Can a youth baseball and softball group revive neighborhood ball for St. Paul?

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Ian Zangs and Cory Klinge are on a mission to bring baseball back.

Zangs, a special-education teacher and head coach for St. Paul’s Como Park Senior High School baseball team, watched with dismay as St. Paul Midway Baseball gradually unraveled. After 33 years of drawing 8-year-old Joe DiMaggios and 13-year-old Hank Aarons to St. Paul’s storied Dunning Park, the association put down its bats and officially called it quits in early 2023.

A pandemic canceled the 2020 season. And in its final years, declining enrollments forced the organization, run by the Dunning Boosters, away from operating its own independent, in-house youth leagues at Dunning’s Jim Kelly and Billy Peterson fields.

The lush grass fields that in their childhoods had drawn the likes of future Major League Baseball Hall of Famers Joe Mauer, Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor were suddenly quieter.

The Dunning Boosters have since directed baseball and softball fans to register directly with St. Paul Parks and Recreation for its less structured Jr. RBI league or consider private, for-profit youth baseball clubs, which have gained popularity in the suburbs but can cost families thousands of dollars.

Zangs, who coached at St. Paul’s Johnson High School for several years before joining the Como Park Cougars, sees a development void in the Midway that will clearly impact the city’s high school teams like his own down the line.

“There is a widening gap between the level of club-level play, which is really elite but incredibly expensive and often times not accessible for a lot of the people due to the cost … and then there’s rec centers, which are really inconsistent from place to place,” Zangs said. “There’s nothing in between.”

The new Como Ball Youth Baseball and Softball Association

That’s not good enough for Zangs and Klinge, who together with their eight-member board have begun locking down corporate sponsorships for the new Como Ball Youth Baseball and Softball Association. This summer, teams wearing jerseys sporting sponsor titles like “Affinity Plus Credit Union” or “Mudslingers Coffee” will face off against each other at Como High’s regulation baseball and softball fields, as well as backup fields at the North Dale and Northwest Como recreation centers.

The duo say they’re determined to offer affordable baseball and softball options to kids ages 6 to 15 in the North End, Frogtown, Hamline-Midway, Como and St. Anthony Park. A youth team played under the “Como Ball” flag in the Minnesota Youth Athletic Services’ Gopher State Baseball program this past fall.

“We’re being really focused in our first year on keeping it small,” said Klinge, the board president, whose day job involves serving as director of information technology for Richfield Public Schools. “We’ve already secured at least six corporate sponsors. Our board has three officers but eight people. That allows us to spread the labor. Some people have been gung-ho about fundraising. Ian and I have been able to focus on just the baseball part of it.”

Como Ball, which began accepting summer registrations in late January, advertises $100 for a two-month season that will consist of two games and up to two practices per week. The fee includes a shirt and a cap. For most, the season will run from early June through the end of July.

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The focus is largely on younger kids for now, but players ages 13 to 15 would be charged $300 for traveling games, league fees and tournaments, though scholarships are available. Klinge and Zangs noted that they plan to work closely with existing leagues, which could send them (or absorb) some players to create teams when there aren’t sufficient sign-ups.

For instance, the St. Paul North Area Rookies is the only softball association in the North End and Maplewood area, and their numbers have dwindled in the younger age groups. At Como, Zangs works alongside softball coach Callie McDermott, a former coach for the Rookies, and he’s confident that with her help, they can boost softball registrations as well.

The goal is to create a more formalized program than the typical Parks and Rec setup, with standardized drills that replicate what’s done at the high school level, to prepare kids for competitive play into their teen years. The board of Como Ball Youth Baseball has already recruited what Klinge called a “small army” of parent volunteers and high school students to help out. That includes paid summer gigs for teen umpires.

Shaun McClary, a Hamline-Midway father, found himself a bit adrift placing his son, Ronan, in different programs as Midway Baseball began to unravel. At some sites, “the practices weren’t heavily organized,” said McClary, who also sits on the Como Ball board. “For kids who really wanted to build their skills, it was harder. I think this will definitely be more structured.”

Competition from private clubs, video games

Why did enrollment run aground for Midway Baseball, and how will Como Ball avoid the same fate?

Klinge and Zangs say that while interest in baseball has lost some ground to soccer, basketball, video games and other pastimes in rapidly diversifying and immigrant-rich urban areas, at least an equal hurdle for community ball is competition from pricier private clubs, many of them run as for-profit businesses in the suburbs.

As with exclusive hockey, soccer and volleyball programs, access to tonier facilities and year-round play tends to lure the most competitive athletes, if they can afford it. That’s put a damper on American Legion programs and other types of widely affordable community ball at neighborhood sandlots.

Even before Midway collapsed, some families gravitated to the nonprofit Roseville Area Youth Baseball or Highland Ball. “One thing that has really hurt sports in St. Paul is we’re losing kids to Roseville, we’re losing kids to private schools, we’re losing kids to charter schools, and to Highland Park and elsewhere,” Klinge said.

Still, “Midway was an affordable option for a lot of families,” said Klinge, who coached high school baseball in River Falls, Wis., for nearly a decade. “And then there was this severe interruption during the pandemic. Families tried Parks and Rec, and some had a very good experience, and for others it was abysmal. Teams would cancel and forfeit.”

Feeder system

As the middle ground between T-ball or other municipal Parks and Rec offerings and exclusive club play has eroded, there’s been less of a feeder system for urban high school baseball programs, said Zangs, who grew up on the East Side playing with Parks and Rec teams, back when there were more of them.

Over the years, he watched his younger brother Brendan Zangs graduate from Parkway Little League to the East Twins Babe Ruth League in Maplewood and then play for Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. Brendan, who is now the head baseball coach for Johnson High School — the Zangs’ alma mater — sometimes meets his older brother head-on when their high school teams face off.

“Last year, we actually scheduled an extra game as a rubber match,” said Ian, with a laugh. “Como won. That’s been interesting.”

Summer registrations for Como Ball opened Jan. 28 and run through mid-March. More information is available at, through the Como Ball Youth Baseball and Softball Association Facebook page or by emailing

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