In the top of the seventh inning with most of the Stoughton Merchants out on the field ready to play defense, manager Jim Winter asked the handful of players left in the dugout, “Someone wanna take book? I’ve got a very important job for the rookie.”
Third baseman Eric Engler, who had been taken out of the game in a pitching switch, did his best Madonna impersonation singing “Like a Virgin” with the rookie about to undertake an initiation.
The important job Winter was referring to was the passing of the hat, a Home Talent League fundraising tradition. Most teams passed the hat during the seventh inning of Sunday league games. Since admission typically isn’t charged during the regular season, it’s a chance for teams to bring help bring in part of their meager income, living off the generosity of the fans. Winter handed first-year Stoughton player Ben Riffle a dirty, grimy helmet and started going through etiquette, reminding him to say thank you and to remember to walk all the way down the right field fence where there was a handful of patrons sitting on folding chairs.
Passing the hat was more important this night than any other night they’d see that season. There were only about 100 people watching the game, but that would probably be more than any other game the entire rest of the year. It was Stoughton’s annual game versus Utica, always played on the Friday nearest May 17, the Norwegian Constitution Day. The entire community of Stoughton used a three-day festival to commemorate Syttende Mai, which translated into English literally means seventeenth of May.
Stoughton always played Utica on this date. As a town on the outskirts of Madison with a population of over 12,000 people, most of its high school athletic teams compete in the state’s Division I level. Utica, meanwhile, was nothing more than a dot on a map, devoid of so much as a public school. It was a crossroads, the type of place you’d miss if you blink. The Utica Community Association’s website describes their municipality: “The unincorporated gathering of Utica is home to a car dealership, general store, tavern, furniture restoration service, Christian school, and a community park that holds more than 35 years of good times for baseball players, tractor pulling enthusiasts, horse pulling gurus, and many others!” A “gathering” was probably an apt description; “many” was hyperbole.
The disparity between the two Home Talent League teams, though, was far less than expected. Stoughton catcher Marc Movrich, who used to play for Utica, bragged to his teammates about how he and his former Utica teammates used to “kick the shit out of Stoughton” before he changed sides. What made Utica competitive was its geographic proximity to Stoughton. Everyone estimated that about half their roster was made up of guys from Stoughton, and that helped create the natural rivalry. Utica could even boast of a Home Talent League title won back in 1991.
Utica played every year in the Syttende Mai festival, and Stoughton repaid the favor when they traveled annually in early August to the Utica Festival. Utica Fest was typically the final regular season game played during the season, and it was usually played with a spot in the playoffs on the line. But while Utica Fest marked the end, Syttende Mai was the beginning. It wasn’t the first game of the season, but it was the first festival game on the Home Talent schedule. Every town, big or small, normally had one big festival that was circled on the calendar that the whole community supported. In Blanchardville it was the Father’s Day Chicken Barbecue. In Waterloo, it was the Fourth of July. In Cross Plains, it was the World’s Fair. And in Stoughton, it was Syttende Mai.
Riffle returned to the dugout, helmet in tow. “How’d you do?” asked Engler.
“Pretty good,” replied Riffle, “I got a few fives.”
“How about from the Utica side?” asked Winter.
“Yeah,” said Engler, “any pull tabs? Any wooden nickels?”
Despite their competitiveness, Utica just couldn’t shake the perception that they were some hick town. One of the only things outsiders knew of the place was the Utica Tap.