May 25—Robbie Laughlin had been following Jake Hjelle’s college baseball season.
Laughlin, the manager of the Wheat City Whiskey Jacks, knew he was going to have Hjelle this summer in the Expedition League, which features college players and wood bats. To keep up, the manager checked box scores and talked to those who knew Hjelle, the former East Grand Forks baseball standout.
But Monday morning was the first time Laughlin got to see him hit in person.
The Whiskey Jacks took batting practice at Kraft Field, where they’ll call home this season because the U.S.-Canada border closing means they can’t travel to and from their normal home in Brandon, Man. Laughin took notice when Hjelle was at the plate.
“To be honest, the ball jumps off his bat different than everyone else’s,” Laughlin said. “He’s someone I’m really excited to be around this summer. I think he’s going to be pretty good for us.”
The Whiskey Jacks open the season at 7:05 p.m. tonight against the Souris Valley Sabre Dogs in Minot. The home opener is 7:05 p.m. Friday against the Sioux Falls Sunfish at Kraft Field.
Hjelle is coming off of an excellent freshman year at Minnesota-Crookston, where he batted .336 and had an OPS (on-base average plus slugging percentage) of 1.102. He helped the Golden Eagles to a third-place finish in the Northern Sun and they narrowly missed an NCAA tournament berth.
Hjelle originally expected to play baseball in Saskatchewan this summer. The border closing, due to the coronavirus pandemic, forced him to change plans.
He heard about the Whiskey Jacks moving operations to Grand Forks for the summer and told Golden Eagles coach Steve Gust he’d like to try that. Gust contacted Laughlin and put the wheels in motion.
“I’m just grateful an opportunity like this came by,” Hjelle said. “I’m grateful that coach Laughlin gave me a chance to play for them and I’m excited to play in front of my family the whole summer and all my friends that have been my friends my whole life.”
Hjelle, who played first base for the Golden Eagles, will play there, right field or left field for the Whiskey Jacks.
“I feel comfortable with him in any spot, whether it’s corner outfield or at first,” Laughlin said. “He moves really well. I think it’s going to come down to what we have to do to keep his bat in the lineup. By no means is he a bad defender, but his biggest value is definitely offensively.”
The Whiskey Jacks will start the season with 21 of their expected 32 players. Eleven are still playing for their college teams in the postseason.
Hjelle will use this summer to try to find ways to improve before his sophomore season with the Golden Eagles.
“One thing I really want to work on is my plate discipline and being able to recognize off-speed pitches a little better,” he said. “I also want to try new positions — get away from first, not completely, but play some third and outfield.”
Whiskey Jacks at-a-glance
Usual home: Brandon, Man.
2021 home: Kraft Field, Grand Forks.
Home opener: 7:05 p.m. Friday vs. Sioux Falls Sunfish.