PINE ISLAND – Things were taking a bad turn Thursday for the Pine Island Panthers baseball team. Cannon Falls had just scored two runs with two outs in the top of the sixth inning and held a 2-1 lead.
As the Panthers ran into the dugout, coach Craig Anderson was a picture of optimism. He asked his guys, “How many 2-1 deficits have been overcome in the bottom of the sixth? Millions! Let’s stay positive!”
Throughout the game, a well-played Hiawatha Valley League affair that ended with the Bombers winning by that 2-1 margin, Anderson said nothing critical, nothing negative. That is part of his formula for success during a 40-year coaching career that has made him only the seventh baseball coach in Minnesota to win 500 games.
Anderson – a retired elementary teacher who works as Pine Island’s athletic director -- was honored in a brief ceremony before Thursday’s game. Principal Kevin Cardille presented the coach (pictured) with a modest trophy commemorating 500 victories, and well-respected former coaches Dale Welter of Chaska and Dale Massey of Rochester Mayo spoke about Anderson and how important he is to baseball in Minnesota.
Thursday’s loss put Anderson’s career record at 502-365. Number 500 came in a victory over Byron on April 2. But wins and losses are secondary to Anderson’s main mission in coaching.
“We want to win but we have a bigger message,” he said. “And that’s, ‘Hey, come play hard, represent your community and your family with dignity.’ And if you do those things, then it’s a win no matter how the result comes out. Today I thought the kids gave a great account of themselves. We played a quality ballclub, we have a lot of respect for Cannon and the Bombers were just one run better than us today.”
Midway through the game, Pine Island right fielder Matt Huus (who wears No. 3) made a splendid running catch of a hard-hit ball. In the dugout, Anderson hollered, “Throw strikes, make plays! All right! Way to get a jump, three!”
After the game, I asked team captains Matt Kukson, Tucker Hanson and D.J. Titus this question: What’s the most negative thing your coach has ever said?
The question caught them off guard. They began giggling, then full-out laughing. Message? The thought of Anderson being negative was laughable.
“I think he’s found that by saying anything negative it doesn’t help the team at all, so he doesn’t say anything negative,” Hanson said. “The only way to help the team out, even in a bad time, is to keep a positive attitude and he definitely does that.”
Anderson is so highly respected by his peers that beginning this year, an annual award bearing his name will be given by the Minnesota State High School Baseball Coaches Association. It’s called the Craig Anderson Ethics in Coaching Award, described like this: “The coach who is selected will be someone who displays class, integrity, character, and respect for the game, the players, the spectators, and the officials. Someone who is a great model for student-athletes and fellow coaches, who teaches not only the game, but also life’s core lessons.”
That’s the essence of Anderson. Ask Cannon Falls coach Bucky Lindow, who faced Anderson’s team in his first game as a high school coach in 1988 at Dover-Eyota. Between high school and Babe Ruth baseball games, Lindow said he has coached against Anderson 120 times.
“He’s been a true mentor for me,” Lindow said. “The first game I ever coached as a high school coach, he was the other guy and beat us 10-0. But more important is the way he treats people. He’s the guy who’s going to congratulate you if you do something. He’s just classy. That’s truly what he is. And through the state coaches association, he’s been on the leadership team for a long, long time and he just makes a positive impact. He’s a great ambassador for high school baseball. I really appreciate all that I’ve learned from him.”
Anderson is No. 3 on the career victory list among active coaches. On top of the all-time and active list is Bob Karn of St. Cloud Cathedral (715-277). Next is Lowell Scearcy of Brainerd (709-287 and also still coaching), followed by retired New Ulm coach Jim Senske (707-171). Three other retired coaches have between 509 and 535 wins (Dick Seltz, Austin; Bob Mullen, Bagley; Darwin Busselman, Prior Lake).
Anderson, 61, credits his family as a main reason for his 40 years and 500 wins.
“I want to salute my wife. Sue,” he said. “We’ve been together for over 40 years. Nobody stays in coaching for 40 years unless you’ve got a No. 1 assistant, and that’s my bride. I love her and she’s been a great support system. Our two daughters were always at the ballpark, and now it’s the grandkids. That’s pretty special.”
Anderson’s older brother Dave, who retired from teaching and coaching baseball in Byron in 2006, works as Pine Island’s official scorer and public-address announcer. Dave compiled a record of 206-195 in 18 years coaching the Bears.
The Anderson boys – five brothers in all – grew up playing baseball in their hometown of Mabel. Craig and Dave played at Winona State before beginning their careers as educators and coaches.
“Believe it or not, my earliest recollection of being alive was coming out in the front yard, having mom and dad watch me hit, with my brothers pitching to me,” Craig said. “Apparently I was doing OK because I remember feeling good about myself.”
And for four decades he has taught the game he loves, along with life lessons that go far beyond baseball.
“I’m just taking it a year at a time and I’m planning on coming back next year if the good lord allows me to and my health is good,” he said. “It’s a rebirth every year, being able to come out and work with these guys. You can see they’re good kids. They’re good ballplayers, but better yet they’re good people.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 502
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 9,890