Our MBL Insider caught up with A.J. Brandenburg from Belle Plaine 12AAA. A.J. is a hard-throwing lefty with plus command, and he can play pretty much anywhere on defense. His coach, Scott Schulz, raves about him as being a great teammate and loves to coach him. Belle Plaine made the move to AAA this year, after playing 11AA last year. We covered a bunch of topics, from the move to AAA to A.J.’s best baseball memories to his thoughts on bat flips. And we got to hear from A.J.’s mom, Nikki, too!
MBL Insider: How’s your season going?
AJ: Season’s going really well! We’ve played great as a team.
MBL Insider: Best memory so far this season?
AJ: A couple weeks ago we played in the Burnsville Tournament. We played some good teams, and it was probably the best we’ve played all year. I pitched in one of our big games and my coach said it was one of the best performances he’s ever seen from me. So that was fun.
MBL Insider: You like pitching?
AJ: I love pitching. Most kids on our team pitch and I like how, if we ever get down, one of our teammates is able to come and pick the other guy up. We all really like pitching.
MBL Insider: How has the transition to AAA gone for your team and what are you learning?
AJ: Yeah, it’s fun. Our team has definitely learned a lot. Last year, if you made a couple mistakes, you were still in the game. This year if you make mistakes, you can fall behind pretty quickly. And we’ve played some games where we haven’t made many errors and it’s fun to get wins in those games. The competition has been really good. Overall, it’s more fun to compete with these other teams than to 10-run teams. If we play well, we can compete with any team we play. We’ve competed against some really good teams this year, and that has been really fun.
Nikki: It’s been a fun year. As parents, we’ve been surprised at how well the transition has gone to AAA. It seems to be a perfect fit for these kids. Even in tournaments, they’ve done okay, and in the league games, they’ve done great. It’s fun as parents to see the kids compete at this level. Just to be able to watch them, see them hit, compete with other AAA teams, and win games, too, that’s fun.
MBL Insider: What do you like about your coaches?
AJ: They’re really inspiring. They’re really good coaches. They’re a lot of fun to play for. We’ve gotten to know them really well over the past several years. They’ve been coaching us for a while, and it has just been a lot of fun. I like the way they teach us. They let us play our own game and teach us that if we get down, our teammates have to pick each other up.
MBL insider: What can you say about your teammates and how special it is to play with them?
AJ: Whenever anyone on our teams makes a bad play or gets down on themselves, the entire team won’t stop telling them to forget about it, move on to the next play. Our coaches say, “Next pitch.” Move on to the next pitch. There are kids on our team – like Colton (Mieseler), for example – he is so positive. He’s always talking to me, saying ‘Great job’ and encouraging everyone.
MBL Insider: You mentioned Colton. Anyone else on the team you admire?
AJ: I admire all of them. They are all great. There’s one kid, Emmett (Strauss), who, he and I play mainly the same positions, so we are always helping each other out. We get along really well. Give each other tips, that stuff.
Nikki: This group is really close. They’re all good friends. They go to the pool together, ride bikes to each other’s houses, hang out together. They’re really close and I think it helps them as a team so much on the field.
MBL Insider: How fun was it watching your brothers play in the state tournament last week? (AJ’s brothers, Jake and Ryan, played varsity for Belle Plaine H.S. this year, finishing as consolation champions.)
AJ: It was great. I was really proud of them. I love both of them. It’s fun they can play together. I wouldn’t really know baseball without them. They’re the ones who teach me everything. Give me all the tips, playing catch with them. Jake has been our catching coordinator sometimes, he coaches sometimes, and it’s fun having him around. Everyone on our team knows him and it’s just a lot of fun having him around.
MBL Insider: How exciting was it to play at the MBT State Tournament last year?
AJ: It was a lot of fun! There were so many great teams in that tournament. It’s fun to compete against the best teams and find out how our team compares. Our coaches always say, if we play our game and paly like we know we can, we can play against anyone in the state.
MBL Insider: What kind of bat do you use?
AJ: Blue, DeMarini, 30 inch, drop 8 or 10. Both my brothers have used it, so that’s cool.
MBL Insider: Any great hits with that bat you remember?
AJ: Probably last year. It ended up as a grand slam, one-hopped the fence. I knew it was good right when it hit my bat. I dead-sprinted out of the box, didn’t watch it. It was in a close game, too. So that was fun.
MBL Insider: What do you think about bat flips?
AJ: I’ve never hit one over the fence, so I’ve never had a chance to do that. But, I mean, it’s cool. As long as you don’t hit anyone with the bat. My brother almost hit his coach with a bat flip last year. (Laughs.)
MBL Insider: What does it mean to play for your city and represent your community every time you play?
AJ: It’s fun playing for this city. I’ve grown up in this city. I’ve known most of the kids on my team since I was five years old. It’s just fun to grow up together, play together for this town that we all love. We work hard together. When we get to high school, we want to represent Belle Plaine like my brothers, and make it to state.
MBL Insider: What would you tell a kid who’s not sure if they should play travel baseball?
AJ: If he loves baseball, he should definitely play. There are so many options. If you’re on a team and you want to play a different position, talk to your coach. Coaches are open to letting kids try new positions, to find out what you like. Don’t quit or choose not to play because you’re worried about that stuff. Our coaches have been really understanding over the years if we want to try something new. Most coaches are really good about talking to their players.
Nikki: It’s certainly affordable, compared to other options. And the competition is there for the kids to grow as ballplayers. You don’t have to travel like you would on a club team, and you’re still playing against really good talent. Every town is different, but we play 3-4 tournaments a year, and I really like the league play during the week. I like the competition in those games, and you don’t have to travel THAT far for those.
MBL Insider: What are some of the things your kids have learned from playing this sport – baseball?
Nikki: All our kids have grown in so many ways from baseball. The nature of the sport, the mental side of the game, not hitting well – that can ware on you. As parents, we can help our kids through those times, help them grow and learn good life lessons. You deal with the same struggles in life, so we are preparing them for life off the field as well.