Hartls honor signature Christmas
ESDAILE - Braden Hartl got his priceless baseball two years ago, and he got it for nothing from a stranger he simply knows as Donna.
The awe on the 11-year-old's face that Christmas Eve when he saw the famous signature was all the payment she told him she'd ever want.
On Christmas Eve this year, Hartl, his three siblings and their parents revved up their Rally Baseball Bat Co.'s lathe and repaid her as best they could: They gave away bats - more than a hundred of them - to any kid 14 and under who wanted one.
As a bonus, Minnesota Twins batting coach Joe Vavra helped custom fit each child with a bat.
Measured from fingertip to sternum, Devon Schultz, 6, took a 27-inch maple bat in his hands. He practiced a few smooth swings under Vavra's guidance.
"Wood bats are heavier than aluminum so that bat will be good. He can build some muscle, get some good reps in," Vavra explained to Schultz's aunt, who heard about the giveaway and brought her daughters and nephews from Hampton, Minn.
A few older baseball players asked about hitting tips. Vavra obliged, and he also told them why using a wood bat would make them better hitters.
"When you learn to hit with a wood bat, you learn to hit correctly," Vavra said. "You should hit a baseball on the bat's sweet spot. If you don't, it will break."
Parents whispered to their children waiting in line, "That's Joe Mauer's coach" and "He teaches the Twins how to hit."
Vavra also happens to be a high school buddy of Randy Hartl, Braden's dad. Vavra donated his time because of Randy, Anita Hartl and their kids's generosity.
The Hartls, who live in Cannon Falls, have run the Rally Bat Co. for five years. They primarily make maple and ash bats for the area's amateur baseball teams, but this month they made plenty of youth bats. Everyone made bats -- Braden, Nolan, 10, Parker, 8, and Kressen, their 6-year-old sister who's not so keen about baseball but understands about giving gifts.
"The kids are learning what Christmas is all about," she said. Randy added. "This is really Anita's and my Christmas this year. We're not exchanging presents."
Across the factory floor, Braden worked the crowded room. He helped families, fetched things for his parents and occasionally took in children's expressions of awe and joy.
He also talked a little about "the ball" and that Christmas Eve two years.
His mom had taken a break from shopping, cooking and wrapping to browse Craigslist. She came across an interesting post from a Minneapolis resident who had a signed baseball in a china hutch that she wanted to give away. Just send an e-mail explaining why your kid would like the ball and, if chosen, come pick up it.
Anita e-mailed her:
"Do you still have the ball? My son would just go crazy over this. He is 11 years old and baseball is his life! We had to go stand in line for 3 hours to see Kent Hrbek this summer, and then Braden was too awestruck to even talk to him. Wow, you will sure make some kid's Christmas! May God Bless You!"
The woman called 45 minutes later.
While the Hartls wondered if the offer was "for real," Braden said, they decided it was worth the drive.
Randy hopped in the car with his oldest son and drove to Minneapolis. Braden said he didn't know where they were going or why.
"We drove by all these boarded up houses," he said, grimacing at the recollection. "There, kind of in the middle, was a house all decorated with Christmas lights ... out came this woman."
Confused, he watched as the woman showed him a baseball, then rotated it to show him a signature -- Kirby Puckett.
"Can I hold it?" he asked.
"Hold it? You can have it. Merry Christmas."
The family started planning. Since they moved into a new house Cannon Falls shortly before Christmas 2008, they decided to share Donna's Christmas spirit this year.
All they required was anyone wanting a signature bat come pick it up in tiny Esdaile, tucked away in Pierce County a couple miles from Bay City. While the ball was signed by legend Kirby Puckett, each baseball bat carries the signature of child -- a future baseball star, perhaps -- who received it.
"My dad had always had the dream of giving away bats for Christmas. When we got the Kirby Puckett ball, we felt we had to do it," Braden said. "This is kind of a return favor to her."