Recent draft pick plays for pro experience

Trevor Born

Recent Twins draft pick and Gophers third baseman Nate Hanson is living a ball player’s dream: Long nights, no pay and sometimes no bed. Sounds more like a nightmare.

For the past three summers, Hanson has played for the Mankato Moondogs of the Northwoods League, a wooden-bat summer league for college players.

Not only is he one of the league’s best players, leading all hitters with a .363 average last season, but also a fan favorite of a team that draws more than 1,000 people to most of its games.

“Being a third-year guy, I’ve gotten to know quite a few people,” Hanson said. “People might be surprised how many people come to every home game here.”

Matt Braun, a middle-schooler whose mom bought season tickets this year, is one of those people. Holding a fresh Hanson-signed ball, he said, “Nate’s a great guy, one of my favorite players. Always makes time for autographs.”

The quality of the fan base and the atmosphere of the games keep players like Hanson coming back to the league summer after summer, even with some demanding conditions.

The league is meant to give college players a chance to experience minor-league-like conditions, as many will go on to play professionally. These minor league conditions, the players find, are less glamorous than what they’re used to in college.

While the Gophers flew to every away series except for Iowa this year, NWL teams travel exclusively by bus, where trips can last more than 20 hours each way.

“I’m more of a flying guy myself,” Hanson said. “Sometimes, towards the end of the year, those trips can really start to wear on you.”

After an away game, teams may not get to their next destination until 5 a.m. or later, with a game that night. And unlike the college season, off days come just once or twice a month.

“It’s fun, but it’s definitely a grind,” said Gophers catcher and NWL rookie Kyle Knudson, also of the Moondogs. “Being on buses all the time, it takes some getting used to. And sometimes you have to accept that you just won’t get good sleep.”

Because players aren’t paid for their summer employment, the teams find them host families to live with, rent-free.

These families provide lodging and meals, and are given season tickets (usually a $100 to $200 value) as compensation.

John Harrington decided to host a player seven years ago when a friend of his, Mankato State baseball coach Dean Boyer, had too many players at his house.

“I was just doing it so some of the guys could get a bed instead of a piece of floor, but I liked it so much that I’ve been doing it ever since,” Harrington said. “Getting to know the kids and their families is the biggest perk for me. I’d recommend it to anybody.”

The NWL is widely considered the second-best collegiate summer baseball league in the country, behind the East Coast’s Cape Cod League, and professional scouts like the opportunity to see players hitting with wooden bats.

More than 100 NWL players were taken in this year’s draft, including Hanson, who went to the Twins in the 28th round. NWL alumni in the majors include Curtis Granderson, Pat Neshek, Rob Quinlan and Ben Zobrist.

Nick O’Shea, who redshirted with the Gophers this spring, doesn’t receive any scholarship money from the baseball program. He decided to sign with the Green Bay Bullfrogs this summer instead of getting a job to try to save money, hoping that the improvement in his game and the exposure to scouts will pay off.

“The Gophers reward guys as they get better, and I think this league helps you improve a lot,” O’Shea said. “If you get a few thousand dollars in scholarship money, it’s just as good as getting a summer job and getting a few thousand dollars there. Plus, I’d rather be playing baseball than sweeping floors somewhere.”