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Andy Wolf, From the Lake Okoboji to Russian Hero

Reprinted with permission from the Dickinson County Newspaper

By Bob Protexter

Andy Wolf is a champion, again.
You may know Andy Wolf as the Property Manager at the Bedell Family YMCA in Spirit Lake. You can not miss his office or his presence at the facility as he is often the first person you see when walking in the door.

Or you may know Andy Wolf as husband of Amber, father of grade schoolers Lincoln and Reid, and a resident of Milford.
The Russians know Andy Wolf as shortstop, MVP, and champion.
It’s 2018. Russians? Wait, what? Baseball in Russia? Conspiracy theory? No, this is NOT fake news.
Andy Wolf, 40, recently returned home in late October to the Iowa Great Lakes from Fort Myers, Florida where RusStar, the Russian baseball team he played for won the Roy Hobbs World Series in the AA Division of the 35 Years + age bracket. Champions. Wolf was named MVP!

Wolf is a native of Bancroft, Iowa and is no stranger to winning. He is a 1997 graduate of North Kossuth High School, now consolidated and known as North Union High School. At North Kossuth, Wolf was All Conference all four years, four years All District, and a three time Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) All-State centerfielder. During his time at North Kossuth his teams advanced to the Iowa High School State Baseball Tournament three times winning the state title for his home town in 1996 and 1997. Following the Iowa State Tournament his senior year Wolf was named to the IHSAA All-Star Series where he was named MVP. Wolf returned to Bancroft in the 2000’s for a time and served on the coaching staff of then named North Sentral Kossuth High School where he helped lead his Alma mater to another state title in 2008. Champion indeed. MVP for sure!
But the Russian thing, how does that happen? That’s simple; a Morningside College connection via Jackson, Minnesota by way of New York City all the way through Moscow, Russia and back to Milford, Iowa all tied in with an international coal salesman of course. Again, this is NOT fake news.

Wolf and his wife Amber moved to the Lakes area in 2010 where Andy began working at the YMCA in November of that year. The following summer of 2011 Wolf resumed playing amateur baseball for the Jackson Bulls in Jackson, Minnesota, a team that he had played for in earlier stints from 2000 to 2003 and from 2005 to 2009. Amateur baseball in Minnesota has a rich and strong tradition. And so do the Jackson Bulls have qualified for the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Tournament twelve times while Wolf has been on six of those teams as shortstop, 3rd baseman, and centerfielder.

My position and connection in writing this story is as a Sioux City native, former Morningside College assistant baseball coach, and many years of work with baseball in Russia that dates back to 1990 and the days of the Soviet Union. I was asked to help the Russians in 2014 find a ringer, and this all led to a phone call to Jason DeWall in New York City. The Russian team RusStar was looking for a catcher/outfielder that could hit and would be willing to go to Florida in late October to play in the Roy Hobbs World Series and live on the beach for a week. DeWall, a former Morningside catcher and Jackson, Minnesota native that now lives in New York City, passed on the opportunity but gave the name of Blaise Jacobsen of the Jackson Bulls, and bluntly said that Blaise can really……….hit! Jacobsen took up on the opportunity in 2014. Wolf was encouraged to go too that year, but could not go. In 2015 Wolf decided to give it a shot with Jacobsen and traveled to Fort Myers to play with the Russians.

You may know Roy Hobbs as the storied baseball player on the big screen from the 1984 movie “The Natural” played by Robert Redford. This mythical baseball player was first created by author Bernard Malamud in his 1952 novel by the same name. Now Roy Hobbs Baseball is adult amateur recreation baseball, servicing more than 750 teams, many leagues, and some 9,000 players across the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and in Europe. Their signature event is the annual Roy Hobbs World Series in the fall of every year in Fort Myers and Lee County, Florida, at the spring training homes of the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox. Seven age divisions are played for men from 35+ all the way up to 75 and over. There is even a women’s open age group. The World Series in Fort Myers began in 1993, and in that first year there was a Russian team, the Moscow Red Devils. The Red Devils were a dynasty winning the Championship of the USSR in 1990 and 1991, and the Championship of Russia from 1992-1996. The Russians have missed only one year, 2017, since that beginning in 1993. This year in the 35+ division that RusStar competed in there forty-two teams.

The RusStar General Manager is Igor Gribanovsky, who also serves as the team’s catcher. Gribanovsky prefers baseball to the board room, but his day job pays the bills. Gribanovsky begin playing baseball in 1989 at the age of 17 years old while attending Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys State University before moving on to Moscow State University. His degree and years of hard work has led him to the position of Managing Director of Siberian Coal Energy Company (SUEK) and then became JSC SUEK’s Chief Commercial Officer, a position he has held since 2007.

To secure good players and to field a quality team that travels a good bit of distance all of the way from Moscow to sunny Florida, Gribanovksy will pick up American players to supplement the Russian roster for the Roy Hobbs tournament as needed. Jacobsen and Wolf have earned Gribanovsky’s respect and have given good recommendations on other amateur players. This year the Jackson Bulls were also represented on the RusStar team by pitchers Pat Boggess and Tom Hady. Pitching need is universal.
Gribanovsky says of Wolf; “Andy is the most skilled amateur player I have ever seen. He is unreal!! Superman . . . And he has a great heart.”
It takes heart and skill and plenty of pitching to play 9 games in 7 days, the amount of games that a team will play in one week if they are to advance to the Championship game. RusStar did and they won playing teams from all over the United States. Wolf gained MVP honors for RusStar playing a clean shortstop, and as the leadoff hitter batting .474 while scoring 18 runs and stealing 8 bases.

Wolf has now played for RusStar in 2015, 2016, and 2018 also winning the team MVP award in 2015. Prior to his first trip Wolf was a bit apprehensive of the nature of the team and it’s purpose of playing in the tournament and said; “I thought it might be a vacation for them and if I am going to go I am going to go and play hard and play to win.” After playing for RusStar for three years Wolf says: “There are a lot of different backgrounds, different personalities, a language barrier but I found out very quickly that on the field that everyone was all of the same, and that they came here to win.”

Wolf quickly adds that for the Russian players: “Baseball is near and dear to their hearts and I see them as ambassadors to the game . . . I have played with players with lots of nationalities and playing with the Russians has been fun. A great time.”
But baseball in Russia? Yes, baseball became an official sport in the USSR in 1986 starting from absolute total scratch. This announcement by the Soviet Union Olympic Committee came on the heals of the International Olympic Committee adding baseball as a gold medal sport earlier that year. The Soviets were hunting Olympic gold in this new American pastime of theirs.

And with the Russians there are some Georgians, and noteworthy Americans.
The 2018 RusStar roster included many Russian players that have played and coached at the highest of international levels for the Russian National Baseball Teams of all age groups including the senior team that plays in Olympic qualifying tournaments every four years. Nika Bezhuashvili was also on this year’s squad. A native of Tbilisi, Georgia; the lefty Bezhuashvili signed a professional baseball contract in 1994 with the Los Angeles Angels as a pitcher.

In 2015 and 2016 Wolf played with left-handed pitcher Bill Lee of Boston Red Sox fame and a supposed communist. Lee goes by the nickname of Spaceman. Lee pitched in the 1975 World Series for the Red Sox and since getting retired from professional baseball in the early 1980’s he has barnstormed around the world to play baseball to places like the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Venezuela. As well Lee has played many times for RusStar in the Roy Hobbs World Series.

Asked Wolf on his most memorable moment with playing for the Russian team RusStar: “I am playing shortstop for a Russian baseball team and former Boston Red Sox player Bill Lee is in his late 60’s and pitching for us at the Red Sox Major League Spring Training field in Florida . . . a ground ball is hit up the middle that Bill can’t grab and I snag it and touch the bag and throw to first base for the double play. It funny . . . the Russian players are saying ‘double play . . . double play’ as double play in Russian is pronounced ‘double play’. And then after the game I took a picture with Bill Lee by the 1975 World Series sign at the Red Sox park.”

RusStar has interesting teammates and even some MLB opponents. This year Wolf got one plate appearance against former Major League veteran Jose Contreras. Contreras is a 46 year old 6’4” Cuban that won 78 games in the big leagues and retired from MLB in 2014. Wolf grounded out to shortstop in that plate appearance. Things to remember.
YES, this is as real as it gets. NOT fake news.

After graduating from North Kossuth in 1997 Wolf attended Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa. From there and a with a two year degree he went on to Morningside College playing in the 2001 and 2002 seasons, the final two years of the school’s days in NCAA Division II. While at Morningside, Wolf played 2nd base, 3rd base, and centerfield hitting .330 and .361 respectively in those two years, and starting in 82 of the 83 games the school played.

Morningside’s long time baseball coach in 2001 and 2002 was Jim Scholten, and he says of Wolf: “He wouldn’t back down from the fiercest competition we had. Also, Andy would wear short sleeve shirts in cold weather when the rest of us would be in long sleeves and coats.” And Scholten fondly remembers a tight game at the end of the season versus the University of Nebraska Omaha where the Mavericks intentionally walked the hitter in front of Wolf with already a player on second base only for him to step to the plate and hit a three run home run. Scholten adds: “Andy was a joy to coach.”

Wolf gets high praise from former Major Leaguer Bill Lee and Russian baseball lifers alike, and an especially great praise from a Morningside College 2002 graduate and teammate in Mike Clement. Clement is heading into his fifth year as the hitting coach at Ole Miss, a NCAA Division I powerhouse in the baseball rich SEC, Southeastern Conference after serving in similar positions at University of Texas San Antonio, Texas A & M, and Kansas State. Clement says of Wolf: ““As an opponent in junior college I hated him. As a teammate at Morningside I loved having him on my side. Andy is the fiercest competitor I ever played with. He played with a huge chip on his shoulder. Chip is probably an understatement. The combination of his competitiveness and his loyalty to his teammates on the field made him a great player and a great teammate.”

Outside of continuing to play baseball Wolf stays young and active on the court and on the diamond as a junior high, Freshman, and Junior Varsity basketball referee and also as an official IHSAA certified baseball umpire for high school games. Wolf holds the rare distinction in Iowa High School baseball history of playing, coaching, and umpiring in the Iowa High School State Baseball Tournament. He added umpiring to his lengthy championship baseball resume by working the State Tournament in 2016 and 2017 at Principal Park in Des Moines.
More in baseball Wolf has also held the duties of being the director of the Total Baseball Development (TBD) High School Fall Baseball League at the Iowa Great Lakes from 2015 to 2017. This league was started in 2005 in Sioux City. With the great interest in high school baseball from players and parents in the area of the Iowa Great Lakes, the Lakes area was selected as its first expansion site in 2015. With Wolf overseeing the addition of the Iowa Great Lakes site the TBD Fall League reached its best numbers ever seeing between 250 to 300 high school players playing baseball every fall. Just this fall with both Sioux City and the Iowa Great Lakes combined the TBD Fall League had twenty-two teams with over 250 high school baseball players participating.

Not busy enough Wolf relishes the opportunity to coach his two sons Lincoln and Reid in football, basketball, and baseball. Wolf is extraordinarily appreciative for the support he receives from his wife in all of this extra baseball, and for her allowing her ‘three’ boys to do what they enjoy. Wolf expresses for wife Amber: “She’s amazing . . . Absolutely amazing!”
And now his newest fondest baseball memories to ponder over the long winter at the Iowa Great Lakes are of hanging out on the sunny beaches in Fort Myers with his Russian friends, playing on the MLB Spring Training sites of the Minnesota Twins and the Boston Red Sox, and his brand new shiny hardware for the mantel. MVP hardware. Championship hardware.
Wolf comments: “Playing for them has been an honor and I really appreciate Igor Gribanovsky and the Russians for asking me to play.”

As Russian Olympic champions do, maybe MVP and champion Wolf will receive an apartment in Moscow and a Lada, a Russian made car. These items were reserved as gifts and awards to Olympic gold medalists of years past. Keep posted for this development! At least a ring could be in the making.
And maybe the highest praise possible was put to Wolf by the RusStar manager Alexey Erofeev. Erofeev is a bear of a man and he hugged Andy following the Championship game, and with his bear sized hands he engulfed Wolf’s face as he squeezed it and said: “Wolffy, Wolffy, Russian Hero.”
Yes, this is real. Congratulations Andy Wolf! From Lake Okoboji to Russian Hero. A true story.

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