JEFFERSON CITY – The thermometer reads 91 degrees when the Jefferson City Renegades take Vivion Field for a MINK League game against the Nevada Griffons last Thursday. The American flag beyond the Renegades’ dugout hangs against the flagpole. There’s no relief from a breeze on this night.
“I love playing in the summer,” Renegades catcher Jady Reese says before the game. “I love playing in the heat.”
Even better, Reese, a Boonville native, gets to play his home games within an hour of home.
The Renegades are in their inaugural season. They compete in the eight-team MINK League, a wood-bat summer collegiate league. Rosters are comprised of players from various college teams who are looking to improve throughout the summer in hopes of elevating their college performance and perhaps eventually earning selection in the MLB draft.
Numerous summer collegiate leagues dot the nation. Although the MINK doesn’t house the level of talent found in the Cape Cod League in Massachusetts or Northwoods League in the northern Midwest, some of its players eventually reach those summer leagues.
Steve Dullard’s vision for the Renegades began more than two years ago. Dullard is a 32-year-old Missouri graduate originally from Chicago’s west suburbs who now lives in Ashland. He serves as the president of the Renegades' operating board.
Dullard had initially hoped to fill the void the Mid-Missouri Mavericks left and bring minor-league baseball back to this part of the state. The Mavericks called MU's Taylor Stadium home from 2003-05 and competed in the Frontier League, an independent minor league.
Minor-league baseball in Jefferson City faced several hurdles.
Dullard said the Renegades’ annual operating budget in the MINK will be about $40,000, about a tenth of the cost of what it would take to operate a Frontier League team. Additionally, while Vivion Field is serviceable for the MINK League, it wouldn’t have been suitable for a minor-league franchise. No such ballpark exists in Jefferson City. Construction of a minor-league-caliber ballpark would’ve been a multi-million dollar project.
“For long-term sustainability, the MINK League made the most sense financially,” Dullard said. “Also, it gives us a great opportunity to bring in a lot of local talent.”
The Renegades are community-backed team operated by Missouri Sports Betterment, a nonprofit organization. For a $225 fee, community members can become a Renegades Club member, which yields season tickets and voting rights on team matters.
The sun is sinking and the heat has lifted by the time Nevada’s Cole Solomon cracks a line drive in the top of the seventh inning. Renegades shortstop Tanner Wetrich breaks to his right and dives, making a backhanded catch.
Wetrich, from Moberly, is one of the Renegades’ top talents. He’s batting .349 with 13 RBIs. His three home runs are tied for second in the league.
Wetrich played at Mineral Area College this spring after a season at William Woods in 2016. He’ll join the Iowa Hawkeyes after this Renegades season ends. This is Wetrich’s second year in the MINK after playing with Nevada last summer.
He appreciates the daily grind of summer collegiate baseball. In many ways, it simulates the minor leagues, minus the fact that the summer collegiate players aren’t paid, preserving their amateur status.
“We’re out here every day in the heat,” Wetrich says. “You get one day off a week. You really have to come out and prepare yourself every night or you’re going to get made a fool.”
The Renegades travel on a school bus rented through First Student rather than using a charter bus. For most road games, the team will make round-trips rather than staying in a hotel.
MINK stands for Missouri-Iowa-Nebraska-Kansas. When the league launched in 1910, it had representatives from each of those states. In time, Missouri became the hub. Seven of the eight teams competing this summer are from Missouri, with the Clarinda A’s representing Iowa. The 4½-hour trek to Clarinda is Jeff City’s farthest road trip.
Several of the Renegades’ area players are living with their parents for the summer. Players from farther away will spend the summer with host families.
“Being able to wake up at my own house and just drive here has been pretty big,” says Renegades second baseman Avery Jennings, who played at Rock Bridge and now plays for Division II Drury. “I get to kind of relax all day and then come here. Host families are definitely fun, but I just like sleeping in my own bed rather than sleeping in somebody else’s bed.”
Renegades manager Mike DeMilia wanted to build a roster long on mid-Missouri talent.
“Within a 60-mile radius of Jeff City, you’ve got a lot of good baseball players,” DeMilia says. “I think the biggest thing, you look at a lot of our league, and they go all over the country and get kids from California and Texas and all that. We just kind of wanted that mid-Missouri flavor. We thought it’d be good for the people of these communities – Jeff City, Columbia and the smaller communities – to support us.”
DeMilia’s entire roster is comprised of Missouri natives, although many play their college ball out of state. From Columbia, he has Jennings and fellow Rock Bridge product Cole Evans, who plays at Iowa Western Community College, and Hickman product Jake Litteken, who plays at Metropolitan Community College-Longview.
“This is a step up from junior college baseball. I’ve been enjoying it a lot. I like the competition,” says Litteken, who added that the MINK is also a higher caliber than the St. Louis Metro Collegiate Baseball League he played in last summer. “Since Day 1, we’ve all been working hard to make this a good summer and hopefully go out and win the MINK League.”
The Renegades (8-8) were tied for first place in the MINK’s South Division entering Tuesday. Offense has been their calling card. They’re averaging 6.7 runs.
“This being a first-year team, I honestly wasn’t expecting it to be as fun as it is or be as good of a team as we are,” Evans says. “It’s turned out to be great. I love the group of guys that I’m with, and we actually mesh really well.”
DeMilia coached high school baseball for 18 seasons in Omaha, Neb., before serving as an assistant coach at Truman State in Kirksville from 2012-14. He was Lincoln’s head coach from 2015-16 before the Blue Tigers’ program disbanded 13 months ago.
DeMilia now teaches physical education and health at Blair Oaks High School. He approached Dullard last August about becoming the Renegades manager. Dullard offered him the job a few days later.
Managing a summer collegiate team is different than coaching a college squad. Players on college rosters spend a lot of time together practicing and forming bonds. College coaches get to know their players well throughout their careers.
Most players on summer collegiate teams are unfamiliar with each other. The Renegades will play 48 regular-season games. Their season began on May 31. It will end by July 30, the last scheduled date for the MINK's best-of-three championship. Six of the league’s eight teams will make the playoffs.
DeMilia’s role is different with the Renegades than it was when he coached in college. College coaches who trust him to manage their players for the summer don't expect him to reinvent a hitter’s swing or send a pitcher to the mound for 120-pitch outing.
“There’s not really that development phase,” DeMilia says. “You pretty much get them as what they are, and it’s almost like managing now, more like you would with a minor-league team than with a college team. To say we don’t coach them would be lying. We try to help them, but it’s more about managing the game.”
The crowd of a couple hundred last Thursday divided across Vivion Field’s six sets of metal bleachers that each stretch 10 rows high. It was a small but engaged gathering.
Games are affordable. Tickets cost $7, and a hotdog and a beer can be had for $4.50.
Several fans walked through the gate wearing Renegades apparel featuring the team’s navy and yellow colors. The crowd joined in during the singing of the national anthem and seventh-inning stretch.
Youngsters spring to life with each foul ball, because returning a ball to the front gate yields a half-dollar piece. As one foul popup caroms off the bleachers, a fan yells “Get that 50 cents!” to a boy who chases in pursuit.
During a between-innings contest, two fans each take their turn chipping a golf ball toward a plastic tote. The Renegades’ dugout empties, as players line up to watch the two fans take their swing. When the second contestant’s chip goes long and wide, Nevada’s catcher springs up and fields the golf ball.
Back-to-back triples from the Renegades in the fifth inning delight the crowd. Intermittently, spurts of applause can be heard to the north, across Wears Creek, at another field in Washington Park, where a youth baseball game is ongoing.
After the game ends – Nevada rallied for a 5-3 victory in 10 innings – the Renegades head to their cars in the parking lot, and the Griffons head for their white bus.
They’re due back for another game at Vivion Field the following night. The grind continues.
“I just like being around baseball every day,” Wetrich says.
Email Blake Toppmeyer at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 815-1781