Host of big leaguers hail from small-town life
Luebke, Stammen show smallest communities can produce Major League talent
Cory Luebke did not know much about manure.
One Spring Training morning, Padres manager Bud Black asked Luebke to deliver a presentation about his hometown of Maria Stein, Ohio. In preparation, the pitcher scanned the Internet for notable natives from his community. He found mentions of only himself and Joseph Oppenheim, the inventor of the mechanized manure spreader.
"It wasn't a very long presentation," Luebke said. "There's not a whole lot going on in the area."
Major Leaguers hail from all across the globe, from backgrounds of every variation. That includes players, such as Luebke, who originate from towns too small to even merit a spot on most maps.
Yankees slugger Travis Hafner finished as valedictorian of a class of eight students at his high school in Sykeston, N.D. The hometown of Tigers outfielder Andy Dirks -- Haven, Kan. -- occupies a little more than half of a square mile. After spending his summers playing before crowds of 30,000, Nationals reliever Craig Stammen visits his native North Star, Ohio, which hosts a population of slightly more than 200.
"The way I grew up -- I wouldn't trade it for anything," said Stammen, who played against Luebke from Little League through high school.
It is one thing to stand out in a village of a few hundred people. It is another to receive the attention necessary to pursue a big league career.
"You just keep playing," said Stammen, who proceeded to play at the University of Dayton before the Nationals selected him in the 12th round of the 2005 Draft. "My thought was always to just get to the next level. Things worked out."
Luebke's hometown rests on about one square mile of land, a vast open plot that permits residents to spot ominous storm clouds rolling in from afar. Farmers can see rain in the distance before the precipitation arrives on their coveted soil. At sunset on a tranquil summer evening, the boundless horizon boasts vivid shades of orange and pink.
In the middle of town, across the street from a grain factory and an oil company, sits Buster and Jeff's Korner Kafe. Jeff Schwieterman's family has operated a restaurant at the intersection since 1961. Luebke's framed jersey hangs on one of the wood-paneled walls.
"I think everyone has that jersey hanging in this town," Schwieterman said.
The establishment overflows with patrons on Friday nights during high school football season. This fall, the Marion Local Flyers, who play their home games about a five-minute walk from the restaurant, will vie for their third consecutive state championship. But the former members of Division VI will do so in a new league.
"They created a Division VII, and we fell down into it," Schwieterman said. "That's how small we are."
A driver can start at the "Home of Major League pitcher Corey Luebke" sign and zip through Maria Stein in about 120 seconds, passing giant fields of grass, passing a handful of mailboxes bearing family surnames, passing children offering yellow plastic cups filled with lemonade for 50 cents. A golf cart repair shop serves as a boundary to the bordering community to the south.
"We don't even have a stoplight," Luebke said.
There is one stoplight in North Star, about 15 minutes southwest of Maria Stein. Stammen's town maintains a simple setup: The community centers around one main intersection.
"There's a plumbing store, a camper store, a gas station with a Subway," Stammen said. "That's about it."
Stammen is a bit overshadowed in his hometown. Renowned gunslinger Annie Oakley was born in the area in 1860. Just before the lineup of vibrant red and blue tractors and plows outside of North Star Hardware stands signage commemorating Oakley and welcoming travelers to the tiny town.
It presents a stark contrast to the cities that Major Leaguers tour throughout the season.
"Sometimes you're like, 'Man, this city is a lot bigger than anything I've ever seen,'" Dirks said.
Dirks' parents still hold the same jobs and dwell in the same house in which the outfielder was raised. A cluster of trees surrounds the abode, which sits on a large plot of crop land.
Haven does not have any traffic lights. It does have one four-way stop. It is the sort of town where everyone knows one another.
Maria Stein shares that trait. Schwieterman can point anyone in the direction of the Luebke household.
"When he's home, he usually stops by everywhere," Schwieterman said.
For Luebke, that is just a matter of returning the favor. Five years ago, the southpaw was pitching for the Class A Fort Wayne TinCaps before droves of friends and family, who made the trek of 1 1/2 hours via school bus to watch his starts.
Now, the town of Maria Stein watches from afar as Luebke continues his recovery from elbow surgery.
Setting up for a modest dinner rush, Schwieterman surveys his beer supply. He asks his son -- perched on an adjacent bar stool -- if he had heard any whispers about the hurler's progress in his rehabilitation.
Luebke has spent most of his recovery time in San Diego, where he has crossed paths with players from all over the planet.
"You grow up in that area, and you're kind of closed-minded, because you don't really know what the rest of the world has," Stammen said. "Meeting all of these people from different cities and part of the country, it's opened my eyes, and it's neat to be able to play with those kinds of people and learn how they grew up and apply it to your life."
Luebke's presentation that spring morning was the only one to involve details about the methods of dispersing manure. It was not the only intriguing one, though.
"Everybody has an interesting story when you get up here," Luebke said. "There are so many ways guys make it up to this level, and they come from so many different places."