SIDELL — For decades, Gary Hansgen has been helping others with their swings.
In a few weeks, he can focus on his own.
When the veteran Salt Fork baseball coach retires at season’s end, it will create more time for Hansgen to work on his golf game.
He knows he’ll always feel welcome at the school where he devoted his entire teaching career.
Jamaica High School made it official on a stormy Friday afternoon, dedicating Hansgen Field prior to Salt Fork’s Vermilion Valley Conference game against Bismarck-Henning. Hansgen’s team, which is 20-2 and has a 19-game winning streak, was leading 4-1 in the bottom of the second inning when a thunderstorm put a stoppage to play and allowed the coach to reflect on his career.
“I knew something was coming, but I had no idea what,” said Hansgen on what was supposed to be his final regular season game at the baseball diamond.
Seniors presented him an assortment of going-away gifts, including an autographed bat in a display case, an autographed ball and tickets to a St. Louis Cardinals game with them on June 21 — a date that happens to be Gary and Marilyn Hansgen’s wedding anniversary — but the marquee presentation was made by athletic director Chris Hodge.
He uncovered a sign that will be hung at the now-named facility: Hansgen Field.
After pausing for a few moments to control his emotions, Hansgen tried to address the crowd. He cut off his remarks after a few sentences, though fighting back tears he said, “I love this (game), and I will miss it.”
The field tribute wasn’t necessary to put an exclamation point on his tenure.
“You hope when you work hard on something people appreciate what you’re doing,” Hansgen said. “Letting me do this for so long is enough for me. I feel appreciated.
“Most coaches don’t get the opportunity this long at the same school,” he said. “They either take off or are asked to take off.”
One of the coach’s memories occurred on an afternoon when no game was played. He was digging out an area to put in a new home plate and successfully completed the endeavor.
When he was ready to head for home, he couldn’t locate his keys until he re-dug the area and found them under home plate.
“I said they might as well bury me under it, too,” Hansgen said. “I’ve spent a lot of time out here.”
A 1971 Catlin High School graduate, Hansgen started playing baseball as a 6-year-old.
“I’ve been on a baseball field consecutively 54 years,” he said.
The past 32 have been as the head coach at Salt Fork or — before the all-sports co-op was formed — with Jamaica. Early in his career, he coached junior high baseball, basketball and track and field until, “I figured out the babysitter was getting my coaching salary and more.”
Though he gave up some of the sports — starting with track and field — he didn’t consider relocating.
“Four or five years into it, I told my wife, ‘I’ll stay here as long as they let me,’” Hansgen said.
No one has told him it’s time to go, and Hansgen’s retirement decision wasn’t made spur-of-the moment.
“When these seniors were in seventh grade, some parents were bugging me about staying on through them,” Hansgen said. “I committed to them when they were in seventh grade, but I told them, when you’re done, I’m done.”
Three years ago, Hansgen retired as a classroom instructor. Ryan High replaced him teaching health, driver’s education and physical education and is on staff as his varsity baseball assistant. High is the person Hansgen has recommended to be his successor.
“I hope that’s the direction they will go,” he said.
Though he has a field named in his honor, Hansgen doesn’t expect to have any influence whether night baseball becomes a possibility.
“Lights,” he said, “I don’t see that happening.”
He has been around long enough that he has now coached seven players named Taylor and four named Learnard.
“I’ve had a lot of father-son combinations,” Hansgen said.
The player who got the last hit Thursday before the delay — sophomore Jordyn Eakle — is among those carrying on the family tradition. Eakle’s father, Barry, is one of Hansgen’s former players.
Trying to pick the perfect year to retire is difficult, Hansgen said.
“Am I ready? I don’t know,” he said, “but it’s time.”
He hopes to delay the inevitable as long as possible.
Salt Fork will host a Class 1A regional tournament at Hansgen Field starting May 21 — the Storm is the No. 1 seed — and, if victorious, would advance into what Hansgen said “might be the toughest sectional in the state (at Danville Stadium).”
Salt Fork (14-0 in league play) has already clinched the VVC crown outright but hopes to complete the game with the Blue Devils next week. Left-hander Ross Learnard yielded a home run to center field to the first batter he faced — Dylan Dodd — and then struck out the next five Blue Devils. Salt Fork scored four times in the bottom of the first, capped by outfielder Garrett McFadden’s two-run homer.
McFadden and Learnard are two of the team’s six seniors. They were all honored in a pregame ceremony. The other soon-to-be graduates are Cole Sanford, Max Stutsman, Cole Taylor and Lane Weston.
Even when he takes off uniform No. 17 for the final time — will that number be retired? — Hansgen won’t be saying farewell.
“I know I’ll come back,” he said. “I’ll keep in touch with these kids I’ve had now (as underclassmen).”