ST. CLOUD - While most college kids are relaxing this summer and spending the months working and saving money for the upcoming school year, Sleepy Eye native Zac Salfer is living a dream that he's had for a long time.
Salfer, who played baseball at Sleepy Eye St. Mary's during his high school days, has made the jump to Division I baseball where he pitches for the University of North Dakota.
But this summer, instead of resting and getting ready for his junior season of baseball next year, Salfer is spending his time playing more baseball. He is currently playing in the Northwoods League, a wood-bat summer baseball league that is made up of some of the best collegiate baseball talent in the country.
Photo courtesy of the St. Cloud River Bats baseball team
Sleepy Eye native Zac Salfer is pitching for the St. Cloud River Bats this summer as he prepares for his junior season at the University of North Dakota.
The league is similar to minor league baseball in that the teams play basically every night of the summer, playing around 60 games in almost as many days.
He's playing for the St. Cloud River Bats after joining the team mid-way through the season. For him, it was an opportunity he just couldn't pass up.
He said he got the opportunity after one of his assistant coaches at UND saw him playing amateur baseball in Ada less than a month ago. Because of an injury to one of the River Bats' players, they had room for another pitcher, and it was Salfer who got the call.
River Bats Remaining Schedule
Aug. 9@Mankato7:05 p.m.
Aug. 10@ Mankato7:05 p.m.
Aug. 11Mankato7:05 p.m.
Aug. 12 @ Brainerd7:05 p.m.
Aug. 13@ Brainerd7:05 p.m.
Aug. 14 @ Rochester7:05 p.m.
Aug. 15@ Rochester7:05 p.m.
Aug 16@ Rochester7:05 p.m.
"I was playing amateur for Ada and one of the assistant coaches for UND, he came up to one of the games over the all-star break [in the Northwoods League] and watched me pitch," Salfer said. "They called me later that night and said that they lost one of their arms to injury and asked if I'd be willing to fill their final roster spot."
The answer to that question was pretty simple for Salfer, who capitalized on the chance right away.
"Not very long," he said of how long he thought about it. "I had a job up there but I figured it was an opportunity that a lot of people don't get the chance to do."
Of course, the chance to play in the Northwoods League was a dream for Salfer. It's a league made up of some of the best college baseball players in the country and every year there are many players who are drafted to play professional baseball that were former Northwoods League players.
Salfer was a fan of the Mankato MoonDogs growing up, another team in the Northwoods League. Now instead of rooting for them, he'll have a chance to pitch against them when the River Bats play at Mankato at 7:05 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 9 and 10 in Mankato. A third game between the two clubs will be at 7:05 p.m. on Wednesday.
Once a kid who used to dream about playing at that level, he now has the chance to do it and he's loving it.
"I used to watch the MoonDogs games when I was little and I used to wish that it was me out there," Salfer said. "It's a lot different actually being in uniform and being on the field and seeing all the little kids and talking to them before the games. Actually being a part of the Northwoods League is a great experience."
What makes the Northwoods League so fun for Salfer is that he gets to see the best on a nightly basis. Not only that, he's teamed up with players from all over the country from Division 1 programs and this has helped him improve in the short amount of time he's spent in the league.
"The level of competition is very good," he said. "You're taking the best college players from all over the nation and you're putting them together in one league. It's kind of like you're on a mission for one goal - the Northwoods League championship I guess."
Because he competes at the Division I level during the college season, that helps Salfer in the Northwoods League. The experience he's gaining in both leagues has helped him out a lot and will continue to help him as he enters his junior season of college baseball this fall.
"The things that I learned in college ball are things that I try to take into the Northwoods League and St. Cloud," Salfer said. "For the most part, you can take whatever I learned in school ball or this league and it's pretty interchangeable."
At UND, Salfer was a starting pitcher and he didn't have to worry about the possibility of throwing every day. At St. Cloud, that's a different story as he's working out of the bullpen. That means he can be called on to pitch several times over the course of the week, so he has to make sure he's ready to go on a daily basis.
"For college ball I was a starter, and that was nice because you knew when you were going to throw and you had your routine that you did the same every week," Salfer said. "Being a reliever, it's a totally different mindset. You have to be ready to go every single night and it could be in the third inning and it could be in the ninth inning, it just depends on how the game's going."
He also has to make sure he's staying in shape everyday and he has to work out a little differently than he would for the college season.
"Definitely, you have to be running every day and playing catch and keeping your pitch count down," he said. "Being a starter, you can kind of extend because you know you're not going to be throwing for another five, six days.
As of last Tuesday, Salfer had pitched in 4 1/3 innings for St. Cloud and he hadn't allowed an earned run yet. He's not getting a ton of innings, but he's learning a lot about pitching from the coaching staff.
"My coaches that we have [in St. Cloud] have taught me a lot," Salfer said. "I've been here for about two weeks now, and I've learned a lot in that two weeks. Just working on little things, like mindsets, that I didn't learn up at school."
He also learns a lot from his fellow players and hears things from players from different parts of the country.
"In between innings we're always sitting in the dugout helping each other," Salfer said. "It's just the fact that I get to go out there every single day and work on stuff."
The River Bats are among the league leaders in attendance in the Northwoods League, averaging about 1,750 fans per game. Salfer said that playing in front of so many fans gets him and the rest of his teammates pumped up.
"It's a lot of fun going out there and hearing all the cheers when they call your name," Salfer said. "Just going out there and doing your best and trying to help your team try to win, it's a lot of fun."
Although he didn't get to play in the league for the full season, Salfer said if the opportunity presents itself next year, he definitely would do it all over again.
"It's been a lot of fun, no regrets," he said. "I'm learning a lot about baseball every single day and everything I learn I can take to school [baseball] and I'm also gaining friends for a lifetime. If I was ever fortunate enough to get the opportunity again, I would definitely do it and I would definitely recommend anybody who has the opportunity to play in the Northwoods League."