Originally published in Issue No. 13 of The Nutshell
When Sam Wolff found out he was traded to the San Francisco Giants, the first person he thought of was Mark Ellis.
"Mark Ellis was a Rapid City kid growing up and someone I always idolized because he was that guy that made it to the major leagues from Rapid City, South Dakota," Wolff said. "He had a great career - he played over 10 years in the big leagues."
Wolff, a fellow Rapid City, S.D., native, remembers taking a trip to San Francisco to visit family in the area and having the chance to see Ellis play in San Francisco against the Giants while Ellis was with the Oakland Athletics.
"It was the first time I'd seen him play on a major league team at a major league field, and so that was really cool for me growing up," Wolff said. "I remember the big glove and the big Coke bottle out in the left field and the bay right behind right field. It's just a unique field - there's no field that's like that. It was really a lot of fun just to see (Ellis) in that atmosphere."
Wolff, now a pitcher, grew up idolizing Ellis, one of nine Rapid City natives to ever reach the major leagues, according to Baseball-Reference.com. When he got older, Wolff followed in Ellis' footsteps and played for the local American Legion team, the Rapid City Post 22 Hardhats.
"Growing up, I was a position guy - an infielder - and he was someone I always looked up to," Wolff said. "I always wanted to be kind of like him. My dad actually coached him when he was coming up through Legion baseball. He was one of the assistant coaches for the Legion program back when they won the World Series one of the years (Ellis) was with them."
The climate in Rapid City, nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota, makes it nearly impossible to play baseball year-round. Wolff played for his high school, but there's more focus on Legion baseball because "half of your high school season gets snowed out," according to Wolff. For him, though, the longer winters and snow was a blessing in disguise.
"The weather forced you to do different things. Summertime was lakes and baseball and anything outdoors - fishing, hiking, camping," Wolff said. "Wintertime, it was basketball, snowboarding, ice skating, all that stuff. I was able to play basketball, play football, run track, snowboard, I wrestled for a little while, did hockey for a bit to where it forced me to do all these different sports and kind of become a more well-rounded athlete. I always had that drive to get back to baseball - I couldn't wait for baseball season to come around."
The Hardhats are a family affair for the Wolffs in Rapid City, a city of a little less than 70,000 people as of the 2010 census. Sam Wolff, his dad Steve, uncle and two brothers all played for the same Post 22 American Legion team in Rapid City and all were coached by Dave Ploof, the winningest coach in the history of Legion baseball.
"Baseball's always been a true passion of mine, instilled in me when I was a young kid with my dad and older brothers," Sam Wolff said. "We're kind of a baseball family."
Ploof, who guided the Hardhats for 47 years, was the coach when Steve Wolff was the team's player of the year in 1979, when Ellis led the Hardhats to the team's only Legion World Series title in 1993 and when Sam Wolff was the program's top hitter in 2008. Steve Wolff went on to play a few seasons in the San Diego Padres organization. Coincidentally, both Steve and Sam began their professional careers with the Spokane Indians.
"When I was drafted (by the Texas Rangers) and got told I was going there, he told me right away, 'That's awesome, I've been there. That's where I started,'" Sam Wolff said.
Wolff spent five years in the Rangers' organization before getting traded to the Giants in December of 2017. After posting a 1.78 ERA in 25 relief appearances for the Richmond Flying Squirrels in 2019, he was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento on Aug. 22. Now, Wolff is a step closer to joining Ellis as a "Rapid City kid" to play in the big leagues.
"I remember watching my childhood role model play (in San Francisco)," Wolff said. "It's a cool attachment."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.