Steve Preisler had just finished leading the crowd in the traditional seventh-inning stretch singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," recently at First National Bank of River Falls Field when a woman in the crowd leaned over to her friend and asked, "Is that guy drunk?"
Preisler considered it a compliment.
That's because the 77 year-old Preisler doesn't just sing "Take Me Out to the Ballpark." He performs it with all the classic mannerisms and quirky nuances of the late, great baseball broadcaster Harry Caray, who was famous for his rendition of the song at Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs games for over 30 years and known to enjoy an occasional Budweiser or two.
"I love doing it," Preisler said about his impersonation of Caray. "I love interacting with the crowd."
In addition to his love of baseball, Preisler also loves performing. He became involved with the River Falls Community Theatre shortly after moving to River Falls in 2006 making his RFCT debut in "Cheaper by the Dozen," in 2007 before becoming a fixture in RFCT's one-act comedies.
"Odd thing about that," he noted. "I played a drunk every time."
Preisler was finally able to combine his love of baseball and theater when he wrote and performed a version of the classic Abbott and Costello routine, "Who's on First," with local actor and artist David Markson a few years ago.
"It was my all-time favorite sketch and became sort of a bucket list sort of thing for me," he said. "I made it a River Falls themed 'Who's On First for the Fightin' Fish?' For the finale of our play I decided to insert another bucket list item of mine-- a Harry Caray type version of 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game.' One of the lines in my script was, 'I could become the Harry Caray of River Falls.'
Little did he know how true that line would turn out to be.
Preisler began doing his Harry Caray routine, complete with barrel-shaped, black-framed glasses, at River Falls Fighting Fish games in 2016, opening each version with Caray's signature, "OK, let me hear ya now!" and ending with his classic, "Holy Cow! Let's get some runs!" But instead of "Root, root root for the Cubbies!" like Caray used to sing at Wrigley Field, Preisler croons "Root, root, root for the Fishies!"
Preisler said he was destined to be a baseball junkie from his early days growing up in Hartland, Wis.
"I had two older brothers who played 'work-up' on the neighborhood farm yard diamonds, and I would watch them and even get invited in as the youngest, smallest kid in the game because they didn't have enough players," he said. "The other kids just took the word of my brothers who would say 'let Stevie play. He can handle it.'"
Preisler was a sophomore on the first team from Hartland to qualify for the high school state tournament. He won a batting title playing amateur ball in the Land 'O Lakes League, and was a big fan of the old Milwaukee Braves.
"I got to witness Aaron and Matthews and Spahn and Burdette and Adcock and Crandall and the list goes on," he said. "Then came Harvey's Wallbangers and Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Gorman Thomas, Cecil Cooper, Ted Simmons; those were great times in my life."
But he wasn't even the biggest baseball fan in his family. That title went to his mother Leona.
"She would set us in front of our 10-inch round screen black and white TV during the World Series," he said. "To have a mom who knew more about baseball than the average person? I'd walk into the room and she'd be watching the game and all of a sudden I'd hear, 'Oh no! Don't bring that guy in!'"
Preisler's playing days lasted until he was chasing 40 years-old, interrupted only by a three year stint in the U.S. Marines from 1964-67. After the Marines he owned and operated a Standard Oil Service station-Steve's Standard-for 8 1/2-years in Hartland. He sold the station during the energy crisis of the 1970's and spent the rest of his working career in sales.
"I just felt like I needed to do something different and sales turned out to be the best thing to happen to me," he said.
Preisler and his wife Diane raised their two daughters, Mara and Elizabeth, in Pewaukee where Diane spent 30 years as a teacher in the Hartland Arrowhead School District. After Diane retired the couple moved to River Falls to be closer to their children, who by then were raising families of their own in Red Wing and Little Canada, Minn.
That's when Preisler's love of baseball was rekindled with a visit to First National Bank of River Falls Field.
"When my family moved to Hartland in 1954 and I saw they had a lighted baseball field in Hartland, every time the lights were on I was there," he said. "And now to come to River Falls and see this magnificent ballpark that we have here, it's one of the highlights. And to watch our Fighting Fish and American Legion teams be so successful, that's really a treat."
While Preisler's portrayal of Harry Caray has satisfied one item on his bucket list, that list now includes another challenge-whipping cancer-after becoming the fourth member of his family in the last six years to be diagnosed with the dreaded disease. Cancer took his wife Diane in June of 2013 then claimed his brother Roger a year later before his oldest brother Carl unexpectedly succumbed to the disease this past April.
Preisler has been diagnosed with a rare melanoma and recently had surgery to remove a small tumor from his rectum. He will now take part in a medical research study being overseen by his oncologist at the Mayo Clinic. After witnessing the effects chemotherapy had on his wife and brother, he said he's pleased to go another route.
"I've seen enough cancer that I understand how it works," he said. "I don't think you're ever prepared for it, but if anybody will be, it will be me."
Then his voice rose as he doubled down on his determination to fight the disease
"I have news for effin' cancer," he said. "You have three strikes! Now get out of my life!"
Harry Caray couldn't have said it any better.