Tri-City Red’s Mezzenga adds to MVP list

Despite not coming into existence until 1990, the Tri-City Red American Legion baseball team has racked up the most Fourth District Most Valuable Player awards. Tri-City picked up No. 13 this summer with the selection of Ben Mezzenga.

Mezzenga has played three years of American Legion baseball and has one more remaining. He was selected as the district MVP through a coach vote on the final day of the regular season, and he was announced as the winner at the annual district banquet, which was held July 29.

“It was kind of a shock to me because of all the great players in our district,” Mezzenga said. “I was honored and humbled at the same time.”

Although Mezzenga was given the award last week, he knew about it prior to that. Tri-City Red head coach Steve Grasley gave him a heads-up shortly after the vote.

“Coach called me and said, ‘You’ve been playing well this year and I’m happy to inform you that you earned the MVP award,’” Mezzenga said. “That was a nice phone call to get.”

Mezzenga is the third straight Tri-City Red player to be named MVP. Last year the award went to Sam Hentges, and in 2012 Max Knutson was the honoree. Hentges could have come back this summer to try and win it again, but he chose to sign a professional contract with the Cleveland Indians and is spending his summer pitching in the minor leagues in Arizona. Knutson is a member of the University of Nebraska baseball team and played this summer in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

With another year left of high school, Mezzenga is a ways away from playing college baseball, but that would appear to the route he is headed. He has received plenty of recruiting interest from a number of Division I programs.

Mezzenga is a Shoreview resident who attends Totino-Grace High School. He tried out for Tri-City Red in 2012 following his freshman year in high school and earned a spot on the roster thanks in large part to his speed. He was double-rostered, which meant he could play with Tri-City Red or his VFW team, but it didn’t take long for Grasley and the rest of the coaching staff to see that Mezzenga would be staying up with the legion team.

“We saw him at tryouts and obviously thought he had a lot of potential,” Grasley said. “Then on the first day in Fargo, he went 9-for-9 with four walks. After about the sixth hit, I was in the dugout and said ‘Who is this kid?’”

With Mezzenga on the team, that gave Tri-City Red four outfielders who would be in the everyday lineup so one needed to find a new position. It ended up being Brett Becker, who moved to second base, while the outfield consisted of Mezzenga, Quinn Madsen and Knutson when he wasn’t pitching.

Mezzenga went on to make the all-district team that year as Tri-City Red won the district tournament and advanced to the state tournament.

“He’s the hardest-working guy on the team,” said Grasley, a former Fourth District MVP himself. “He’s really matured as a leader. He’s a captain this year as a junior. Guys follow him. If you’re ever confused about something, look at what Ben’s doing and do that.”

Speed is Mezzenga’s biggest asset, and he has learned to use it to his advantage offensively and defensively.

“He’s a game-changer at the top of our lineup with his speed,” Grasley said. “There’s a lot of fast guys out there but he knows how to run the bases. He gets good leads, he gets good jumps. He knows when to take a chance and when not to. Having him at the top of our lineup gives us a distinct advantage. He covers some pretty crazy ground out there.”

Mezzenga entered the state tournament last week batting .571 with an on-base percentage well over .600. He led the team in a number of other offensive categories, including runs scored (42), runs batted in (33), hits (60), total bases (71) and stolen bases (30).

Personal statistics aren’t that important to Mezzenga, however.

“My friends try to tell me and I’m like, ‘Nope, keep that away from me,’” said Mezzenga. “I don’t like to look at that stuff. I’ve caught myself focusing on that in past years and that’s when I start to go down. Let me just have fun and play the game. As long as I’m focusing on winning, I seem to do pretty well.”
In addition to baseball, Mezzenga also plays football and hockey at Totino-Grace, although hockey is up in the air for the upcoming year. He missed the hockey season last year after suffering an injury late in the football season.

Mezzenga attended public school in the Mounds View district through middle school before enrolling at Totino-Grace. He followed the family tradition of attending Totino-Grace but returned to his Shoreview friends for summer baseball with Tri-City Red.

Following his sophomore year at Totino-Grace, the school formed its own American Legion summer team and Grasley was afraid he might lose Mezzenga to the new squad.

“We called him and knew it might have been a tough decision for him,” Grasley said. “With all his buddies from Totino, I’m sure he was getting some pressure from them. We just let him make the decision and he chose to stay with us and we were happy to hear it. It takes a lot of guts to do that.”

Mezzenga said he felt some pressure to join the new team, but his Totino-Grace friends and coaches understood his decision to stick with Tri-City Red.

“There was a little bit [of pressure], but they saw my success as a freshman on this team,” said Mezzenga. “I told some of my friends at Totino-Grace how excited I was to play on this team again in the summer. Coaches probably saw my attitude towards it and didn’t hold it against me during spring.”

Brian Meyers can be reached at bmeyers@lillienews.com.

 

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