Copper Kings manager Tom Foley was not happy when I talked to him in his office on the night of July 8, 1996.
“The game was ugly all around,” the manager said. “The best thing to do is just forget it.”
More than 23 years later, I still cannot forget the night the Lethbridge Black Diamonds beat the Butte Copper Kings 23-3 at Alumni Coliseum.
That was the first game I ever covered as a sportswriter, and it represented a dream come true.
For the first time in my life, I was being paid to watch a sporting event. That it was a professional baseball game made it oh so much sweeter.
The Copper Kings and Black Diamonds were part of the Pioneer League. Butte’s team was affiliated with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, while the Black Diamonds were tied to the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks.
I was an intern on the copy desk of The Montana Standard that summer. I had dreamed of being a sportswriter since my early days of high school, and sports editor Hudson Willse gave me that chance that Monday night.
The day before, the Copper Kings played a Sunday afternoon game. Bruce Sayler, who was then a sportswriter at the paper and one of my idols, took me to the coaches office in the Montana Tech HPER Complex to meet the 37-year-old manager after the game.
The manager is not related to me, but he thought it was pretty cool that a fellow Foley would be covering his team for the newspaper.
“Foley?” he said with a big smile when Bruce introduced me to him. “How’d that happen?”
Because of his last name, Tom Foley was one of the players I followed for years. He was the reason I paid close attention to Montreal Expos highlights on SportsCenter.
I also got to meet Howard Johnson, the Copper Kings hitting coach who smacked 228 home runs in 14 seasons in the big leagues, mostly with the New York Mets.
The next night “HoJo” laughed at me when I poked my head into the coaches’ office after the game that included a handful of beanballs and a couple of ejections, including the Copper Kings manager.
“Your first night on the job, kid, and we do this to you,” Johnson said.
I got a couple quotes from the manager, and then I sped back to the newspaper to write my story. I only had about 20 minutes until deadline, so I was writing the story in my head as I flew past the statue of Marcus Daly on the top of Park Street.
Three players stand out from that Copper Kings team: Mickey Callaway, Matt Quatraro and Jared Verrall.
Callaway, a pitcher would probably like me to point out that he did not make an appearance that night, spent the past two seasons as the manager of the dysfunctional New York Mets.
After losing that job, Callaway landed on his feet. He will be Joe Maddon’s pitching coach with the Los Angeles Angels next season.
Quatraro started at catcher that night, and he left the game after getting hit on the wrist by a ball.
“It’s not broken. It’s just a good bruise,” Foley told me.
Quatraro was a finalist to replace retiring manager Bruce Bochy with the San Francisco Giants before that job ultimately went to Gabe “The Babe” Kapler.
Verrall got a hit, was hit by a pitch and scored a run that night.
Last week, Verrall emailed me in an effort to try to find archived radio broadcasts of the Copper Kings that summer. He was hoping to play them someday for his 3-year-old son.
“I was a raw one-trick pony,” Verrall told me. “Bunch of power, bunch of swing and miss, defense below average for that level. The way my years went prior to going to Butte I was ecstatic just to get the opportunity.”
That is the key world. Opportunity.
For every Cecil Fielder, Julio Franco or Francisco Rodriquez, the Copper Kings had hundreds of guys like Verrall, who was drafted by the Devil Rays in the 40th round of the 1996 MLB Draft.
He was good enough to be a pro, but not good enough to be a major leaguer.
Verrall led the Copper Kings with nine home runs that summer. He hit .306 with 46 RBIs in 57 games, mostly at designated hitter.
He is one of the few players to ever hit a home run over the 450 mark in center field at Alumni Coliseum.
In 1997, Verrall made stops with the Charleston RiverDogs of the South Atlantic League and the Hudson Valley Renegades of the New York-Pennsylvania League. In 1998, he was out of professional baseball.
For two seasons, though, Verrall got to chase the dream of playing in the big leagues. Some guys, like Mike Piazza, fulfill that dream. Most, like Verrall, do not.
But at least they get the chance to dream.
Major League Baseball is about to kill those dreams.
MLB has proposed drastically downsizing and restructuring the minor leagues when the current Professional Baseball Agreement expires at the end of the 2020 season.
That proposal would eliminate MLB-affiliated baseball from 42 cities. It would reduce the draft from 40 rounds to 20 rounds, and restructure the leagues to be more geographically compact.
After the 2000 baseball season, Butte lost the Copper Kings to Casper, Wyoming. A few years ago, Casper lost their team, then called the Ghosts, to Grand Junction, Colorado.
Grand Junction is going to lose its team to shortsighted MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.
The rest of the Pioneer League, which dates back to 1939, will also go away for good, ending professional baseball in Billings, Great Falls, Missoula and everywhere else the Pioneer League calls home.
Why would MLB do such a thing? So some billionaires can save a few bucks.
MLB is following the short-term model of corporate America and threatening to destroy the fabric of the national pastime in the long run.
Butte knows all too well what is in store for the 42 cities that will lose their teams. In addition to making those cities less attractive to potential businesses, the loss of a baseball team takes away so much from the people who live there.
Growing up, watching the Copper Kings was the highlight of every summer. Seeing the players we cheered on with chants of “Go Kings, Go” make it in the big leagues made following MLB so much better, too.
Who can forget Fielder’s 1990 season that saw the 1982 Copper King blast 51 home runs and drive in 132 RBIs?
Who can forget K-Rod, a 1999 King, coming out of nowhere to become a dominant bullpen force as the Angels won the World Series in 2002?
Who can forget seeing the bearded Mike Napoli, a 2000 King, actually look like the Copper Kings logo as he hit clutch home runs for the 2013 World Series campion Red Sox?
I also cannot forget guys like Jaymie Bane (1997), Arredondo Hernando (1996), Kale Gilmore (1994) or Verrall. They got to dream the impossible dream, if only ever so briefly.
Manfred is pulling the rug out from future guys like that, and the damage he is about to do cannot be overstated.
Fewer minor league teams is bad for baseball. It means fewer players, fewer fans and few dreams.
When it comes to this bad idea, the commissioner should follow the words Copper Kings manager and just forget it.
— Bill Foley, will also never forget the hecklers on the third base line, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. Check out his NFL picks every Thursday.