Photos by Joe Kerlin and NDSU Athletics
Jeremiah Piepkorn talks pro ball and life after the game.
Staples-Motley Elementary School teacher Jeremiah Piepkorn has put his professional baseball days behind him and is now focusing on two little leaguers of his own.
Jeremiah Piepkorn couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The first-year teacher at Staple-Motley Elementary School was staring at a piece of his baseball-playing past in the hallways and classrooms that surround his current reality. The school’s secretary was given a mission after one of the books in the library was damaged. But who knew that mission would bring back so many fond memories for Piepkorn?
The book “Baseball for Fun!” is about teaching young ball players the fundamentals of the game. But this edition was different. Piepkorn was looking at his No. 11 signature on the book’s inside cover. “Really random,” Piepkorn said. “Somehow after 20 years of whatever, someone had this book, ordered it online and it happened to be sent to my work from when I was in college.”
Years – 4
Games – 168
Batting Average – .363
Slugging Percentage – .732
Hits – 214
Home Runs – 49 (NDSU Record)
Runs Scored – 168
RBI – 172 (NDSU Record)
Total Bases – 431 (NDSU Record
If you flip through the archive of NDSU baseball, Piepkorn’s name is planted everywhere. Most home runs? Piepkorn. Most RBIs? Piepkorn. Most runs scored? Piepkorn. He doesn’t say a peep about any of the numbers nearly 15 years later while sitting in his classroom that’s filled with kindergartners though third graders for eight hours of the day. The tall, way-too-big-for-a-school-desk Piepkorn just mentions his teammates and the fun they had together inside the Newman Outdoor Field dugouts.
“I don’t think I would’ve gotten the looks if I wasn’t around such a good group of guys that had potential and ability,” said the All-American shortstop. “Honestly, I had some pretty good players I was playing with and there were scouts looking at those guys, and I just happened to have a few decent games.”
Piepkorn likes putting his former teammates Matt Mann, Todd Sather, Jason Brueske and others in the spotlight. It’s these bonds that were built when he played for Mitch McLeod from 2000-04 that are still strong today.
“We had such a good group of guys and a good overall team chemistry that it really helped playing and getting looks,” Piepkorn said.
Professional scouts started swarming his junior year when the Los Angeles Dodgers told Piepkorn he would be selected on the second day of the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. At the time, Piepkorn was playing in the Northwoods League for the Mankato MoonDogs. The call never came and he went back to NDSU for his senior season in 2004. It was a spring that ended with NDSU raising the North Central Conference tournament championship trophy.
After the season, a few organizations were in a race to sign Piepkorn, who again went undrafted. It was his decision to make so he did it the old-fashioned way—with a pros and cons list. In the end, Piepkorn chose to sign with the Cincinnati Reds. A couple days later, he was suiting up for the Dayton Dragons in A-ball.
The Memorable Summer
The summer of 2004 was a period Piepkorn will never forget, but for all the wrong reasons. He played 28 games and struggled to find his groove at the plate. In his final game, something clicked. Piepkorn was locked in and went 3-for-3 and scored the game-winning run. Later that night, he was in the emergency room.
“I was just pretty sure that was it, I thought I was done,” Piepkorn said.
He checked himself into a local hospital with extreme stomach pain. The doctor’s thought it was his appendix. They removed it and sent him home hopped up on painkillers. The following morning, the meds wore off and the pain was worse. He could barely get himself back to the hospital. Playing for the Dragons that night was out of the question. Piepkorn was in the hospital for the next week. What the Reds’ minor leaguer contracted was the type of food poisoning that festers in people’s systems for 48 hours before it rears its ugly head. It was the kind that kills 3,000 people in the United States every year.
“It took me over a year to recover from that with what I could eat and what I could not eat, and putting the weight back on and getting my strength back,” explained Piepkorn, who lost 65 pounds from the illness. “It was pretty bad.”
“I was just pretty sure that was it, I thought I was done.” – Jeremiah Piepkorn
Weak, torn away from baseball and on the 90-day disabled list, the Reds thought Piepkorn wouldn’t even bother showing up for spring training. He went four months before resuming baseball activity and knew his career was hanging in the balance. When he signed with the Reds in 2004, he weighed 212 pounds, and after working his tail off to bounce back from his illness, Piepkorn surprised everyone when he showed up to Reds’ spring camp weighing a solid 225 in 2005.
“I just tore the cover off the ball, played a bunch of different positions and I had a great spring,” Piepkorn said.
Minor League Career
Years – 4
Games – 351
Batting Average – .249
Slugging Percentage – .421
Hits – 332
Home Runs – 45
Runs Scored – 180
RBI – 214
Total Bases – 561
Although, the Reds were not sure what to do with the 24-year-old. When cut day arrived to determine the 40-man roster, Piepkorn’s name was left off the list. But that was expected. What he didn’t expect was to be left off the minor league rosters, too. It was a blow that he remembers vividly.
“I had the low-A manager, the Double-A coach and Triple-A coach, all come up to me and tell me that they were fighting to get me on their team, but the ownership had different ideas, so it was pretty tough,” said Piepkorn. “I was pretty much borderline in tears because I thought well, this is it.”
The Reds put Piepkorn in what is called “extended spring training.” He was basically stuck in Sarasota, Florida, where the Reds had spring training, working out with teenage foreign players and waiting for management to decide his future.
Piepkorn was stuck in baseball purgatory. He was a low-money player the organization had little invested in. He wasn’t given the same opportunities as draft picks and his .168 batting average from his first summer in A-ball didn’t give the organization confidence that he could turn it around. Then, former Red Sox infielder and Cincinnati Reds player development director Tim Naerhing pulled Piepkorn aside.
“I know this is really tough, but just try to stick it out for a little bit because there’s going to be a spot, we’re going to find a spot for you,” Naerhing told Piepkorn. The current New York Yankees’ Vice President of Baseball Operations was right, and Piepkorn got his call to the Reds’ High-A team across town in Sarasota.
The former Bison didn’t see the field until his second night in uniform. When he stepped to the plate, he blasted a home run, which was a proverbial “shove it” to the people in the organization that didn’t believe in him.
Piepkorn led all Reds minor leaguers in home runs in 2005—a year after he thought his career, and maybe life, was about to end. He remained in the Reds organization for two more seasons and sniffed Double-A once in 2007. A hamstring injury sustained in Sarasota handicapped Piepkorn’s seven games in Double-A Chattanooga, and the Reds passed on resigning Piepkorn before the 2008 season.
Life After The Minor Leagues
During the off-seasons, Piepkorn would return home to central Minnesota to his wife Cassie. He would substitute teach in school districts in the Brainerd area. That’s what he was doing when the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and manager Doug Simunic called Piepkorn and asked him to join the club. The former Bison was staying in relative baseball-shape, playing with his town’s amateur team and participating in slow-pitch softball once a week. But it was nowhere near the grind of American Association baseball.
“I didn’t really have any goals or expectations other than I felt like I could play. I just wanted to enjoy it still,” Piepkorn said. His first son, Bodie, was on the way when he signed with the RedHawks in 2008. He would play with the RedHawks until retiring after the 2010 season.
FM Redhawks Career
Years – 4
Games – 170
Batting Average – .316
Slugging Percentage – .521
Hits – 213
Home Runs – 31
Runs Scored – 117
RBI – 132
Total Bases – 352
Piepkorn did make his return to the RedHawks for 15 games in 2013. Fans will remember his walk-off grand slam, which is still brought up when he runs into somebody who remembers him in the FargoMoorhead area.
It’s the fond memories like this that he’s been able to pass to his two sons Bodie (9) and Brooks (6). The grand slam is the one that sticks out with his sons who happened to be in the crowd that night.
Piepkorn has quite the collection of memories from his time in the minors, like when he had a conversation with Ken Griffey Sr. or the time he was one of the two guys to get a hit off Justin Verlander when he was rising through the Detroit Tigers’ organization. But the grand slam still reigns supreme in the memory of Bodie and Brooks, along with the endless hours in the RedHawks clubhouse with their dad, Nick Jackson and Zach Penprase.
Today, the Piepkorn family lives in Baxter, Minnesota. Cassie works in Crosby and Piepkorn in Staples. He stays busy by coaching his sons on the diamond. He’s taking it slow, but knows they’ll soon learn all of his tricks and tips when it comes to being the best ball player they can be.
Finally, Piepkorn allows himself some credit and said, “Maybe at some point, my kids will realize that their old man was a decent player.”