By Bill Foley
A dark cloud of imminent rain hung above 3 Legends Stadium early Sunday evening as a handful of Mining City Tommyknockers fans, young and old, showed up to watch their beloved team play the Badlands Big Sticks.
There would be no game on this night, however. The team’s inaugural season had been canceled.
“We’re all pissed off,” said Tommyknocker fan Ross Beausoleil, who showed up with his son. “We wanted to go to the game tonight.”
The cancellation came Sunday after the players, fed up with what they say is unfair treatment to the players and summer interns, demanded that no admission be charged for their final four home games.
The players also said they would play their remaining games with the Expedition League logo on their hats and jerseys covered by tape.
“The team stood up and decided it was time for the Tommyknockers to take a step up for Butte,” one player said. “We don’t want them to make another damn dime off the people of Butte.”
Players say co-owner/general manager Dane Wagner agreed to the stipulation. Less than an hour later, however, the players leaned the remainder of the Tommyknocker games have been canceled.
(Click here to read a statement issued by the players following the news of the cancellation.)
Wagner said that he and his fellow owners decided to cancel the season because they would not be “walked on” by the players.
“It’s not the players union of the MLB,” Wagner said Sunday night. “These are college athletes who should be grateful to be able to play in the Expedition League.”
Wagner said the Sunday meeting and the anger stemmed over an incident involving Expedition League vice president Mitch Messer Saturday night. He said a players swore at Messer and challenged him to a fight in the parking lot after the game.
The account, though, is much different than that of the players. They said one player asked Messer, who worked as a groundskeeper Saturday, not to put so much water on the infield during the game. They said a player told Messer he did not want to get injured on a field that was clearly too wet.
As Messer left, one player said, he drove by the player and said, “Don’t get hurt. Then he smirked and drove off.”
Wagner said that the Tommyknockers players, as a whole, became disrespectful once manager Tom Carty left the team mid-season.
“We were not going to let players act this way and not be role models for the kids and swear at league officials,” Wagner said.
Fan and media accounts of the players’ action, however, differ from that of Wagner. The players, according to observers, did change once pitching coach Brandon Cowan took over for Carty. They appeared to be having more fun.
Mike Opel, the team’s volunteer public address announcer, showed up to announce Sunday’s game. He was not notified that his services were no longer needed after calling the team’s first 27 home games.
A surprised Opel used his time to give the players a pep talk.
“This is a perfect example of how one person can ruin something you worked your asses off for,” Opel said. “I just feel so bad for you guys. I’m proud of you, though. You stood up. You gave him (Wagner) a chance to bail himself out, and he chose something different. He chose to be petty.”
The players of the Expedition League, which is a summer wooden-bat college league, are not paid. They also do not have to pay to play in the league.
The Tommyknockers players’ list of grievances ranged from insufficient pregame meals, to a lack of medical personnel at games, to housing concerns, to money taken from and not paid to interns.
During the first game of the season, they said league owner Steve Wagner, who is Dane Wagner’s father, took $160 from the intern’s tip jar. The money, the interns tought, was to be split six or seven ways. Instead, the players say Wagner allegedly pocked the money.
Players even played a video of Dane Wagner on Sunday admitting that the money was taken and never paid back to the interns. He said the money went into the team’s “cash box.”
“That was the first game,” Dane Wagner told the players and interns, “and it never happened again.”
Wagner explained later that the incident came before the team had a policy on tips.
“It’s not stolen. We never told them they were entitled to those tips,” Wagner said of the interns, who make $250 per month. “Just because there’s a tip jar doesn’t mean they are entitled to it. They weren’t distributed to the employees that first game. We were figuring out how to work our registers.”
From the second game on, Wagner said the tips were distributed evenly to all the gameday staff, including those working in the press box.
Players also told of horror stories of not knowing where to go when they came to town, sleeping in their cars and trucks the first few nights, and not having enough to eat before and after games.
Players from the Tommyknockers and Big Sticks both laughed at the small chicken breasts given to both sides before Friday’s game.
Another player told a story of asking for a Gatorade during a hot game. He said Wagner said, ‘Give him a warm Gatorade and we’ll sell the cold ones to fans.”
Wagner said the accommodations for players coming to town were the responsibility of Carty, but he said that there were issues with the portion size of meals for players.
“Is someone going to complain about the portion size?” Wagner said. “We are trying to feed 70 games and making sure everyone has something to eat. Our interns have to eat, too, so there might be not enough portions.”
Most players asked to not be mentioned by name in the story. However, Butte native Liam Sommer, who pitches for the University of Mary, insisted that his name be included.
“I can’t believe they would do that here,” Sommer said. “It was something good for the Butte community, and he just ruined it. It’s a shame.”
Sommer was the subject of a Butte Sports feature story after he signed with the team last fall. At the time, he said in addition to pitching for his hometown team, Sommer would work as an intern. He needs an internship for his sports and leisure management degree.
That, however, never happened.
“He didn’t do anything for my internship,” Sommer said of Wagner. “I signed up to be an intern, and he just blew it off.”
Wagner said it was his understanding that Sommer no longer needed an internship for his degree.
For the first couple of weeks of the season, multiple players did not have a host family to stay with. So, they stayed in the Best Western Plus.
Eventually, all of the players had housing with host families, but they were overloaded. One player said he was one of seven players staying at one house.
“I live in an RV,” one player said. “I don’t have power or Wi-Fi or anything.”
Wagner pointed out that the players stayed at a very nice hotel. He also said some players stayed at the Hennessey Mansion for a day or two.
“They always had a place to stay, and nice accommodations,” he said.
Dion Sommer, Liam’s father, had five Tommyknockers, including his son, staying with him and his wife, Linda. He said he was heartbroken with Sunday’s turn of events.
“These kids genuinely like each other,” Dion Sommer said. “They had a blast playing together.”
That clearly showed as the Tommyknockers took the field throughout the season.
At 15-12 on the second half of the season, the Tommyknockers were tied for the final playoff spot of the Expedition League’s Lewis Division. They were tied with the Big Sticks, who were supposed to play the rubber match of a three-game series Sunday in Butte.
Even as the rain fell Sunday, a handful of fans stayed to show their appreciation of the players. Some brought beer. Another brought a stack of pizza.
Players hugged one another, knowing that they might never be together again. They had hoped their moment of goodbye would be later. They had hoped to play more games with each other.
The players also expressed concern for their fans.
“We all wanted to play,” one player said. “We love the town of Butte. It was a definitely a fun-and-exciting summer.”
Players said they hope this will not be the end of the Expedition League in Butte, which is still smarting from the loss of the Pioneer League Butte Copper Kings following the 2000 summer.
They said the Tommyknockers would need a change of management for them to field a team in the Mining City in 2022.
“A team could work here and it would be awesome,” one player said. “But it will not work with Dane.”
Wagner said the team will definitely be back for 2022 and beyond.
“Oh, we’ll be back,” he said. “We’ll be back Year 2. We’ll celebrate a Tommyknockers 100-year season. We’ll be cryogenically frozen, but we’ll get blurbs of it when we get out of hyper sleep.” 5 comments