Legion Baseball slaps Shipman, Miners

Expressing my opinion has gotten me in trouble many times over the years.

When I worked at the newspaper, my opinion often landed me in the publisher’s office. It even got my column suspended a few times.

Last week, though, I learned that my opinion actually got someone else in trouble, and that is really hard to take.

At least in part of my opinion, Dillon Cubs coach Randy Shipman has become the Pete Rose of American Legion Baseball in Montana.

I wrote a column about Shipman standing up to a misguided American Legion Baseball Committee on this site on Aug. 21. Late last month, Shipman was effectively banned from coaching Legion Baseball in Montana.

“This is not about Mr. Shipman’s coaching ability; it is about his ability to get along with the Committee,” American Legion of Montana Department Commander James Carlisle wrote in a Dec. 27 letter to officials in Dillon. “To this end, the Department will no longer accept his participation in American Legion baseball.

“Should Post 20 and the Cubs’ Board decide to retain Mr. Shipman in any position in that organization, the Department will not permit the Cubs to participate in American Legion baseball.”

So there you have it. In the name of an organization full of members who risked their lives so we can live in the “Land of the Free,” is punishing a coach — and, by extension, his players — for speaking his mind.

It’s worth noting that Shimpan was only suspended one time in two decades of coaching, and that was last summer for allegedly swearing while arguing with Gallatin Valley coach Duwayne Scott, who is one of the three men on the “Baseball Committee.”

Shipman contended Scott’s Outlaws were using an ineligible player, and the rules seemed to back him up. Before the pre-game argument late in the season, Shipman was warned by General Chairman George Haegele that he would be suspended for two games if he mentioned the issue again, also not a very American Legion-like stance.

It’s also worth noting that the school board in Dillon has seen Shipman fit to be a middle school principal for the better part of the last decade.

But he can’t get along with three men, so he can no longer coach an American Legion Baseball team?

The letter says that the decision isn’t about Shipman’s coaching ability. Still, it’s worth noting that Shipman has won nearly 700 games since he began his head-coaching career for Mission Valley in 1992. He’s sent 84 players to college baseball and one to professional ball.

I called Mr. Carlisle last week and had a pleasant conversation with the man who said he really doesn’t have any power over the Committee.

He knew who I was because my August column didn’t sit well with the esteemed Committee. I asked him if the column I wrote played a role in giving Shipman the Pete Rose treatment, and was shocked by the answer.

After a long pause, Mr. Carlisle said, “yes.”

I was floored by the honesty, but saddened on so many levels that the opinion of a guy in Butte can get a coach banned in Dillon. It’s bad enough that a coach in Dillon is being punished for his own opinion.

The easy thing to do in Dillon would be to move on with a new coach. Of course, doing what’s right isn’t always the easy thing.

The folks at American Legion Post 20 in Dillon have decided to stand by their coach who is known for standing up for what he believes is right, even though that might rub some people the wrong way. That means the Cubs might be playing Senior Babe Ruth or some other form of baseball this summer with Shipman calling the shots.

“It’s not about me. It’s about them not following the rules,” Shipman said. ” I called them on it, and they’re getting rid of me. They haven’t won. This is not over.”

I drove over to Belgrade Saturday for the Southern A District scheduling meeting to see if the league really was moving on without the Cubs.

Dillon didn’t have a representative  — neither did Butte (more on that later) — and the Southern A District scheduled for a seven-team league in 2013, leaving the option open for Dillon to change its mind.

I talked to Scott, who said he wasn’t involved with decision to ban Shipman or the one that might completely end Legion Baseball in Butte. So, that means Haegele and Bill Houston — the other two men on the Committee — made the decision.

Haegele didn’t return an email seeking comment, while Houston refused comment.

(Note: in Reporting 1 class at Journalism School, you are taught to write “declined comment” instead of “refused comment.” This time Houston actually refused comment. I take from his reply that he really dislikes me.)

I have to admit, too, my email was a bit pointed and full of loaded questions.

Carlisle said he believes in Haegele, who has devoted a good portion of his life to American Legion Baseball.

“If there’s a question on the rules of baseball, I would put my money on George Haegele long before I would on anyone else in the state,” Carlisle said.

While I certainly respect the opinion of Mr. Carlisle, who seems like a very  nice man, I disagree.

I always put my money on the man they call the “Fonz.” To me, nobody knows more about the nation’s pastime than longtime Legion player, coach and manager Jim Hanley, who like Shipman isn’t known for his diplomatic skills.

The Fonz told me more than once that he respects Shipman as much or more than any other man he’s ever coached with or against.

That is some pretty high praise.

I talked to several other coaches and officials in Belgrade, and none seemed too pleased with how the Committee banned Shipman. They were also afraid they could suffer the same fate if they questioned any decision made by the Committee.

“We can’t talk about it because we’ll get suspended,” one coach said.

One coach who doesn’t fear suspension is Butte Miners coach Jeff LeProwse.

“He’s getting punished for something he was right about,” LeProwse said of Shimpan. “That’s what I don’t get. I can’t believe how they think it is OK to punish someone for demanding they follow the rules.”

Of course, LeProwse has a bigger beef with the Committee than worrying about Dillon’s coaching situation.

The Butte Miners basically have to play Class B ball this summer because the Committee isn’t showing any compassion to a struggling program on the verge of extinction.

If you’re like me, you just said “There’s a Class B?”

Playing Class B basically means the team can play Legion teams, but the team plays a non-conference schedule and is not eligible for post-season play.

In our area, only Salmon, Idaho, played Class B because its closest teams are in Montana and any Idaho conferences are too far away.

For the first time in memory, Butte only had one team last year, and the Miners asked to play in Class A this year after going 0-26 in Class AA last year, the first under LeProwse.

The Committee said it’s either B or AA, and the Butte officials say AA just isn’t an option.

“Last year we had 14- and 15-year-old kids playing AA baseball,” LeProwse said. “In other AA programs if you’re an exceptional player you get to play AA when you are 16.”

Without the Class A Butte Muckers to develop the younger players, the kids on the Class AA Miners didn’t have a whole lot of fun during the season, and some players quit down the stretch.

“It got really tough at the end of the year,” LeProwse said. “If they stick around and play, they’ll compete.”

They need some help, though.

“We feel like the move to A would not only make us more competitive but it would also help us build the program back up and move back up to AA,” LeProwse said. “But that is impossible until we at least have enough kids to fill two teams because without a feeder team it’s difficult to get the younger kids the experience to compete at the AA level.”

Even if Butte had solid numbers, playing at the AA level would be tough.

The Miners don’t really have a home after Montana Tech booted them out of Alumni Coliseum because the football team is putting down a Sprinturf that will make baseball at the old stadium impossible.

The Miners will probably play at Copper Mountain Park, where they’ll have to share a field with six or eight Senior Little League teams. The field has no lights, making it nearly impossible for the team to play a full Class AA slate.

They certainly couldn’t play a longer Class AA season with LeProwse coaching since has one of those pesky job things during the day. Just about every other coach in the state would be in the same boat, and there’s no way you’re going to get the Billings Royals to come to town for a Wednesday afternoon doubleheader.

Butte has a bigger issue with baseball, and it certainly isn’t up to the of other programs in the state or the Legion Committee to fix. Even though we have some great individuals to brag about like Rob Johnson, Butte hasn’t won a state baseball title in more than half a century. Really, it’s been a long time since the Miners have even come close to competing for the title.

The problem is we just don’t get enough athletes playing. No home stadium and no league isn’t going to fix that.

Instead of tossing the Butte program a life raft, though, the Committee handed it a brick.

“You try to work with people, you don’t try to destroy them,” Shipman said. “When you’re already losing kids, why would you try to lose more. There used to be 14 Class AA teams, now there’s nine. There used to be 42 Class A teams, now there’s 30 without Butte and Dillon.”

Unlike the Shipman case, the Committee actually has the rule book on its side on this issue. Butte’s high schools have an enrollment of 1,041 boys in grades 10 through 12. Even though Butte’s enrollment is half the size of most Class AA teams, the city is 41 students over the limit to play Class A ball.

At the scheduling meeting, one team represented asked Southern A Commissioner Ron Edwards, who isn’t involved in the decision, if it is possible for the Committee to make an exception under special circumstances for the Miners.

Edwards replied, “I suppose they could, but they’re not going to.”

Butte played Class AA last year, even though the enrollment numbers was 997, which should have made the Miners eligible for Class A.

Most of the coaches seemed to have sympathy for the Butte program. A couple of others didn’t, and they played the “well, they sure had talent on the football field” card against Butte.

Of course, Butte only has one Class AA school. Missoula and Billings have three, and Great Falls and Helena have two.

While I’d like their chances in Naranche Stadium, the Bulldogs would be heavy underdogs in football if Billings only had one school.

Butte Legion officials will meet this week to decide whether to play Class B, move to Senior Babe Ruth or look at other options.

Of course, the bigger point is that the Committee isn’t above making exceptions for special circumstances. Last year, a player enrolled in a Helena school was allowed to transfer mid season — a direct violation of the rules as I read it — to Gallatin Valley because he came from a divorced home.

The Outlaws also had a player enrolled in Bozeman High School last year. So, according to the way I read the rules, the Outlaws would have to count Helena and Bozeman into their enrollment numbers, meaning Gallatin Valley would have to play AA ball.

Don’t get me wrong. I would never want to be the guy trying to stop any player from playing, even if it gives a competitive advantage to another team.

You just can’t play the humanity card in one case then play the cold, hard “the rules are the rules” card in another.

The Butte Miners don’t have a field, and the possibility that they won’t even have a team is looking more and more possible.

After this column, they probably won’t have a coach either.

If we’ve learned one thing from all of this, it is that talking back to the Baseball Committee is not allowed here in the Land of the Free.

— Sportswriter Bill Foley, who in the words of Annie Kinsella thinks we should stand up to “the kind of censorship they had under Stallin,” writes a column that appears on ButteSports.com on Tuesdays. twitter.com/Foles74