This time last year, we had good crowds of locals watching the Mining City Tommyknockers play baseball on beautiful summer nights.
Sure, the crowds were not nearly as good as the general manager was telling his advertisers, but the crowds were not bad for a city the size of Butte.
The Tommyknockers played in the Expedition League, a wooden bat league full of college baseball players. It was not near the level of the Pioneer League’s Butte Copper Kings, who pulled up shop and left town following the 2000 season.
But it was very good baseball.
It was good enough to bring people out to the ballpark night after night to enjoy the national pastime being played on Miners Field at 3 legends Stadium.
When the Tommyknockers imploded in a sea of incompetent management just before the season ended last year, people wondered if we would ever have a team again.
When seven teams announced they were breaking away from the Expedition League in October, an owner of one team said the new league would love to have a team in Butte.
It might take a few years before any team comes to Butte again. Our local government still has egg on its face after trusting Steve Wagner and his way-in-over-his-head son.
So, 3 Legends Stadium sits empty every night.
Well, actually, that is just the way so many people seem to think. While the Tommyknockers and their silly name left town, Butte still has some outstanding baseball being played at its beautiful ballpark.
It is called American Legion baseball. It has been the lifeblood of baseball in the Mining City and many other Montana communities for decades.
The Butte Miners are in the middle of their most successful run in decades. After knocking on the door of the state tournament the last few years, the Butte boys look to kick the door down this year.
After starting 0-4 against a couple of teams who had a dozen games head start, the Miners have won 17 of 18 games. That includes a 13-game winning streak.
Under new head coach Jim LeProwse, the Miners are more exciting than ever. Through 22 games, the Miners have stolen 80 bases.
That makes the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals look like a Moneyball team.
Last summer, people who had not watched baseball in Butte since the Copper Kings left, came out to watch the Tommyknockers. So many were excited that a Butte boy, Liam Sommer, was playing for the brand-new team.
The thing is, those people could have been watching Sommer pitch for several years leading up to the Tommyknocker season.
The Tommyknocker fans were looking at a chance to see another Cecil Fielder, who played for the Copper Kings in 1982. Or Francisco Rodriguez, a 1999 Copper King.
That is understandable. It is fun to say that you watched a Major League player when he was just starting out.
ROOT TV ratings in the Mining City were through the roof when Butte Central graduate Rob Johnson was playing catcher for the Seattle Mariners. When he made an autograph appearance in town, fans lined up around the block for a chance to get a glimpse of the local success story.
But when Johnson played for the Butte Miners, his teams competed in a mostly-empty Alumni Coliseum.
Like today, Legion crowds in Johnson’s day were made up mostly of immediate family.
They cannot blame the local sportswriters for not pointing out just how good Johnson was when he played in Butte, either. We were screaming from the rooftops about him, and I did not think he was even the best player on his team.
That distinction, I thought, went to Luke Stajcar, who is now an assistant coach with the Miners.
We have also told you about Stajcar’s son, Cayde. He is just 14, and he is already excelling for the Miners. While most boys his age are still playing Senior Little League, the young Stajcar is batting .357 with two home runs for the highest-level team in town.
You might want to get down to the ballpark to watch him play while you can. Just about every scout and youth coach in the country wants to get his hands on Cayde. You better believe he is already on the radar of professional scouts.
Stajcar is hardly the only reason to watch the Miners, however. The team is filled with some entertaining ballplayers and characters.
Kenley Leary is a future college baseball player, though he has not announced where just yet. He has 37 strikeouts in 27 innings. He is also batting .433 with 12 extra-base hits in 18 games, and he leads the state in moxie.
In Butte’s last home twin bill, Leary pitched the distance for the win in Game 1. Then he hit an inside-the-park home run to lead off the nightcap.
Ethan “Easy” Cunningham, who has the best nickname on the team, is 5-0 on the season. He has struck out 44 in 32 and two thirds innings.
With Rye Doherty, Stajcar and my cousin Trey Hansen, another promising young player, the Miners will have one of the best pitching staffs in the league.
Shortstop Eric “Chooch” Hart, who is also a candidate for the All-Nickname team, is a hitting machine with his .538 average. He will be taking his talent to the University of Jamestown this fall.
First baseman Aidan Lee, catcher Evan Starr and speedy outfield Egan Lester are playing their “super senior” season for the Miners. Lester is also a member of the Montana Tech football team.
Sean Ossello, Quinn Cox, Anthony Knott, Lester, Lee and Kevin Donaldson are all hitting over .300. Zach Tierney, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury is ready to take off.
When Tierney is at the dish, the windows on Daly Street are not safe.
George Riojas leads the league in posing for photos now that Max Demarais hung up his spikes and Eyston Lakkala suffered a season-ending injury.
The younger Butte Muckers are also playing a pretty good brand of baseball and are also worth watching. That team is coached by Dyllan “Kruk” Lane, another All-Nickname candidate.
Lane was saddled with that moniker by Doherty’s father, Brian, because he looked just like John Kruk as a Little League player.
The Muckers are worth your time, too, if you like baseball.
Sure, the doubleheader format of Legion baseball is not quite as fan friendly as Tommyknockers schedule, but the two teams give baseball fans tons of opportunities to spend those nice summer nights at the ballpark.
The Tommyknockers promised a gourmet chef, and delivered with under-sized and overpriced hamburgers and hotdogs. The Miners and Muckers have food from Casagranda’s Steakhouse.
The Butte Legion program also has a license to sell beer at the games.
So, really, you have no excuse. Legion baseball gives you everything the Expedition League did. Legion just never takes money from your children for speed pitch, and it does not offer any impossible car giveaways.
Do yourself a favor. Get out and watch Butte’s boys so summer. The Miners play a 5 p.m. doubleheader at home against Dillon on Friday. If you can’t make the first one, take in the second.
When you see one of the Butte boys hit it big down the road, you will wish that you did.
And you won’t be able to say we didn’t warn you.
— Bill Foley, who is not a gourmet chef, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.