 1992, but batters in the North Star League can vouch that he is still effectively using the pitching style Dolan spoke about 17 years ago.
“It’s deceiving. He’s an older guy, and you think you are going to rock him, but he knows how to pitch,” Mound’s Peter Sycks said. “He keeps you off-balance with velocity and location. He’s always thinking a pitch ahead.”
During the Larks’ run to the top seed in the Region 6C tournament, Sycks became Traen’s battery mate, as Loretto drafted him as a catcher. Sycks says catching Traen is unlike what he is used to during the regular season.
“With Mound, I maybe get shook off once a game, and I ask them about it later in the dugout,” Sycks explained. “I think Tom is thinking like a catcher, and he is more pro-active in his thinking. He’s always thinking about what will get a batter out. He sets up a hitter well.
“Usually when I catch, I call 99 percent of the game, but, when I’m catching him, it’s like he’s calling the game because he shakes me off so many times,” Sycks explained. “He has the moxie behind him. He is confident, at 48, that he can get a guy out.”
Traen explained what Sycks said in his own words.
“I always throw the opposite pitch in a certain count. Like Sunday (Aug. 16), how many first-pitch outs did I get on off-speed pitches,” he asks. “One day, my slider is my out pitch, and the next day it’s my curveball. The name of the game is that I throw a change-up, and I throw a change-up off every pitch.”
Traen’s success and the big league success stories of guys like Johan Santana and Trevor Hoffman have a lot to do with throwing a change-up, but Traen still notices that many young pitchers don’t pick up on that.
“With younger kids today, everything is the same speed,” he said. “They need to change speeds. A lot.”
Koch said Traen is successful because he is a complete pitcher, and that makes up for the lack of a 90-mile-per hour fastball Traen possessed in professional baseball.
“I think he is a finesse pitcher. He hits his spots. He and the catcher know where they want to put it. He tries to set the batters up. If he gets ahead, he can throw what he wants to,” said Koch, who used to face Traen once-a-season during Traen’s five years (1988-92) with he A’s. “The only difference from his early days in Amateur ball to now is that his fastball isn’t quite what it used to be. Now, the key is that he spots his fastball. He can still come in and jam you on the inside corner.”
Koch says consistency is what makes Traen so affective.
“My personal feeling is Tom wants, when he throws the pitch, for everything to look the same. He fools batters because everything looks the same,” Koch said. “When he’s really on, he is so smooth.”
Traen was “on” for the Larks the entire 2008 season, when he finished with a miniscule league-leading 0.62 earned run average in 43 2/3 innings. He was also 5-1, which tied him with Rockford’s Jason Lesser for the East Division lead in wins. This year, Traen’s innings were way down to 12 1/3. He finished with a respectable 2.92 ERA, and was 1-1 in league play.
Growing up in a baseball family his dad, Dick, played and coached baseball for over three decades in the area, and his brother, Todd, played for many years and now umpires baseball instincts were passed on to Traen through the bloodline, for sure. But playing competitive baseball against studs half his age takes something extra. Traen tried to explain why he is still affective against younger players.
“The familiarity with the mound, and it feeling natural helps me. I’m in control on the mound, and I don’t let things get to me,” he said.
Traen’s approach to the game of baseball when he is in the lineup and when he is out of it is a valuable asset for a team, especially a team with young players.
“It’s a bonus having a guy like him around, with his experience and where he has been,” Traen’s Loretto manager, Koch, said. “With all he’s been through at Creighton and in seven years in the minors, you can’t beat having a guy like him around. It’s like having another coach.”
Brett Favre syndrome
At the age of 48, the question of when to hang up the spikes rattles around in Traen’s head every year.
“It’s the Brett Favre story,” is how Traen answers retirement questions. “I’ve always said I would stop pitching if I ever embarrassed myself. I haven’t allowed myself to embarrass myself yet.”
Traen also notes that he is playing for more than just himself.
“More important than anything is my family. The reason I held on as long as I have is because my boys don’t want me to quit, and my wife (LaRae) doesn’t want me to quit,” he said. “I tried quitting a couple years ago, and the boys asked Santa to let me keep playing.”
Traen’s boys, Tommy 11, and Todd, 7, who are now the Larks’ bat boys, threw another reason to keep playing at their dad before the Aug. 16 playoff game against Arlington. They gave him a brand new pair of cleats.
Like Brett Favre, Traen has tried to step away multiple times.
After pitching the no-hitter in 1992, Traen, who began his amateur career with Rogers in 1978, took the 1993 season off, and then came back with Loretto in 1994. Then, after helping the Larks reach the state tournament in 1997, as an outfielder and first baseman, Traen tried to retire two years later in 1999 at the age of 38. The problem with any retirement plans, Traen explained, is that everybody around him wanted him to keep playing ball.
“Whenever we drove by the ballpark, Tommy would ask me when I was going to play,” Traen said of Tommy. “I asked my wife, ‘What am I supposed to do? I can’t play until I’m 50.’”
Traen’s dad played until he was 50, and nobody questioned whether the younger Traen could do the same. It took Koch to lure Traen back to the Larks, and Traen rejoined the team late in the 2002 season. Traen admits he’s glad he accepted Koch’s invitation.
“If it wasn’t for Herb, I wouldn’t be in this situation. After I retired, he called me out of the blue, and said, ‘You have four games to get your eligibility.’ I thought he was kidding. But I’m glad he called.”
Nursing a sore arm, Traen returned to the Larks as a position player, and did not pitch on a regular basis until the 2007 season.
Before Sunday night, the Larks hadn’t played in the state tournament since 1997. Because of the 12-year absence, this year’s berth is extra meaningful for the veteran Larks. Traen, Koch, Eric Schutte, Ben Scanlon and Brandon Scanlon are the only remaining players with the Larks from the 1997 team.
“A few of us were the only ones on the team in ‘97, and that’s a long time to get a taste of something and to battle and not get back there. For anyone who plays town team ball, the state tournament is what you shoot for every year,” Koch said. “That’s huge for use to get over the hump and get back for us older guys.” Tom got to play in a lot of state tournaments, by being drafted. I was happy for him, and for the Scanlons and Schutte. It’s experience you can’t beat.”
Traen admits he looks at this year’s state tournament berth differently.
“Far and away, this year means more than others because I am 48, and I can still compete with the young talent,” he said. “At this stage in life, it means more now than it would as a youngster. The clock is ticking.”
The Larks certainly hope that clock has a few more ticks in it after this season.
Trip to State is a familiar ending for Janzen
ARLINGTON, MN When the amateur baseball season is over for the Delano Athletics, that same season is rarely over for their veteran right-hander Jeff Janzen.
When Janzen was introduced as a draftee with the Section 8B champion Plato Bluejays Friday night before their opening-round game of the state tournament against Prior Lake in Arlington, it was the 16th time the name “Jeff Janzen” echoed around a ball field during the first round of a state-tournament. In his 19 season of playing with Delano, Janzen has gone to four state tournaments with the A’s, and 12 more as a draftee.
“It’s always so much fun to go there. And I get to go with different teams,” he said. “It’s awesome to go with your own team, but it’s also fun to go with the teams in your section as well. It’s just fun to see all the great players and the atmosphere.”
Playing at state is something Janzen doesn’t take for granted, and he urges all the young players to take advantage of the opportunity when it arises. He also knows not every ball player in the state of Minnesota gets a chance to play in even one state tournament, so he considers himself lucky to have gotten so many chances, himself.
At the age of 37 and coming off arm surgery, Delano’s Jeff Janzen was a highly affective pitcher this season for the A’s. Janzen pitched well enough to get drafted by Plato for the Class B state tournament. It was his 16th state appearance.Photo by Matt Kane
“It’s always an honor to get to go,” he explained. “Some players decline the draft, and I don’t have ill feelings towards those people, but I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s always an honor to go.”
Janzen’s Delano teammate, Blake Danielson, was also drafted by Plato, but, initially, Danielson wasn’t sure if he wanted to accept the invitation.
“I told him, ‘I know you are burnt out, but this is a good experience.’ And, when (the A’s) go as a team, he will have state tournament experience,” Janzen said.
Almost two decades of baseball means Janzen’s arm has logged a lot of innings, but something about him keeps state-bound teams interested in the 37-year-old.
“I think one reason is I don’t walk guys. They can count on me to throw strikes,” was Janzen’s reasoning. “Probably since 1996, they maybe look at me as somebody who has state-tournament experience. For players who haven’t been there, it can be a lot of pressure. You are throwing to a new catcher, and you don’t want to let that team down. And I think I get along with everybody.”
The reason Plato picked Janzen first overall after the Section 8B playoffs was simple, his effectiveness.
“We had seen him twice, and, in both cases, he was affective against us,” Plato co-manager Eric Engelmann said. “He has a different look. He moves the ball around and spots his pitches. Call him a crafty veteran, because that is what he is. When he makes mistakes, he doesn’t get hurt too bad.”
Janzen’s two appearances against the Bluejays resulted in a regular-season win, and a loss in the playoffs.
“My big thing is constantly keeping hitters off balance,” Janzen said. “I don’t throw the ball slow, but I’m not blowing the ball by batters anymore.”
Because of the rainy weather last week, Janzen was never able to formally meet his Plato teammates before game night, but he wasn’t worried about fitting in.
“I really don’t know any of those guys yet. We were supposed to have practice, but it’s been raining, so I haven’t been able to meet any of those guys,” he explained Friday morning. “I think that would have been a bigger deal when I was younger.”
Plato is the sixth different team (including Delano) Janzen has suited up for at the season ending tournament. He has also been drafted by Shakopee (1993), Maple Lake (‘95), Hamel (‘97), Dassel-Cokato (‘98-00, ‘02, ‘05, ‘07), and St. Michael (‘03, ‘06).
The Bluejays may not know more about Janzen than what they saw in the two games he pitched against them, but the five other teams Janzen has gone to state with can vouch that Janzen is a winner.
In 1997, Janzen pitched Hamel to the Class B state championship with a complete-game victory in the title game against Cold Spring. He also helped Delano to a fourth-place finish in 1992, the year Delano’s Tom Traen pitched a no-hitter against Cold Spring.
The state championship with Hamel is certainly memorable for Janzen, but he also cannot forget the end of the 1998 season when he joined the Dassel-Cokato Saints.
“Just two games before state, during the semifinals of the section playoffs, Delano and Dassel-Cokato got in a bench-clearing brawl. It was myself and Brent Opsahl who started it,” Janzen said with a laugh. Janzen remembers the brawl erupting after Opsahl plowed him over during a rundown play. “I took offense, and we got into it.
“I remember Whitey (Mark Forsman) calling me up and asking me to play with them, and saying, ‘I’m not sure you want to play with us, but we would like to have you.’”
Janzen accepted Forsman’s offer, and remembers the first time he showed up for a practice with the Saints that postseason.
“I remember going to practice before the state tournament game everybody was giving me crap,” Janzen said. “It turned out well, and I went on a little run of playing with them. It was almost my team away from my own team.”
The only three seasons Janzen, who graduated from Delano in 1990, did not go to state were his rookie year in 1991, 1994 and 2008. Rotator cuff surgery took away any chance Janzen would get drafted last season. His absence ended a consecutive state-tournament appearance run at 13 seasons.
The record for consecutive state tournament appearances is held by John Riewer, a former teammate of Janzen’s with Dassel-Cokato. Riewer played in this year’s Class C tournament with Brainerd, and his streak is now 30 consecutive seasons of playing at state.