GFI legends, past and present

Before the first pitch flies, Gerry Foster remarks on the storied history of the tournament.

Gerry Foster – Special to the Gazette

In former days the Grand Forks International was known as the Grand Forks Credit Union Labour Day Baseball Tournament. It’s a long label, yet it relates to a vital part of the event’s history. There are so many individual memories that players, fans, volunteers and sponsors carry with them to this day.

It’s easy to come and go, rushing onward from day to day, all the while discounting certain periods of life, both personal and community-related. Yet there are experiences which partly define us and the place where we live. Sometimes an effective remedy for this is to hear from those outside, from the visitors who were introduced to Grand Forks and Boundary Country because of this remarkable baseball extravaganza. Those who come as visitors — ballplayers, coaches and fans — and spend several days in this town, walking the streets, eating in restaurants and meeting the locals.

One of the athletes at the 1981 Labour Day baseball tournament was Jim O’Dell. He was on the roster of the Lewiston Truckers from Idaho, the summer name for the Lewis Clark State Warriors college team. They won the tournament that year, defeating the Surrey Hammers 16-5 in the final. O’Dell, from Shelton, Washington, was the hitting star of the game, with a double, three singles and four runs batted in. This was also the first year for flood lights at James Donald- son Park.

O’Dell went on to have an outstanding college career at LC State. In 1983, he was named the National Player of the Year for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. His batting average was .424, which included 30 homers, and it stoold for 30 years as a national record. His total of 136 runs batted in during the 1983 season has never been matched.

In 1981, O’Dell was drafted by the Cleveland Indians out of Lower Columbia College. He elected to continue with his education, enrolling at LC State. The following year, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the 1983 draft he was selected by the Houston Astros.

Not surprisingly, in 2013 this exceptional athlete, who showcased his talents in Grand Forks, was inducted into the Lewis Clark State Athletic Hall of Fame. He is also in the North West Athletic Conference Hall of Fame.

Recently I contacted Jim, asking him what he remembers about playing in the Grand Forks tournament. In a remarkable coincidence he said that he and his wife were just in Grand Forks the previous weekend on vacation!

He said that they drove by the field [James Donaldson Park] a couple of times, observing, “It still looks great!” Then he shared his impressions and recollections about that initial trip to Canada in the late summer of 1981.

“I remember the hotel we [he team] stayed in, which is still there, and I was in room number 39 which was my uniform number at Lewis Clark State.” The second memory he offered was, “The gas made my ’67 mustang run really well as we had to drive ourselves up there.”

O’Dell said that he “loved the Phoenix mine area while we were there as well.”

This is only one story from the thousands of ballplayers and fans who have visited our area because of the GFI. It brings a perspective to the event which is both meaningful and inspirational to the organizers, volunteers, fans and sponsors.

O’Dell’s professional playing career concluded at the Double-A, but his connection to the sport didn’t end there. He is currently the assistant head coach at Pierce College in Washington State, having also coached at Skagit Valley. Both of these college teams are in the Northwest Athletic Conference, a division that has seen many of its players participate at the GFI, primarily on the rosters of Washington State summer teams.

“I know many kids that I coach have played in that tourney as well,” O’Dell said. “It is fun to share stories with them!”

A celebrated GFI athlete from 38 years ago, in a special way, remains linked to our town and event — an inspirational story to be sure for GFI organizers, volunteers and fans. It is meaningful and heartening to not only hear the personal recollections from a former participant of this marvellous event, but to also value the interesting bond that continues.

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