It’s been 17 years since the Butte Copper Kings played baseball in town.
Those of us lucky enough to have attended Copper Kings games at Alumni Coliseum get to say we saw the likes of Julio Franco, Cecil Fielder, Francisco Rodriguez and Mike Napoli play baseball right here in the Mining City.
The name that came immediately to mind last week when I realized I was going to attend a Pioneer League baseball game for the first time since the Copper Kings took their talents to Casper, Wyoming, however, was none of those guys.
The guy I thought about was Toby Sanchez.
Sanchez played for the Billings Mustangs, and he was made in the mold of John Kruk, the stocky former big league first baseman. Sanchez had a really hard time playing in Butte in 1997. A really hard time.
That’s when Sanchez had the displeasure of meeting Billy Dunmire and his collection of third-base hecklers at Alumni Coliseum.
Baseball Reference lists Sanchez as 6-foot-1, 230 pounds when he played. I believe the 230, but that height must have been when Toby was wearing heels. He looked closer to 5-9 when he dug into the Butte batter’s box.
Dunmire, who was at least 100 pounds heavier (and a whole lot drunker) than he is today, took one look at Sanchez and gave him a nickname.
“Toby Sanchez,” Dunmire said. “It’s more like Tubby Sandwiches.”
For the rest of the night, Toby was Tubby. And every time Tubby had a bat in his hands — from the second he was in the on-deck circle until he was back in the dugout after a pop-out — he was serenaded by Billy and his Band of Misfits.
I don’t know if I’m proud or ashamed to say it, but I was one of those Misfits. In school these days, we would have earned a bully slip for every word we said. We’d be booted from the game if we were students at a high school game.
In minor league baseball 20 years ago, though, heckling was unregulated, and we didn’t have to worry about those stuffy school administrators.
You’ve seen Chris Farley sing “fat guy in a little coat,” in the movie “Tommy Boy.” Well, Tubby had a little bat.
“Fat guy with a little bat. Fat guy with a little bat.”
It started by the beer stand and portable bleachers on the third base side and slowly spread throughout the stadium.
“Fat guy with a little bat.”
It’s a catchy little tune. I still find myself singing it all the time. It also clearly bothered Sanchez, who didn’t get a hit that game.
He tried to not acknowledge the heckling following his last at bat, a weak popup on the infield.
“I don’t think that one’s got the distance, Tubby. Fat guy with a little bat. Fat guy with a little bat.”
Sanchez slammed his bat into the ground and kept his head down as he made his way back to the dugout.
When he made an error on the field, he also heard the song from a group of fans whose BMI was, for the most part, equal to or above Toby’s.
“Fat guy with a little glove.”
Sanchez, who played the corner infield positions and a little bit in the outfield during his year in Billings, played in 62 of the 72 Mustangs games that season, but the manager gave him the rest of the series off.
A sixth-round draft pick out of Cal State-Long Beach, Sanchez struck out 76 times that season. It must have felt like they all came on that one night in Butte.
Sanchez played for the Class A Charleston (West Virginia) AlleyCats in 1998. He then held onto the dream by playing on a variety of Independent League teams through 2001.
Overall, he played in 347 baseball games after he was drafted. I’ll bet that, to this day, if you ask him to name just one, he’ll immediately hear a catchy little jingle about his tiny bat.
Dunmire and the gang also made for a long series for Idaho Falls third baseman and Duke guard Trajan Langdon that same season. (2003 column)
They also angered a Copper King or three over the years. Billy ticked off the entire team one night when the Copper King game management team made the strategic error of giving the microphone to Billy to sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Among other modifications, Billy changed the words to “root, root, root for the Copper Kings … if they don’t win it’s the same.”
It wasn’t Billy’s fault the Copper Kings seemed to always be 20 games below .500. He just had the poor taste to point it out in a song.
We’ve got a new ballpark in Butte. Since news broke a few years ago that the stadium was in the works, the question has come up over and over. Will we get the Copper Kings back?
The answer is “not a chance.” Butte is not getting another minor league baseball team any time soon, if ever.
Butte isn’t big enough to land an Applebee’s, so we’re not even close to big enough for a baseball team.
We sadly learned a couple of weeks ago that Helena, which is big enough for an Applebee’s, is losing its Pioneer League team, the Brewers. Great Falls fans have to be nervous, and Missoula probably can’t sit too comfortably, either.
Casper, which took our Copper Kings, has a population of about 55,000. The city saw the team, called the Rockies and then the Ghosts, move from the beautiful Mike Lansing Field to 147,000-population Grand Junction, Colorado, in recent years.
We didn’t lose the Copper Kings following the 2000 season because Montana Tech didn’t want them here, though it didn’t. We didn’t lose the team because the Angels kept sending horrible players in the final years.
We didn’t lose the team because the county wouldn’t build a new ballpark.
We lost the Copper Kings because minor league baseball, like chain restaurants, is a numbers game. Butte has a population of about 34,000. We probably need to at least triple that before we can enter the conversation of bringing minor league baseball to town.
The same thing goes for a Red Lobster.
Some things can never be recreated anyway. The M&M Cigar Store is a great place with great food. But the atmosphere isn’t the same as it was when Elsie Delmoe worked the food counter.
The Highland View Golf Course could never regain its character after Jack Crowley retired as the club pro.
Likewise, pro baseball, even at the lowest level, in Butte could never be the same as it was with Billy, who now lives in Helena, leading his merry band of hecklers on the third base line at Alumni Coliseum.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask Tubby Sandwiches.
— Bill Foley, who would take Metals over Applebee’s any day, writes a column that appears Tuesday on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74