BY JIM LEITNER

Telegraph Herald sports editor

It’s been a few months since Gary Langel called me out of the blue that Thursday evening and informed me I’d been elected to the Dubuque County Baseball Hall of Fame.

And it still hasn’t completely sunk in.

Don’t get me wrong, my induction as a contributor this weekend will be one of the biggest honors in my career at the Telegraph Herald. And I’ll be going in with an impressive class that includes Rufus Bennett, Bill Petsche, Ken Rapp, Tim Schmitt, Dean Steffen and Pete Weber — all players I’ve respected for years.

But it can be a little overwhelming when you scroll through the list of names enshrined since the charter class of 1987. Or when you think about those who will certainly be joining that list in the years to come.

I guess I’ve been having too much fun chronicling Dubuque County baseball for the past 31 years to realize I’ve been making a contribution to a game I truly enjoy. It’s incredibly humbling to think the Hall of Fame committee wants me to join such a club.

And, truth be told, this recognition should be considered a reflection on the great baseball people in the area who have made my job so much easier over the years. Their success stories many times write themselves, and their cooperation and willingness to help deserve a tip of my cap.

Dubuque County is simply a special place to write about baseball.

We’re so fortunate to have six high schools with traditions of producing outstanding players — as evidenced by those schools feeding into an American Legion team that consistently competes at the state and regional levels and last summer made it all the way to the World Series in Shelby, N.C. All six have also produced standout college players, and we’ve even had a few take the next step and play professionally.

But where this area really separates itself is with baseball beyond high school and college.

I doubt if you’ll find another area of the country where semi-pro baseball means as much to the fabric of so many smaller communities than it does in Dubuque County, not to mention a few small towns in the surrounding counties of Jackson and Jones. From Balltown to Zwingle, this area includes 10 Prairie League teams and eight Eastern Iowa Hawkeye League programs of players whose passion for baseball keeps them going years after most decide to hang up their spikes or simply don’t have the opportunity to play anymore.

It’s not easy. I know.

I played a couple of seasons of semi-pro ball before evening and weekend work obligations directed me to the press box full-time. So, I have a ton of respect for the guys who commit themselves to playing into their 30s, when even more life commitments factor into the equation. Those who keep going after age 40, and even 50 … well, I don’t want to be one to tell them Father Time is still undefeated.

And every community has passionate baseball followers who volunteer so much of their summers so our semi-pro players can run around like little kids for a few hours a couple of times each week. I’ve sat in many a press box with them and actually dreaded the end of games because I didn’t want our baseball conversations to end.

Of course, none of this happens without incredible support and understanding at home. Myself included.

My wife, Maggie, and two daughters have every right to complain about the odd hours I keep and the busy weeks that make the baseball season fly by each summer. And, yet, they don’t.

I can’t thank them enough for allowing me to spend so much time covering baseball — at my age, it’s the closest I’ll come to running around and sliding in the dirt. At least they don’t have to scrub grass stains out of my Toughskins, like my mother, Roann, had to do back in my Independent League days so I could feel like a big leaguer. (For the younger generation, Toughskins were ultra-durable jeans that allowed you to slide on limestone infields without destroying your legs).

It means a lot to be joining my father, Harry, in the Hall of Fame, because I saw first-hand the impact he had on the old Holy Name League. He passed his passion for the game along to me and my kid brother, Kevin, who was always a willing partner to play catch or a quick game of Whiffle Ball in the back yard. And my older sisters always supported our baseball pursuits.

The past few months leading up to this weekend’s induction ceremonies have taken me along many paths on memory lane. And I’m grateful for all of those memories.

But it still hasn’t completely sunk in.

Jim Leitner’s email address: jim.leitner@thmedia.com

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