COON VALLEY, Wis. – Scott Servais is telling one of his favorite Coon Valley stories – and he has a million to choose from. He’s standing near the spot it happened: A baseball field, naturally, though residual mud from the latest in a series of recent floods prevented him from venturing all the way out.
It was 1987, and Servais had just returned from competing in the Pan Am Games in Indianapolis. He and his girlfriend, Jill, attended a wedding in Coon Valley, and then near midnight Scott drove her to the picturesque, Field of Dreams-like ballpark, Veterans Memorial Field, that had been the hub of his entire life. Beforehand, Servais had secretly gone to the field, drawn a heart near home plate and scrawled out in the infield dirt the words, “Will you marry me?”
Using his car lights to illuminate the field, Servais walked Jill out to home plate, got down on one knee, and popped the question. Or, as he put it in telling the story some 34 years later, he asked, “Are you in?”
Jill was in, and they got married the next year, shortly after Scott snared a gold medal playing for Team USA in the Seoul Olympics. Jill’s father even dug up the home plate and presented it to the happy couple at the rehearsal dinner. It has a place of honor in Servais’ office at their Seattle-area home.
It’s the perfect Servais anecdote, because it centers on baseball, it highlights the intimacy of growing up in a tiny town like Coon Valley (population 758), and shows a surprising, yet endearing, side of the man who has become ensconced as the Mariners’ manager. A contract extension announced Sept. 1 ensured that Servais will be around to continue the playoff pursuit that fell so agonizingly short this past season.
“Here’s this hard-core guy. He was just driven as a professional athlete. But he’s got a sentimental and romantic side to him, too,” said Jeff Brown, a longtime sports writer for the La Crosse Tribune who covered Servais’ considerable athletic exploits as a youth.
I got to retrace the steps of that childhood two weeks ago, with Servais as the tour guide. The Seahawks were playing the Packers in Green Bay, which lured both of us to Wisconsin, me to write about the game and Servais to attend it as a lifetime Packers fan (“a shareholder,” he had said at his introductory news conference in Seattle in 2015) while also attending to some family business.
A mere days before he would finish as runner-up for American League Manager of the Year, Servais agreed to meet me in nearby La Crosse, where his parents now live, and show me the roots of his baseball career here in the southwestern corner of the state, hard by the Mississippi River.
For nearly four hours, we went back in time, to his formative years in a simpler time, when kids would play some form of ball all day in the summertime … and after school … and weekends … and nights. And to a simpler place, comprised of, as Scott’s uncle Ed Servais, the longtime baseball coach at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, put it, “one grocery store, a couple of gas stations and wonderful people who all knew each other and took care of each other.”
That’s the essence of Coon Valley, where Scott’s dad, Dan, and his uncle Bob, ran Coon Valley Dairy Supply, a farm-implement store that was started in 1946 by Scott’s grandfather, also named Ed Servais. In those days, when small-scale dairy farming was thriving, it was the place to go throughout the region for any and all farm equipment. As the family farms have been swallowed up by conglomerates, the shop – now owned by Bob’s son, Larry Servais – diversified to sell appliances, hardware, lawn mowers, tractors and other items.
“When I grew up here, it was huge,” Servais said as we pulled into the parking lot of Coon Valley Dairy Supply for a tour of the well-appointed store. “This whole lot was full of farm equipment, machinery – it was rolling. People in all these little dairy farms – if you needed something, you came to their supply store.”
This is the story of a driven ballplayer who became so revered that when Servais came back from the Olympics, the front page of the local newspaper blared the headline, “Scott brings back gold.”
Not Servais. Scott. The feat was further immortalized with a sign in his honor on the main (and only) drag of Coon Valley, outside a restaurant.
So it’s also the story of the pride and cohesion of a small town, which just happened to have a cadre of talented athletes around Servais’ age that became the core of highly successful teams at Westby High School, which fed from Westby (population 2,472 – including Jill), Chaseburg (341) and Coon Valley to form a graduating class of around 100. Scott and his two younger brothers were at the center of the athletic universe.
“When I first moved here, they were talking about the Servaises, and they said the story was, the Servais kids would crawl first. Then they’d stand up and play catch, and then they’d walk,” said Neil Hoven, Scott’s football coach at Westby who became a valued mentor.
Scott was a football star, too, rushing for 320 yards in one game (homecoming) and 1,500 for the season as a senior fullback en route to winning Coulee Region Player of the Year. Hoven said Servais once told him, “I’d give anything if I could just play one game of college football.”
Big Ten schools recruited Servais for football, but it was clear early that his future was behind the plate. Which his why you could usually find him at Veterans Memorial Field, first as bat boy for the older kids and then as the 15-year prodigy who hit the ball over the shelter house situated way, way beyond left field. Word started to spread about the kid from Coon Valley.
“Everyone was, like, ‘Whoa,’ ” he recalled. “And then, you know, people in these towns, they talk. That’s kind of where it all started.”
In those days, the Coon Valley ballpark was surrounded by corn fields, which would be thriving by the time a particularly big tournament hit town at the end of July. Scott and his buddies would spring into action, placing themselves strategically throughout the corn field to nab foul balls before the spotters hired by tournament officials could get them. They developed a relay system in which they would pass the ball from one person to the next “until the last guy has it on his bike, and you’d get out of here with six, seven balls after a game,” Servais recalled with a laugh. By the end of the tournament, they had a full bucket’s worth.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We had started our nostalgia sojourn at Copeland Park in La Crosse, another meaningful baseball field in Servais’ life. This was a baseball-mad region in those days, I quickly learned. Youth teams would come from all around the country for the “Stars of Tomorrow” tournament – and the championship game was televised live on one of the two La Crosse stations.
So-called “town teams” comprised of ex-college and even pro players would compete in a semipro league of sorts throughout the state, developing fierce rivalries among small towns such as Coon Valley, Stoddard and Viroqua – and larger ones such as Madison and Eau Claire. It can now be told that sometimes “ringers,” usually pitchers, would be induced for big games with under-the-table payments.
Servais became immersed in that world early, joining the La Crosse Loggers at the precocious age of 18 as his catching prowess revealed itself. His uncle Ed, 10 years his elder and a member of the Loggers, showed him the ropes. They played on a primitive version of the now-immaculate Copeland Park field where Scott’s son, Tyler, also a catcher, won a Northwoods League summer college championship with the Loggers in 2012 – with Scott in attendance.
It was at Copeland Park – where his name is emblazoned in cement as an original member of the La Crosse Area Baseball Hall of Fame – that Servais learned just how realistic a pro career could be. Another uncle – Mark Servais, a longtime scout with the Cubs – asked a scouting friend, Stan Zielinsky, to take a look at Scott to assess his potential in case he was biased in his nephew’s favor. Mark ran Scott through a workout at Copeland Park as Zielinsky watched intently.
“He sat down afterward and said, ‘You’re going to get drafted,’ ” Servais recalled.
Not even Zielinsky realized how high, however. He had speculated maybe the 20th round when they talked after the workout. Three weeks later, on his 18th birthday, Servais was taken in the second round by the New York Mets, 48th overall, and just 12 picks after a tall pitcher named Randy Johnson. Servais became the highest-drafted player that year not to sign, choosing to attend Creighton instead of taking what was then a hefty bonus offer of $45,000.
It was an agonizing decision that raised the ire of the Mets area scout who had recommended Servais, Terry Ryan, who went on to become the longtime general manager of the Twins. Servais and Ryan eventually reconciled years later and became good friends after an air-clearing meeting in the stands at a minor league ballpark in Portland. Servais was drafted in the third round by the Astros in 1988 after his junior year at Creighton, signed, and began an 11-year major league career in 1992.
After leaving Copeland Park, we went by the Heileman Brewery where Old Style Beer used to be produced, and headed off to Coon Valley. On the way, we drove past the high school field in La Crosse where Servais’ uncle Mark lived across the street. Every day after school, Scott would drive to the field, and he and Mark would toss over a bucket of balls and then hop the fence for a workout.
Then we hit Highway 14 for the 20-minute drive to Coon Valley, up 10-Mile Hill to the crest of the ridge and then down Coon Valley Hill into town.
“I’ve driven this a million times,” Servais said, noting that La Crosse, the comparative “big city” of 50,000, was where kids in Coon Valley often went on dates.
In the winter, the icy highway can be treacherous. One of the seminal moments of Servais’ youth was the funeral of a teenager who crashed when he lost control driving on Highway 14 one winter. Servais was an altar boy at the Catholic church in Coon Valley where the service was held, and he still remembers the high school athletes he looked up to as heroes all sobbing.
We drove by Mt. La Crosse, the slope where Servais learned to ski. He and his brother paid for the $120 membership fee by mowing the lawn at the Catholic church with a push mower for $10 apiece. We drove past a roadside restaurant owned by the quarterback on his high school team, who was nicknamed “Rube” after former major leaguer Rube Marquard. Everyone had a nickname, Servais said; his was “Scooter.”
“If people show up at a game, even in the big leagues when I was playing and now managing, and they yell, ‘Scooter!’ I will turn around,” he said.
A week later, Servais said, it would be hunting season, and the numerous tree stands we passed would be dotted with orange-clad hunters. Back in the old days, he added, his dad and uncle would know the owners and backstory of every family farm that dotted the road. That world doesn’t exist anymore.
Finally, just beyond his dad’s store, the town in all its quaint glory materializes ahead, with its “American Graffiti” sensibility along the main drag, Central Avenue. There are three restaurant/bars among other a handful of other businesses and shops. There used to be a jail and one cop, but no longer. Servais pointed out the Kwik-Trip convenience store, which served as the de facto youth center of Coon Valley.
“The first video games that ever came into town were at Kwik-Trip,” Servais said. “I would ride my bike to Kwik-Trip, and we’d hang out there. It was either there or the ballpark.”
Across the street was the now-closed Coon Valley Co-Op Creamery, which once produced its own cheese and milk. (We later stopped at the Creamery in Westby for some cheese curds, because how could you not? Alas, we didn’t sample what was billed as the best cottage cheese in the country.)
“This is Coon Valley, boys,” Servais announces to me and photographer Dean Rutz, who accompanies us. “This is where I come from.”
More specifically, Servais comes from 702 Lien Street, where his parents built their house in 1971 for $18,000. It was the only one in town with an aboveground pool, so kids flocked there in the summer. In the nearby open farmland, Scott and his brothers would toboggan and ski down hills in the winter, fashioning rudimentary ski jumps.
“We were crazy,” Servais said. “We spent hours and hours up there. Three boys – it was, ‘How can we break our leg?’ ”
Mostly, though, it was baseball. His best friend, Mark Nordstrom, whose dad, Charlie, helped build the robust youth baseball programs in the area, lived across the street and was his inseparable companion and teammate. Mark’s older brother, Kip, coached Scott from age 6 through 16 and is credited by Servais, along with his uncles, for honing his baseball acumen. From his dad, Dan, an all-state wrestler in high school, and mother Marybeth, Servais got unending support as well as his work ethic, which Hoven held up as the standard for all his athletes.
“I’m sure a lot of kids say this, but I truly believe we had the best neighborhood ever growing up,” said Kip Nordstrom, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career coaching high school baseball.
“You’ve heard the old saying, it takes a village to raise a child? You’ll never find it in a truer sense than it was in Coon Valley, Wisconsin.”
Nordstrom told me of the epic Wiffle ball games in a nearby corner lot. They climbed a ladder one night to put a dab of paint on the third story of a nearby house right field to mark the home-run line.
“We had a neighbor who would keep stats for us playing Wiffle ball,” he said. “So this was hot and heavy at least two or three times a week. And then we’d go down to the park. If we had enough guys, we would play a full-scale scrimmage.”
When Servais was older, Nordstrom remembers seeing the lights on at the Coon Valley ballpark at night, and driving by to take a look.
“There’s Scott taking swings, but who the heck is pitching? Who’s feeding him? I get closer – well, it’s his wife,” Nordstrom said. “He’s got her down there at 10 o’clock, 10:30 at night, tossing him soft-toss pitches because he had a bad night at the plate.”
On that field, as we’ve seen, it was truly a labor of love for the Servaises.
As we drive out of town toward Westby, the site of Servais’ high-school exploits (including a home run literally off the light tower, and a blockbuster game with, unbeknown to him, the Mets’ assistant general manager attendance), he says, with a shrug, “This is all there is in Coon Valley.”
Clearly, it is more than enough.