The baseball — the small sphere pitchers hurl toward batters — has remained largely unchanged for much of the past century.
The standard-issue baseball consists of a cork or rubber “pill” measuring slightly less than an inch in diameter, which is then encased in two layers of rubber — a black inner layer and a red outer layer — and wrapped in 941 feet of yarn. All of that is then wrapped in a cowhide cover that is hand-sewn together with exactly 108 stitches.
The end result is a red and white ball weighing between 5 and 5.25 ounces and measuring between 9 and 9.25 inches in diameter.
All of which seems pretty simple, really — but in truth, tells merely a fraction of the story.
That’s because for more than a century, those tightly wound little globes have meant so much more to generations of people. They have brought fathers and sons together. They have made us shout out with joy and weep in desperation. For children — and some adults — visiting minor league and major league stadiums, they are priceless artifacts to be snatched up and, in some cases, fought for when launched into the stands via foul ball or home run. They have been used to mark milestones in our individual and collective lifetimes.
Oh, and the memories they have created.
Just ask the folks around the tiny, proud communities of Russia and Minster how much a simple little baseball can mean — especially when used in a gesture of kindness and sportsmanship that won’t soon be forgotten.
Nearly three weeks ago in Columbus at the Division IV state high school baseball championship game, Russia squared off against Minster. In one of the best games of the tournament, the two teams were knotted at 1-1 heading into the bottom of the seventh inning.
With one out, Minster No. 9 hitter Jared Huelsman reached base on an infield single and moved to second on a fielder’s choice. With two outs, Jon Niemeyer — who had been hitless up until that point in the game — came up with the biggest hit of his lifetime when he stroked a single into left field.
Russia left fielder Trenton Monnin fielded the baseball and threw it in to shortshop Dion Puthoff, but it was too late for Puthoff to make a play as Huelsman already was crossing home plate for the winning run.
Game over. Let’s party, Minster.
As Minster celebrated its latest state championship — something they’ve grown pretty accustomed to in nearly every sport over the years — the players from Russia, despite no doubt stinging from defeat after losing a state title in such a hard-fought contest, remained gracious.
They shook hands with Minster’s players. They smiled for pictures as they received their runner-up medals and trophy — reaching the state championship game is nothing to be ashamed of, after all.
Still, though, while their heads were filled with memories as they boarded the bus back to Russia, their hearts had to be filled with at least a little anguish at the opportunity that had just slipped through their fingers.
It was on that bus ride home that Puthoff realized he still was in possession of the ball Niemeyer had launched into left field for the game-winning hit. A variety of ideas on what to do with the ball ran through his had, but eventually he realized there really was only one thing to do.
The right thing.
Puthoff drove the 15 miles from Russia to Minster with the ball and a letter that read: “Jon, I picked this up at the end of the game as something to remember my experience by. After thinking about it, I realized it would mean a lot more to you to have your game-winning hit ball. You played a great game and I want you to have it. Congrats on a great season and a great career.”
He showed up on the front door of the Niemeyer home to present his Minster counterpart with the ball, but he wasn’t home at the time, so Puthoff left it with Niemeyer’s sister, Alyssa.
The ball would eventually make its way to its intended recipient. When Niemeyer’s parents found out what Puthoff had done, they posted about it on social media, and their posts quickly went viral, bringing the type of attention to Russia and Minster most communities crave.
His dad Bryan posted a picture of the ball and letter on Twitter, which has since received 206 retweets and been “liked” 765 times.
His mother Tonya took to Facebook with the same picture and a heartfelt message that read: “On Friday someone knocked on our front door and asked for Jon. Jonathan was working so he left Alyssa a box to give to Jon. After Jon got home from work and opened the box, inside was something that touched my heart completely and made me fight back tears. Jonathan was surprised this kid drove out to Minster from Russia to drop this off. He really appreciates his kindness. What a great kid! Thank you Dion. You are a wonderful young man. Your parents should be so proud of the fine young man they are raising. We are so fortunate and blessed to live in these small towns where kids respect each other and The Game. #blessedbeyondwords #classykid #bigheartsbigthings #russiaminsterrespect #inspiring”
Her post has been shared 79 times and received 636 likes.
As the story of the baseball stretches across the state and nation, many people outside of those communities — those inundated with sports tales of greed, infighting and dirty play — have been shocked at the display of kindness and sportsmanship.
To those who have lived in Russia or Minster for any length of time, however, it’s hardly shocking. That’s just how things have always been in small, hard-working Midwestern towns such as those where doing the right thing is an expectation, not an anomaly.
“Dion is a wonderful young man from a very good immediate family and extended family,” one person commented on Tonya Niemeyer’s Facebook post. “This act does not surprise me as he was raised to do the right thing, a gift given to their children not only in Russia but also Minster. Jon is very much like Dion and both families would be proud of the job they have done, raising incredible young men.”
And thanks to a little bit of cork, rubber, yarn and cowhide, no one will forget that any time soon.
Contact David Fong at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong