One aspect that appeals to the average fan involved in a heated coffee roundtable discussion about sports is- the hypothetical scenario. The speculation of the unknown, or non-existant, keeps fans coming back year after year and season after season. The names change over the years, but the imagination of fans who always ponder the question 'what if?' remains a constant staple, and one of the many appeals of witnessing and watching all levels of athletic competition.
With the Minot Vista Invitational Tournament that begins Friday, the time had come to ask one of North Dakota's most legendary Legion players and newly appointed University of Nebraska head coach, Darin Erstad, a hypothetical question: "Where would he be without Legion baseball?"
An interesting debate for Erstad, who won the Golden Spikes Award in 1995, was the starting punter for the 1994 University of Nebraska national championship team and became the No. 1 overall draft pick by the California Angels in 1995.
Darin Erstad (left) returns to alma mata to take the head coaching job at Lincoln, Neb. For the past two season Erstad was a volunteer hitting coach for the Cornhuskers. Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska.
Erstad, whose high school didn't have a sanctioned team in his native town of Jamestown, responded very conscientiously with a smidgen of brutal honestly.
"I was so fortunate to have great Legion coaches that taught us the right way to play," Erstad said. "(I) played with guys that worked hard, and respected the game. Without Legion ball, I wouldn't have had a chance."
Erstad came from an environment that was more climate conducive for producing snowboarders, and NHL players, rather than MLB prospects. He had to compete with players from states in warm climates such as Florida, Arizona, and California that produced MLB prospects as if they had an assembly line. None of that mattered to Erstad, who simply loved to compete as much as he loved baseball.
"It never crossed my mind to get noticed. I was just having so much fun playing, and I never really thought about being seen," Erstad said. "I just loved to play baseball, and to have an opportunity to play. Looking back, if you could play baseball, it didn't matter where you were from. The scouts were so thorough that if you could play, they would find you anywhere."
For Erstad, athletics in North Dakota is what he knew.
"I didn't know any different. Whatever the season it was, you focused on that one sport," Erstad said. "Like I said, I just didn't know any different."
It didn't matter for Erstad, who claims during high school, he had a one-track mind on making it to the bigs.
"There was no contingency plan," Erstad said sternly. "I wanted to be a major league baseball player. I remember going to the Twins games when I was a kid, and that's what I wanted to do. A lot of kids have that dream. I got to live that dream, and I was very fortunate. There was never, 'If this doesn't work out, I'll try this.' This is what I wanted to do."
Erstad, who begins his first venture into head coaching after being a volunteer hitting coach at the University of Nebraska, will now step into the large shoes of taking over the illustrious baseball program. He remembers when the time to make the decision between attending Creighton or the University of Nebraska during his days of getting recruited, all it took was attending one football game to make the decision.
"I just remember a sea of red," Erstad reflects. "It was an electric atmosphere. The pride the whole state has behind this university was something I wanted to be a part of."
As it turned out, this decision he made nearly two decades ago would shape his illustrious past and lead him to the present of being appointed the head coach, where he has an opportunity to learn from his mentor, coach Tom Osborne.
"(Coach Osborne) is the biggest influence in my life, outside of my dad and my mom," Erstad said. "He's such a great character of integrity, and such an awesome and caring person. I am still learning from him today. He's just a remarkable person."
Erstad, who is in the process of building the Cornhuskers back to national prominence, said there are two things that make Osborne such a valuable resource.
"It's his honesty. He just flat out tells it like it is in a polite way," Erstad said. "He always wants to focus on the process, not the results. I am a huge believer in it's an everyday grind. It's the attention to detail. It's believing in your system, and what you do, and never wavering."
For Erstad, his focus was so intent on being a Major League Baseball player that he never thought of coaching as an option.
"I can't say I ever thought about coaching," Erstad said. "My whole life, I wanted to play baseball. I knew some way, I would still be around it because that is what I do and that is what I love. I always had my mind set on one thing. When I was done playing, I just kept an open mind to whatever came my way. I obviously love baseball."
The coaching opportunity gave Erstad some clarity on the biggest question retired athletes face, 'What should I do next?'
"When this opportunity came to me, it ignited a whole fire inside of me," Erstad said. "It's so exciting to be in that positive position."
Erstad enjoyed the challenge of dealing with the multiple personalities of bringing a team together to believe in one fundamental ideal.
"It's a great feeling to see someone else develop. One swing of the bat can impact a kid so much,' said Erstad. "To see them get something that you are working on together and see their face when they have that 'I got it' moment, and to be able to share that with 18 to 20 guys is a pretty special feeling."
Before Erstad departed from the interview, he did offer one piece of advice to aspiring North Dakota baseball players.
"Always respect the game. There may be one inning that gives you a chance, and you will be found," Erstad said. "They will find you. I am proof that it works. With the type of kids and work ethic that kids have up there in North Dakota, it's all possible."
Life can be a topsy-turvy twist full of turns that sometimes takes you 360 degrees to the beginning of your roots while leaving you baffled at how you got there.
Jason Blasco is a sports writer for The Minot Daily News. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.