J.P. Gallagher to Wagner: You are not welcome back

Chief Exec says GM cannot be part of equation if Tommyknockers return

By Bill Foley

The Mining City Tommyknockers could very well be back to play a second season in Butte in 2022.

However, Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher said Thursday that can only happen with new team front office management. Namely, Gallagher said, co-owner/general manager Dane Wagner can not be a part of the operation.

Gallagher said he talked to Mitch Messer, the vice president of operations for the Expedition League, this week.

“I told Mitch that if Dane Wagner is a part of this, ‘You have no chance in hell of coming back,’” Gallagher said.

Gallagher’s comments come four days after the Tommyknocker season was abruptly called off because the players demanded that the team not charge admission for the final four home games. The team was fed up with what players said were broken promises from the general manager.

“The team stood up and decided it was time for the Tommyknockers to take a step up for Butte,” one player told Butte Sports. “We don’t want them to make another damn dime off the people of Butte.”

Wagner initially agreed with the players’ demands, which included playing with the Expedition League patch on their jerseys and hats tapped over. Less than an hour later, however, Wagner canceled the rest of the Butte team’s season — which was six games — saying management would not be “walked on” by the players.

That move did not sit well with the players or fans, many of whom showed up to watch Sunday’s key game against the Badlands Big Sticks at 3 Legends Stadium only to learn the game was canceled. It also did not sit well with Gallagher, who helped bring the team to town as the county parks and recreation director in 2020.

Preston Joyce of Casper slides home safely ahead of the tag of Mining City Tommyknockers catcher David Melfi June 18 at 3 Legends Stadium. (Butte Sports file photo)

Gallagher said that Steve Wagner, the father of the general manager and president and founder of the league, will appear before the Butte-Silver Bow Council of Commissioners at their Aug. 25 meeting.

“I’ve demanded that Steve come into town and present to the council what has gone on there,” Gallagher said. “I don’t know if it’s possible to survive. I don’t know who would sponsor them.”

Steve Wagner, who is also a co-owner of the Tommyknockers, did not return a call for this story. Dane Wagner did also not return a call.

Like the players and player host families, Gallagher said he feels like he was lied to by Dane Wagner.

Gallagher said he did not deal with Dane Wagner until after the team signed a five-year deal with Butte to play on Miners Field at 3 Legends Stadium. Before that, he dealt with Steve Wagner.

The months dealing with Dane Wagner, Gallagher said, have been filled with “half-truths, flat-out lies and broken promises.”

“It’s management, there’s no doubt about it. It falls on Dane Wagner completely,” Gallagher said. “I don’t know if the damage he did is too much for the community.

Dane Wagner said Sunday that the Tommyknockers will be back in Butte in 2022 and beyond. Gallagher is not so sure.

The five-year contract calls for the Tommyknockers to pay Butte-Silver Bow $12,000 a year for the first three years. The price increases for the fourth and fifth year.

“There’s some provisions in that lease that allow us out,” Gallagher said. “I think we have every right to cancel the lease based on what happened.”

Butte manager Tom Carty talks with Hayden Brown in the dugout June 2. (Butte Sports file photo)

‘Under the bus’

Tom Carty was hired as the field manager of the Butte team in October, before the name “Tommyknockers” was even chosen.

“We’re thrilled to have landed a manager of Tom’s caliber here in Butte,” Dane Wagner said at the time. Carty was coming to town from Long Island College, where he worked as the pitching coach of the NCAA Division I program.

In addition to managing the team in the summer, Carty was charged with putting the team’s roster together.

One thing he was not in charge of was finding housing for the players. On Sunday, though, Carty read that Wagner “threw him under the bus” when addressing player claims that they had nowhere to go when they got to town.

Wagner said it was Carty’s fault when players complained of sleeping in cars and trucks when the GM did not answer repeated phone calls.

Carty himself did not arrive in town until May 31, the day before the Tommyknockers June 1 home opener. The manager missed the team’s season opening road trip.

Players started arriving as early as May 12. So, how could the manager who was not in town be in charge of housing? Carty’s answer was that he was not.

“I have absolutely nothing to do with their accommodations,” Carty said this week from his home in Georgia. “That couldn’t be more of a lie. I was told to do baseball. I was told only to worry about baseball. I was told to stay out of that when I asked for some things beforehand.”

Carty said he did not want to get into a war of words with Dane Wagner, but he felt he had to defend himself after reading that he was being blamed for things he had no control over.

“They were all bold-faced lies or excuses making,” Carty said of Wagner’s comments to multiple media outlets following Sunday’s cancellation of the remainder of the season.

He also shook off Dane Wagner’s accusations that it was poor behavior by the players that started the rift with the front office.

“The bullseye falls on one person’s shoulders,” Carty said, referring to Dane Wagner. “That’s who is responsible for those things. It’s hard for me to look at the other side and see that the kids did them wrong. That the coaches did them wrong. That’s a real stretch.”

Carty said he reached out to Steve Wagner last fall. He was looking at the possibility of running an Expedition League expansion team somewhere. He figured he could be the general manager of a team and run it year-round, and then serve as field manager during the summer.

He said one day after talking to the elder Wagner, he was called with the job offer in Butte. Having heard good things about Montana, Carty said his wife was on board with him taking the job in Butte.

“It’s probably one of the few jobs that I said yes to that my wife said yes faster than I did,” Carty said. “I thought I was going to get a real stern no about it.”

Carty accepted the job even if it was not what he was looking for in the first place.

“It gets me in the league,” Carty said of taking the Butte job. “I said, ‘Let’s see, if it goes well as a manager,’ and I can see my value in the community.”

The hiring gave the Tommyknockers instant credibility. Carty is a lifelong baseball man who sees himself as “an ambassador of the game.” He brought all the experience any team could hope for and more. That experience included managing the last two years in the Northwoods League.

“I’ve been doing summer baseball for 25 years,” Carty said. “No one in the league had my level of experience. I’ve been on that end of placing summer baseball players for 25 years.”

Shortly after the New Year, Carty reached out to Jeff LeProwse, the president of Butte’s American Legion baseball program and head coach of the Butte Miners. He said he talked with LeProwse several times and started to see the depth of a broken relationship between the Legion and the Tommyknockers.

“By the time I get there, that’s a mess,” Carty said.

Legion officials said the Tommyknockers expected to use the Legion’s equipment, such as cages and L screens for batting practice, and the team’s bases.

Dane Wagner is shown in this Tommyknockers photo.

The Tommyknockers, who tried and failed to get county approval for a party deck and hot tub outside the fence in left field, did not even have bases. The team played the season with Little League bases — where the top breaks off for safety.

One problem with using the Legion’s equipment was that the Miners and Muckers teams needed to use it at the same time. The Legion teams got pushed to Field No. 3 for practice, and they had to take the gear — that was paid for by money the players fundraised for — with them.

Legion officials said the Tommyknockers never offered any kind of payment or any other concessions to use their equipment. Legion officials also said they were fed up with the lies and broken promises coming from Dane Wagner.

Gallagher said he should have done more to help facilitate a better relationship between the Tommyknockers and Legion. In hindsight, he said he kind of hung the Legion out to dry.

“I probably should have been looking at it a little bit harder, but I didn’t realize what this guy was,” Gallagher said of Wagner and complaints that filed in from the Legion. “I was defensive, saying, ‘You guys have got to give this a chance. Players weren’t even in town yet.’”

Between the time the team signed a contract with the county and the Tommyknockers signed their first player, Gallagher won an election, beating incumbent Dave Palmer in the chief executive race. He took office in January.

Gallagher said he might have been too close to the situation because he worked so hard to bring the team to town. As parks and recreation director, Gallagher also worked to help get 3 Legends Stadium built.

While the stadium would have never been built if it was not for the need of the Legion program, Gallagher said it was also built to try to bring opportunities like the Expedition League, a wooden-bad summer college baseball league, to town.

“I advocated for these guys,” Gallagher said. “In all honesty, I’m embarrassed because I was a huge advocate for this. I take it personally.”

Carty also takes it very personally.

“I feel a little naïve that I was really sold on it,” Carty said. “I really, truly was sold on everything. As time went on, even before I got there, I started to have some doubts. Then I said, ‘OK, let me give everybody the benefit of the doubt.’”

After seeing it all collapse, Carty cannot help but feel bad, personally and professionally.

“I spent a long time building a good reputation,” he said. “Some people don’t like me, but most people do. Most people respect me. I’m having a hard time having my reputation be challenged when a coach calls me and says, ‘Hey Tom, why is my guy sleeping in the mansion with 10 other guys and you?’

“I’m still a little embarrassed about it. I think my reputation will take a little hit. But I think a lot of those guys would trust me if I did this again.”

Tommyknocker Zach Camp gets some love after a strong first inning June 29. (Butte Sports file photo)

Broken promises

Carty arrived in town to take over a team that was already upset.

A group of players was staying at the Best Western Plus because enough host families were not found. Players only had one set of uniforms, and the shorts, T-shirts and hoodies they were promised on a zoom call were not provide.

They never were.

After a couple of weeks in a hotel room, several players ended up sleeping on air mattresses at the Hennessey Mansion before finding host families. Even then, the players were not happy with the accommodations, even though they were thankful for the host families and their hospitality. One player said he was one of seven players staying with one host family. Another said he was living in an RV.

Host families were also not happy with the Tommyknockers. Gallagher said.

“They were just lied to from day one,” Gallagher said. “They loved the kids, but they got lied to throughout the whole process.”

So, Carty had a mess on his hands.

“Right away, I was like, ‘Oh man, this is going to be rough,’” Carty said.

He told the players to give him two weeks to address all their grievances. He told them he would fight the battles he could win for them.

He said he would fight to make sure the players had enough to eat.

“I told them I would go to battle if there wasn’t enough pizza for everybody,” Carty said. “I wasn’t going to go to battle because, ‘Oh, man, it’s pizza again.’”

Players maintain that the pregame meals were never enough for the entire season. Some said they stopped depending on them entirely.

“Two weeks went by, and there were still a lot of things that weren’t up to my expectations and to everyone else’s expectations,” Carty said.

The manager said he would not try to talk any players out of leaving the team. Rather, he asked that they give him five days’ notice. That would give Carty enough time to work his contacts and get a replacement player.

“It was hard to convince them to stay when they were pointing out the obvious,” Carty said. “I said, I’m not going to talk anybody out of leaving.”

Carty ended up leaving the team on July 7, though he said it was not because of the rift with management. He said his real job needed attention, and he wanted to spend more time with his family.

His wife came to town, and the couple’s 8-year-old son Timmy was serving as the bat boy for the team. When it was time for them to head back to Georgia, Carty figured it was time for him to leave, too.

“I told Steve that I had to go,” Carty said before leaving the team in the hands of pitching coach Brandon Cowan. “I thought the team would be in good hands.”

Most of the players ended up staying, even after Carty left. Even after the team called off the remainder of the season, those players stand behind their former manager.

They also continued to put on a show on the field. The roster was full of talent and crowd-pleasing victories. Fans seemed to enjoy watching them play while soaking in a summer night at the ballpark.

At 16-15, the Tommyknockers placed third in the first half of the Lewis Division. They were 15-12 and in a tie for the final playoff spot when the season was called off.

Carty said he watched the games on the Tommyknockers YouTube channel after he left town.

“I enjoyed those guys a lot. I enjoyed being there,” he said. “I brought them there. I watched almost every game since I left. I enjoyed everything about the players and summer baseball in general. I liked Butte.”

Carty beamed as the Tommyknockers bounced back from losing the first two games of a four-game series at Badlands last week.

“I was so proud of those guys to see that they took the final two in Badlands,” he said. “That was my last trip, and I got swept.”

The Tommyknockers won Friday’s opener of what was supposed to be a three-game series in Butte. The Big Sticks pulled back into a tie with Butte with a 10-inning win on Saturday. Carty said the manner in which the team lost was gut-wrenching, but he still thought his guys were set up to clinch a playoff berth.

Now, the Big Sticks will likely coast into that playoff berth.

Tommyknockers shortstop Judah WIlbur fires to first for an out on June 18. (Butte Sports file poto)

A Tommyknocker future?

Is there any hope at all that the Tommyknockers will be back in Butte in 2021?

While attendance figures were not off the charts for the team’s 28 home games, fans clearly enjoyed themselves. Nobody won the $50,000 vehicle in the on-field dice games, but fans sure seemed to have a blast trying.

“I’ve had people in the community reach out to say they want the Tommyknockers back,” Gallagher said.

“I think there is such great opportunities in the summer market, whether it’s independent pro baseball, minor league baseball or college summer ball,” Carty said. “It’s a win-win for the community.

“Steve’s vision of the league, and the geographical footprint, I thought, ‘Wow he really is on the ground level of what the Northwoods League did 25 years ago in Minnesota and Wisconsin.’”

Getting sponsors for the Tommyknockers next year could be a tall task after what Gallagher called at trail of “lost trust, broken promises, unpaid bills and lies.”

Gallagher pointed out that the Tommyknockers offered a gameday experience as part of a drawing at the May meeting of the Butte-Silver Bow Chamber of Commerce.

After the drawing, Gallagher said Dane Wagner did not return repeated calls and messages form Stephanie Sorini, the executive director of the Chamber, so a new prize had to be found for the drawing winner.

A Google search of Steve Wagner will quickly take you to a story about a tale of owed money in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, where the Wheat City Whiskey Jacks played in 2019.

A search for Dane Wagner will bring you to an Amazon.com link about Wanger, a minister in his early 30s, who claims to have written 105 “international best-selling books.” Another site offer’s Wagner’s ministry services for $760.

Not only will be it hard for the Tommyknockers to return to the Mining City, Gallagher said the chances of an Expedition League team playing anywhere in the state again is remote. Bozeman and Helena have already rejected expansion inquiries.

“The chances of any other program happening in Montana, I would say, ‘No way,’” Gallagher said. “If they come back or not, they’ve got a hell of a hill to climb. It’s got to be a decision by our council if they are worth the damage to our reputation.”