Expedition League baseball in Butte is worth saving

Expedition League baseball in Butte is worth saving

It took no time at all to see there was something not right about the Mining City Tommyknockers baseball games.

I saw it the second I walked through the gate at 3 Legends Stadium for the team’s first home game on June 1. Steve Wagner, who is a co-owner of the team as well as founder and president of the league, was standing at the Speed Pitch game.

The highest-ranking league official was taking dollar after dollar from the children of Butte, who did not realize they were not getting a good value for the money their parents gave them.

At the game, $1 bought you five chances to see how fast you could throw a baseball.

“Oh, 58,” Wagner would say with a grin from ear to ear as he encouraged more kids to step up with their dollars. “I bet you can beat that.”

That smile was the only reward for the effort from the boys and girls who kept handing over their money.

Even a traveling carnival pretends that you can win a prize. All the kids of Butte got was a sore arm.

That it was the president of the entire Expedition League who was taking that money is an image that is impossible to erase. It is not the only one.

Eventually, the lines for the Speed Pitch faded away because the kids got tired of giving away their money.

A few weeks into the season, the game sat largly empty and unattended. Had the team just invested a tiny bit into prizes, it probably would have been a cash cow for all 32 home games.

That game turned out to be a precursor for a disastrous ending to the season.

The inaugural Tommyknocker season ended on Aug. 1, when the entire team of un-paid players and lowly-paid interns stood up and said enough is enough.

There is something beautifully poetic in the fact that player revolt came on the 104th anniversary — and not too far away from — the murder of famed labor leader Frank Little. The players and interns publicly called out what they said was a summer’s worth of broken promises and lies from general manager and co-owner Dane Wagner.

They said they would only play if the team agreed not to charge admission for the final four home games. Dane Wagner acquiesced to the demands, but the team or league canceled the remainder of the team’s games less than an hour later.

It is not clear if it was a league or team decision because Steve Wagner is in charge of both.

A day after Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher told Butte Sports that the team returning was an impossibility as long as Dane Wagner was involved, the Tommyknockers fired the younger Wagner.

Like with everyone else, Gallagher did not buy Dane Wagner’s claim that it was ungrateful players who were to blame, and his bold statement became the first step in a possible return to the Mining City in 2022.

The next step is getting rid of Steve Wagner, whom Gallagher said agreed to appear before the Butte-Silver Bow Council of Commissioners on Aug. 25.

Our commissioners should demand that Steve Wagner sell off his interest in the Tommyknockers if they are going to be allowed to return to town to use the county-owned stadium.

Gallagher said that the team signed a five-year contract with Butte. That calls for the team to pay the county $12,000 a year for the first three years. It will increase for the final two.

The chief executive said that Butte has provisions to get out of the lease, and he feels the team has given them more than enough reason to act on that. For instance, The Montana Standard reported Friday that the team had yet to make its payments for June, July and August.

(You see that? That is how you give credit to another media outlet that reports something before you did. It is really not that hard.)

Right now, Steve Wagner’s name is toxic. The Brandon Sun reported in June that Wagner has a trail of unpaid bills in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, where his team the Wheat City Whiskey Jacks played in 2019.

(Oops, I did it again.)

He cannot blame his son for that one, and no business in Butte is going to give money to his team after those allegations, true or false, came to light.

He cannot blame his son for him taking the $160 from the intern tip jar and putting into the team’s “cash box” during the first game of the season.

He can, however, blame his son for giving a public explanation that the workers were not entitled to the tips. Again, on Frank Little Day.

Steve Wagner’s publicity before and after the fiasco that ended the season in Butte has the future of the entire Expedition League in serious jeopardy. He would be wise to give up the C.E.O title and walk away from day-to-day operations of the league.

As far as Butte goes, we should demand he do so with the Tommyknockers. We should also demand he pay back that $160 with an interest rate that would make a loan shark cringe.

Co-owner Dave Sheffield said he does not think that Dane Wagner actually owns a part of the team. Rather, he thinks Steve hoped that his son could become an owner.

Sure, the team’s media guide says Dane Wagner is a co-owner. But he also has an Amazon page that claims he has written 105 “international best-selling” books.

Sheffield, I think, is the key to bringing the Tommyknockers back for a second season. Throughout this whole sad process, the players and interns always claimed to really like Sheffield and original manager Tom Carty, the man who put the talented roster together.

That says a lot.

Sheffield, who has been a part-time Butte resident since buying the Hennessey Mansion on Park Street last year, wanted to remain a silent partner through it all, but that has become kind of impossible.

He has plans for next season, and they really seem to be legitimate. First off, he plans to try to restore trust with advertisers. Sheffield also said that he will repair a broken relationship with Butte’s American Legion baseball program. Those who run the Legion are very reasonable people, so I am sure that could be done with some honesty.

If we can pair Sheffield with a local investor, or a group of local investors, and we could have a winning combination.

The people of Butte loved watching the high-caliber brand of baseball offered up by the wooden-bat college league.

Many of the Tommyknockers have expressed a desire to come back for a second season, too. They said they loved everything about Butte but the general manager.

Perhaps revamped ownership group could talk Carty into coming to town to be the team’s full-time general manager. Then he could manage the team on the field in the summers.

In addition to giving the team a top-notch baseball man, it would give it back some credibility — for players, fans and advertisers.

If the right steps are followed, Expedition League baseball could be saved in Butte. We should do whatever we can to save it, too, but only if it is done the right way.

As it sits now, the team, and the league, is primed to fade away just like the line to the Speed Pitch game.

— Bill Foley, who has only written 104 “international best-selling” books, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74 4 comments

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  • Maria Pochervina
    August 10, 2021, 8:48 am

    Nice article Bill!!!!

  • Brad Mills
    August 10, 2021, 9:45 am

    Bill I could tell you stories about a skunk just like Dane Wagner that would make your head spin. Lots of bad apples out there.

  • Ron
    August 13, 2021, 10:00 am

    Good article. It’s not the team’s fault (manager, coaches, players, interns). This fiasco all falls on the Wagners (Dane and Steve). Remove them from the equation and try and rebuild so the team can stay in town. It’s a great asset to the community.

  • Michael Opel
    August 25, 2021, 3:20 pm

    Great write Bill


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