Twins Fantasy Camp A Welcome Respite For Former Gustavus Baseball Catcher And ALS Patient

Posted on January 14th, 2017 by

Cy Young Award pitcher Frank Viola throws a pitch to 2017 camp rookie and ALS patient, Steve Lufkin. (photo courtesy of Twins Fantasy Camp Facebook)

By Patrick Reusse, Minneapolis Star Tribune

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Steve Lufkin played the sports by seasons as a youngster at Washington Park in Richfield, and it was baseball that had the strongest hold on him.

“Steve always has been a baseball freak, a Twins freak,” said Dave Roiger, a former Minneapolis cop who was a couple of grades ahead of Lufkin in Richfield, and also a Washington Park regular.

Steve had a peculiarity that caused consternation with various coaches as he progressed.

Steve Lufkin. (photo courtesy of Still Kickin)

“There weren’t a lot of catchers and I liked the action, being in on every pitch,” Lufkin said. “I became the catcher in Little League.”

Steve let that hang for a moment and added: “A lefthanded catcher …”

The reporter standing next to Lufkin looked at him and said: “What are you, a Communist? You can’t be a lefthanded catcher.”

Lufkin laughed and said: “Quite a few people agreed with you, including Brian Kispert, the coach at Richfield. When he first saw me he said: ‘You’re going to have to find a new position. We’re not going to have a lefthanded catcher.’ ”

Slowly, Kispert came off his strong stand for American values, and in his junior season of 1983, Lufkin was installed as the Spartans catcher.

Lufkin didn’t have as much trouble winning over coaches Ron Wiebold and Randy Stuckey at Gustavus Adolphus. He played 92 games in four seasons for the Gusties, and he also met his wife, Stacy, while on that majestic campus on the top of the hill in St. Peter.

“ I’ve never thought it should be considered such a disadvantage to have a lefthanded catcher,” Lufkin said. “Throwing through a righthanded hitter when a runner is stealing third … that’s the big thing, I guess, but how many guys try to steal third?”

Lufkin used spirit and determination to overcome the challenge of being a lefthanded catcher. Three decades later, he has a challenge that requires much more of those qualities, and against an opponent that cannot be defeated.

In February 2014, Lufkin was found to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. When reviewing the symptoms, Steve and Stacy believe it was as much as a year earlier when the disease started to manifest itself in smaller ways for Steve.

“There have been considerable advances in making life more comfortable as the disease progresses,” Lufkin said. “But as far as life expectancy, it’s the same as when Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS in the 1930s: two to five years.”

Steve was a math teacher and assistant coach at Henry Sibley High for 27 years. As a coincidence, he was diagnosed a few months before the Ice Bucket Challenge became a national phenomenon as a fundraiser for the ALS Association in the summer of 2014.

Students and friends started coming to the Lufkin home in Rosemount, dumping buckets of ice water over their heads in the front yard, and then offering donations for ALS research.

Roiger had attended the Twins Fantasy Camp at the team’s spring training complex for several years. Lufkin had retired as a teacher in June 2016, and Roiger got the idea of getting him to the fantasy camp, to mingle with his Twins heroes and fellow baseball lovers.

“I called Stan Dickman, told him about Steve’s situation and Stan said, ‘You get Steve and his family on board, and we’ll make it happen,’ ” Roiger said.

Dickman took over the Twins Fantasy Camp a number of years ago and turned it into an annual success. There are 107 participants this year, and only one in a wheelchair.

Steve drove in a van to Florida with Stacy and their oldest son, Isaiah. Jeff Belzer, the car dealer, made a donation to cover expenses for the 3,500-mile driving round trip from the Twin Cities to Fort Myers.

There was a draft of players onto eight teams at the start of the week. Jeff Reardon and Frank Viola drafted Lufkin onto their team. Steve has been the scorekeeper.

Lufkin can move his arms to a degree, and Viola and camp coordinator Bert Blyleven have flipped him batting practice.

“A Hall of Famer and a World Series MVP … that’s pretty great,” said Steve, with a wide smile.

Stacy Lufkin made a point of mentioning the long, heartfelt conversations Reardon has had with her husband. Reardon had his well-publicized emotional problems after the death of his son, and he and Steve have talked philosophically about crisis and dealing with it day-to-day.

There also have been many laughs. “This is no pity party,” Lufkin said. “Irreverent humor is part of baseball. Frankie [Viola] has been threatening to brush me back if I keep taking those hard swings.”

On Friday night, Blyleven held the camp’s “kangaroo court,” where a week of fines are tabulated and assessed, with the proceeds going to a Fort Myers children’s hospital.

On Thursday, Lufkin already knew fines were coming for being a camp rookie and for being duped into believing an outrageous Blyleven yarn.

Here’s a confession: After this interview, I relayed a message to Blyleven that Lufkin had been a lefthanded catcher, which had to be worth another $10 fine.

• • • • • • • • • •

Steve Lufkin’s baseball stats at Gustavus

1988: 26 games played, 19-72 (.264), 12 runs, 0 doubles, 1 triple, 0 HRs, 21 total bases, 10 walks, 8 Ks, 2 stolen bases, 6 RBI, 10 putouts, 9 assists, 6 errors, .760 fielding %

1987: 31 games played, 15-65 (.231), 4 runs, 4 doubles, 0 triples, 2 HRs, 25 total bases, 18 walks, 10 Ks, 1 stolen base, 13 RBI, 11 putouts, 12 assists, 5 errors, .821 fielding %

1986: 23 games played, 16-53 (.302), 3 runs, 3 doubles, 0 triples, 0 HRs, 19 total bases, 11 walks, 6 Ks, 1 stolen base, 12 RBI, 77 putouts, 12 assists, 1 error, .989 fielding %

(also pitched 2/3 of an inning in 1986 with 1 earned run, 1 walk, 1 strikeout, 1 wild pitch, and 1 balk)

1985: 12 games played, 5-23 (.217), 5 runs, 1 double, 0 triples, 0 HRs, 6 total bases, 2 walks, 2Ks, 0 stolen bases, 5 RBI, 36 putouts, 4 assists, 0 errors, 1.000 fielding %

Career: 92 games played, 55-213 (.258), 24 runs, 8 doubles, 1 triple, 2 HRs, 71 total bases, 41 walks, 26 Ks, 4 stolen bases, 36 RBI, 134 putouts, 37 assists, 12 errors, .934 fielding %

 


One Comment

  1. Ronald Wiebold says:

    Steve was one of my first recruits. Steve’s left hand catcher position was an asset. I’m happy to say I was fortunate to have him on the team. Great kid. Wish him the best.