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Major League Larks
Aug. 5, 2013
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Luke Steinbach and Ryan Tapani grew up watching their big-league fathers play ball, but, now, those fathers and the fans around the North Star League are watching the two youngsters excel with the Loretto Larks

By Matt Kane
Sports Editor

LORETTO, MN – Teams and fans around the North Star League have gotten used to hearing the surnames Koch, Scanlon, Schutte, Schaust and Maher read over the loud speaker during games that include Loretto, but there are two names in the Larks’ lineup that perk up the ears maybe more than the others on the list. Those names are Steinbach and Tapani.

When the Larks’ lineup is read by the public address announcer at the beginning of games and the two names are heard, often back-to-back in that order, listeners begin to question, ‘Steinbach and Tapani? — Is that Terry Steinbach’s and Kevin Tapani’s kids?’

The answer is yes. And those questions about the relations of the two Loretto players are often asked with Terry or Kevin or both sitting in the bleachers watching their boys.

The kids with the familiar baseball names in question are, specifically, Luke Steinbach and Ryan Tapani, the offspring of the two former major leaguers who once wore a Minnesota Twins uniforms.

Luke Steinbach, 22, is the middle child of Terry and Mary Steinbach, between Jill and Jake, and has played for Loretto since 2010. Ryan, 19 and a 2013 graduate of Providence Academy, is the middle child of Kevin and Sharon Tapani, between Sarah and Lukas, and is in his second season with the Larks.

The young Steinbach came to the Larks to stay sharp over the summer for his college baseball career at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Young Tapani became a Lark after watching his Providence teammate Robbi Doboszenski play on the team.

“I was really excited when they asked me to play. I came to a few games when Rob was playing, and then they asked me,” Tapani explained. “It’s been awesome. The guys are great to be around and great people.”

Steinbach, who graduated from Wayzata High School in 2009, doesn’t wear the catcher’s gear like his father did for 14 seasons in the big leagues, from 1986-1999. Instead, he plays left field for Loretto.

“Luke bats like Terry in some ways, where he stands back in the box, waits, and explodes at the ball,” Loretto Manager Herb Koch said. “There are some similarities.”

The younger Tapani took after his old man in that he was an accomplished high school pitcher, but does a whole lot more with an abundance of athletic skills. When he wasn’t pitching for the Golden Lions in prep baseball last spring, he was at the shortstop position. For the Larks, Tapani does it all. He pitches and plays anywhere he is needed on the diamond.

“Tap is just a good ball player,” Koch said. “He is smooth, whether he is at shortstop or on the mound.”

In recent weeks, Tapani has been penciled in regularly as the designated hitter in the Loretto lineup, batting seventh, immediately after Steinbach.

“It’s kind of fun hitting behind him and hearing the “Steinbach” and “Tapani” being called by the announcer,” Tapani said.

Terry Steinbach admits his ears have perked when he has heard the Steinbach and Tapani names read from the same Loretto lineup.

“It was kind of like, ‘Hey, that’s cool,” he said.

When it comes to questions about those familiar baseball names in Loretto’s lineup, it is often Koch who is answering.

“Quite a bit,” Koch said of how often he is asked about Steinbach and Tapani. “When the dads are at the game, the next week I get questions — ‘Was that Terry Steinbach I saw there?,’ and ‘Was that Kevin Tapani I saw?’ We get it a lot.

“The first year Steiny played, everywhere we went people would be thinking, ‘Steinbach? Steinbach?’ Now, Tapani is getting the same thing. He has been DH-ing lately so he is getting announced. People look around and Kevin is always standing right there.”

Despite the constant questions, Koch enjoys having Steinbach and Tapani in the dugout and their dads on the hill watching the games.

“It’s a lot of fun. When I’m coaching third, I can usually look up and see who is there. I notice Terry at the games and Kevin is at a lot of games,” Koch explained. “It’s neat and it’s fun to see them guys around. I really enjoy it.”

Koch sees both Terry Steinbach and Kevin Tapani away from the Loretto games, as well. Steinbach frequents Koch’s Korner, the convenience store Koch and his family own on Highway 55 and County Road 19 near Loretto, and Tapani is at Arnold Klaers Field plenty, as coach of the Providence Academy varsity baseball team, which calls the field home.

As for the two big league kids in the Larks’ dugout, neither shows off where he came from, but everybody listens when a story from a major league experience is tossed around by either Steinbach or Tapani.

“You only know (their dads were major league players) when they are telling stories about going here and going there,” Koch said. “It’s neat to hear some of their memories from when they were small kids.”

The two Larks carry with them some artifacts from their fathers’ major league careers. Tapani’s arsenal of bats includes a Louisville Slugger with his dad’s name and “Chicago Cubs” wood-burned into the barrel. And Steinbach keeps his equipment in a green and mustard-yellow Oakland Athletics bag he found in the attic.

Earning a spot

The inquisitive whispers in the crowd about a major leaguer’s kid being on the field have been filling the air at sports venues around Minnesota since both Luke Steinbach and Ryan Tapani started playing sports. Neither was ever seriously bothered by the whispers or the unfair comparisons to their fathers’ abilities on the baseball diamond.

“Every once in a while I hear, ‘He’s not as good as his dad,’ but I don’t think much of it because he was a Major League Baseball player and I am only 19. How am I supposed to be like that already,” said Tapani. “I have never gotten any pressure from (my dad) to be like him. I just go out and play ball and have fun.”

Just like Steinbach, Loretto’s other major league kid.

“Steiny is a great player and I’m sure he has had some similar experiences as I have had, where people say, ‘Steinbach isn’t as good as his dad.’ I can’t speak for him, but I’m sure he’s had similar experiences,” Tapani said.

Steinbach remembers the perception of politics entering the equation when people would see his name in the lineup.

“When I played sports, things would get rumored, but then you would look at the stats and realize I was right where I belonged,” said Steinbach. “It was assumed there was some politics, but that was a minor problem.”

With .333 and .370 batting averages, respectively, Steinbach and Tapani have both proven they belong in the Larks’ lineup.

The most attention Steinbach received for his name was when his dad played professionally in Minnesota, from 1997 to 1999.

“There was a time when he was playing for the Twins that the talk was more prevalent, but it kind of went away,” the younger Steinbach explained.

Steinbach noted that the most grief he ever received came from his own teammates.

“Some of my closer friends who I played with along the way would bring it up to new people. They would always try to put me on the spot for fun, and I would roll with it,” he explained.

Steinbach got quite a bit of ribbing years ago from his American Legion teammates when they played in New Ulm, where the famous baseball-playing Steinbach brothers — Terry, Tom and Tim — grew into premier players. The stadium features a billboard honoring his dad’s baseball career.

“They kept pointing out that there was my dad’s picture on the fence,” Steinbach said.

Neither Steinbach nor Tapani were ever burdened with being a major leaguer’s kid while trying to play sports, but, when things did come up, they were both coached by their well-known fathers.

“When random stuff would come up, we would talk about it at the dinner table, and he would say, ‘Try to do this,’ or ‘Try saying this.’ And, sometimes, he would tell us to go with it and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we have nine water slides in the house, one in each room,’ and play along with it,” Steinbach said of his conversations with his dad.

Tapani remembers those talks with his dad.

“There were certain times when we talked about it. I know when I was younger I had a tough time with it because people would think I’m getting something only because of my dad,” he said. “My thought was, ‘Well, it’s me doing this, not my dad.’ You get it both ways, where you know it’s coming and you wish it didn’t.”

Kevin Tapani, who served as his son’s varsity baseball coach this past spring and helps with the Providence Academy American Legion team, which played in the Tier 2 state tournament last weekend in Bird Island, remembers worrying about how his son would react to ridicule.

“I worried that he wasn’t having any enjoyment in the game and that he was so focused on proving people wrong,” said Kevin Tapani last week during a Larks’ practice at Arnold Klaers Field. “It finally got to the point where he is focused with it and he can laugh about it (when he gets ribbed).”

Kevin Tapani realizes it may not have been easy for his kids to grow up as the son of a professional athlete.

“I wouldn’t want to trade spots with him. There is nothing to do to change it,” the older Tapani said. “When he was young, it was almost like he was in a no-win situation, because everybody was expecting big things. If you watch Wayne Gretzky’s son play hockey, and you go ‘He’s not as good as his dad,’ and that sort of thing; it’s always an unfair comparison because you are taking a guy who is done with a major league career and you are comparing him to a 10-year old. It’s not fair that way. If he does do well, nobody gives him credit, because they say, ‘His dad is a major league player, so, of course, he is going to pitch well.’”

Kevin Tapani had to convince his son that he was his own athlete.

“We had a lot of conversations at an early age about ‘Whatever you do is because of you. I’m not throwing the ball for you, I’m not catching it, and I’m not hitting it. I can help you out, but you will have to tune out what people say,’ which is tough to do as a 10-year old,” Kevin Tapani explained. “He had some tough times when certain things would happen and hurt his feelings, but he has worked through it and, overall, handled it really well.”

The younger Tapani’s work ethic and athletic drive on the baseball diamond and hockey rink helped push him beyond listening to hecklers.

“He is a hard worker and really competes, so a lot of the stuff he could get caught up in he is oblivious to because he is doing what he is doing,” Kevin Tapani said of his son. “That has made him pretty good.”

Good enough to earn a spot on the St. Olaf team next season. It is there, Tapani hopes to continue to thrive in the game his father made their name famous for.

“I picked up on the tips he has left over the years,” Tapani said. “It is pretty awesome that I will be able to play college baseball at the next level. I want to see how far I can go with it, and follow in his footsteps the best I can.”

With no pressure.

“I have never really pushed any of it on him,” said Kevin Tapani. “If he wants the help, I am free to throw him all the batting practice he wants. And, if he wants to ask, ‘What am I doing wrong,’ I will help him out.”

Kevin Tapani made it a point following his retirement from Major League Baseball in 2001 to give his kids some space when it came to coaching them in athletics.

“I’m still his dad, so there have been times when I have coached him and Lukas,” Kevin Tapani explained. “When I was free and done playing, it was every other year that I coached them. I let somebody else coach them as well because I thought it was good to have somebody else’s perspective.”

And, often, Tapani and his younger brother, Lukas, who is now a junior at Providence Academy, listened more to the coaches who were not their father.

Major league kids

As for having a former major leaguer as a dad, the two baseball-playing kids on the Larks’ team love it an appreciate it.

“If anything, it has been a blessing,” the younger Tapani said. “Even out here, tonight, I am having a guy from the highest level you can play help me with my pitching.

“He takes the time to help me, which is awesome. And it helps all the guys on the teams I play on because he not only helps me, he helps everybody on the team, too. It makes for a great experience.”

Tapani and his teammates are learning the finer points of baseball from a guy who pitched in 361 major-league games and 2,265 innings.

Steinbach says his dad’s wealth of baseball knowledge is invaluable.

“It is really cool. He was a great player and he set such a good example. There is no conflict with being his kid,” Steinbach said. “He was passing on a professional grade of knowledge that we really didn’t know about back then.”

That knowledge was accumulated by Terry Steinbach over 1,546 major-league games. He played in three-consecutive World Series (1988-90), winning it in 1989, and in three all-star games (1988, 1989, 1993). He led the A’s with 7 runs batted in in the 1989 postseason. He won the 1988 All-Star Game MVP in Cincinnati after driving in both runs for the American League, managed by Tom Kelly, in a 2-1 win on a home run and a sacrifice fly.

Neither Steinbach nor Tapani paid much attention to their dads’ careers in Major League Baseball when those careers were active, but, both realize, now, how special it is to have a dad who lived the dream of all baseball players.

“I remember a little bit. I remember being on Wrigley Field for family day. I don’t ever remember seeing him pitch other than watching ‘91 World Series tapes and stuff like that,” Tapani said of his father, who pitched for the Mets, Twins, Dodgers, White Sox and Cubs for a total of 13 seasons, from 1989-2001.

Tapani wasn’t born until halfway through his dad’s career, in 1994.

“Everything I hear is pretty good about him, and I see it sometimes when he throws batting practice.”

What Tapani hears about his dad is that he had pretty good stuff from the mound.

“He says he didn’t have the nastiest stuff, and I know I wouldn’t want to see the nastiest stuff, because he is pretty dirty,” the younger Tapani said of his dad, who sometimes pitches the cockiness out of Tapani and his teammates in practice.

Tapani and his teammates have gained a respect for the older Tapani from the pitches he throws them during batting practice, and the younger Tapani also respects his dad as a man.

“You see it and think to yourself, ‘My dad’s kind of a big deal.’ It’s cool to see,” Tapani said, referring to the times when his dad is approached by fans. “We go out to dinner and people will stop and say, ‘Are you Kevin Tapani?’ I always give him grief about it and say, ‘No, Kevin Tapani is much better looking,’ and stuff like that. He has a good time with it.”

The older Tapani gets recognized quite a bit, and is always accommodating.

“He doesn’t blow anybody off. If somebody asks him to sign something he signs it. I think he looks at it as they supported him while he was playing so he might as well give it back,” the younger Tapani explained in a tone of admiration. “He is a really genuine guy, and was a really good role model growing up. If the people are going to take the time to see you play, you can take the time to sign a ball or a cap.”

Steinbach’s dad was already an established and well-respected catcher in baseball — the 1989 World Series ring and the 1988 All-Star Game MVP trophy in his collection — when he was born in October of 1990, one year after the Bay Area earthquake series. The younger Steinbach’s memories of his dad’s time as a player come mostly from the tail end of his dad’s career.

“We would go to games and we had toys and were distracted. It was so fun going to games. We would get treats and run around the Metrodome after games. It was a neat time and it seemed normal for us,” the younger Steinbach said. “Now I think I should have paid more attention.”

Going to the Metrodome was just what the Steinbach kids did.

“When they were little it was just going to dad’s game,” Terry Steinbach said. “They were more excited about the Dome Dogs, and they loved to play ball against the right-field baggy while I was getting iced after the games.”

After growing older, Steinbach began to pay more attention to his dad’s past as a major league player, and also to the ventures his dad participated in off the field.

“From the stuff I hear, he was really respected in baseball and still is. Everybody has great things to say about him,” the kid said. “I’m really starting to appreciate what he did back then and right now. All the stuff he put in motion is quite amazing.”

Terry Steinbach is involved in the battle against ALS with the Black Woods Blizzard Tour, he is a spokesman for the Prostate Cancer Foundation Home Run Challenge, and he was a proposal presenter, along with Paul Molitor and Jay Bell, for the players during the 1994 players strike.

“It is amazing what he accomplished,” Luke Steinbach said of his dad. “Back then, we were just happy he came to our T-ball games.”

The Steinbach and Tapani names are on the Larks’ roster together now, but it is not the first time. Ryan Tapani played Bantam hockey with Jake Steinbach, 19, Luke’s younger brother, in the Wayzata system.

Major league dads

Throughout all the baseball, both major leaguers never forgot about being a dad.

“You only saw him occasionally, but it was awesome because he would still be a dad in the mornings,” Ryan Tapani said. “He would get up and be with us and play catch with us. He wasn’t just a ball player. I know a lot of players might be just a ball player, but he understood the whole picture, where he was a father, too.”

It was the thought of being a dad that left Kevin Tapani content with walking away from playing the game when he still had some fuel in the tank.

“It hit one day when we were sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles and the kids were back here playing baseball. I got to thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I should be there,’” Kevin Tapani remembers. “It got to the point where, when you are 37 years old and you are still playing, it seemed to be less about competition and more about trying to be healthy to make the next game. Right up until you walked on the field, you had trainers doing this and guys stretching you.

“Ultimately, that is why I ended up retiring, because I could have signed another two-year contract with the Diamondbacks,” Kevin Tapani added. “The year I got done, I had another year left with the Cubs, and I talked to Andy McPhail and said, ‘It’s time to be done here,’ and they bought me out of my final year of the contract.”

Tapani retired, leaving millions of dollars on the table, and has never regretted it.

“My first thought was about how refreshing it was. You actually got to see how nervous kids got and how excited they got,” Kevin Tapani said of becoming a fan of his kids. “When you get to the professional level, you have to maintain a professional level. For these guys, there is the pure excitement of play. Seeing a guy catch his first fly ball and what a thrill that was.”

The Tapani family settled down in Minnesota because Kevin and Sharon, who both grew up in Escanaba, Michigan, liked the stability of the Twin Cities area when it came to raising their kids.

The Steinbachs never really left Minnesota, although they had a home in California when Terry was with Oakland. His signing with the Twins in the winter of 1996, following the best offensive season of his career (.272 batting average, 35 home runs, 100 runs batted in) had a lot to do with stability for his kids, Steinbach said in the June/July, 1997, issue of Twins Magazine.

“We thought it was important for the kids not to keep moving every year,” he said. “We wanted them to have sleepovers and birthday parties with their friends, things like that.”

Terry Steinbach stayed active with his family, and, after retiring from the Twins after the 1999 season, was a constant, with Mary by his side, at his kids’ events. Even this season, with a busy summer schedule as Ron Gardenhire’s right-hand man as the Twins’ bench coach, Terry Steinbach can be seen at the Loretto games watching Luke.

“We are a tight family,” Terry Steinbach said. “I tease the kids that they always came to watch my games, and, now that I am not playing, it is time for me to go to their games.”

Watching his his son’s games with Loretto from the bleachers gives Terry Steinbach a refreshed view of baseball and takes him back to his own days as an amateur player.

“I still enjoy it. It is fun to be on the other side of the game,” he said. “And I used to play in that league in New Ulm for Kaiserhoff. It’s great to see that league doing so well.”

And when he and Kevin Tapani do get recognized at Loretto games, it’s no big deal.

“Once in a while we get recognized, but everyone at those games treats us like regular people,” Terry Steinbach said.

Two regular people with two regular, ball-playing sons.

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