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Rift between Mining City Tommyknockers players, front office halts season with six games to play
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Rift between Mining City Tommyknockers players, front office halts season with six games to play

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Tommyknockers

The Mining City Tommyknockers called its quits Sunday, with still six games remaining in the Expedition League season.

BUTTE — The Mining City Tommyknockers will not be playing the remaining six games of their inaugural season, the Expedition League baseball team announced Sunday on Twitter.

“Fans, The Remainder of the season has been canceled,” the tweet read.

The moment had been building ever since players arrived in Butte back in mid-May, but calling off the season was never the culmination the players wanted, they said.

“We wanted to give back to Butte,” Tommyknockers closer Dylan Wilhelm said. “The fans are the ones — the reason that we were playing. We love the group of guys that we had. We love our coaches, but the conditions were just not being fixed or addressed even.”

Players said those conditions included insufficient housing, an absence of medical personnel and an overall lack of communication between front-office management and players. Things never ran smoothly.

Asked when they could tell something was off, everyone associated with the team had similar answers.

“Oh, right at the beginning,” said Craig Madden, who hosted seven Tommyknockers players with Julie Janacaro.

Said Wilhelm: “It starts with when we arrived and all the guys that were supposed to have host families were in hotels.”

There were never enough host families to house the players, they said.

Before the season, for example, Madden and Janacaro were assigned two players. As it became clear there weren’t enough families, the Butte residents agreed to take two more players. By the end of the season, they housed seven.

“I mean, we had no problem at all with that,” Madden said. “I mean, like my wife told me just a second ago, we would have taken 10 of them. And then just all the little bit of stuff that you heard from the kids when they got home at night that this has not come to fruition. It was just a goat rope from the word ‘go.’”

“In Year 1 of a baseball team, always one of the hardest challenges is to go from zero to 45 beds,” Tommyknockers co-owner Dane Wagner said. “A team that’s been around for five years, or something like that, has a network of host families.”

Wagner added that the team spent “well over $1,000” on Facebook ads, specifically for host families. They also bought billboard advertising space with The Montana Standard and sent out an every-door direct mailer to about 10,000 homes in Butte, reaching out to the community for host families before the players arrived.

Some teammates were not fortunate enough to squeeze in with host families. Infielder Miles Hartsfield estimated about 15 players were put up at the Best Western Plus for the first home stand of the season.

Upon returning form a six-game road trip through Idaho and Wyoming, those players learned their stay at the hotel was done. Wagner said at that point the number of players without host families was actually eight.

“When we got back to Butte, the hotel wasn’t an option anymore,” Hartsfield said.

It was at this point in mid-June that the ‘The Mansion’ saga began.

Named and casually referred to as ‘The Mansion’ by the players, the residence belonged to Tommyknockers co-owner Dave Sheffield. Wagner, the other co-owner, brought the players to "The Mansion" without Sheffield’s immediate knowledge.

The conditions were subpar.

“So there were 15 of us who went to The Mansion,” Hartsfield said. “He bought about five air mattresses for 15 guys. Some guys had twin air mattresses and some guys had to share an air mattress. During the middle of the night, air mattresses would deflate; everything like that. We’d wake up three times to blow them back up.

“Dave had no idea we were staying in there … until the plumbing got backed up. The plumbing got backed up about 10 hours after we got there.”

The players staying in The Mansion decided enough was enough. The team had been promised improvements throughout the season, but they hesitated to put their foot down because they wanted to keep playing baseball.

“Everybody said they’d give it three days, and if nothing gets better, we’re leaving,” Hartsfield said.

“Dave did everything he could to help the team,” an anonymous player added. “Got stuck with bad partners.”

Wagner said that all players did have host families by the end of June. 

"The problem with the host family situation is that he told all of us over Zoom meetings that he had host families for everyone before we had come to Butte," Wilhelm said. "The issue with that statement, however, is that it was a lie and the situation that followed was caused by Dane's constant lying to players, and lack of overall communication to anyone."

The damage could neither be undone, nor repaired, as tensions continued to run hot over the course of the next month, the players said.

Things reached a boiling point over the weekend, with the situation that Wilhelm referenced. 

On Friday, an Expedition League representative was in town to inspect a bit of field maintenance at 3 Legends. Eventually, the players began to air some grievances to the official.

“And that turned into a swearing brawl from all of the players to this league official,” Wagner said. “They knew who he was. They knew that he was a high-level league official, and at one point after the game yesterday, they were swearing at this league official and saying, ‘Come out to the parking lot and see what’s up.’

“Their college coaches would be very disappointed with the way they were acting. … It was a very low-caliber, low-character way to do something.”

This incident sparked a team meeting at the field Sunday. Players, coaches, host families and the administration shared their concerns and frustrations.

And so the team came forward with their demands, which included: If management couldn’t give players appropriate living accommodations, then fans shouldn’t be charged admission to home games. Those demands were not met, they said.

“We feel like if Dane isn't going to care for his players, he's probably just in it for the money,” Wilhelm said. “And I'm assuming he probably made a decent amount of money off of this, so that was the reasoning.”

And that was that.

“(The players) were such high-character, high-caliber guys at the beginning of the season,” Wagner said. “Somewhere along the way, something swung, where they just kind of lost sight of being that role model in the community.”

Wagner assured that the Tommyknockers would be back in 2022, and for "decades" after that.

While housing varied depending on the player, the team’s health and nutrition — across the board — was an afterthought for upper management, they said.

“There has never been a trainer,” Madden said. “They had a first responder show up. I mean, there's a lot of difference between a trainer and a first responder.”

Injuries are almost unavoidable in baseball, trainer or no trainer. However, some injuries are critical to diagnose in a timely fashion, especially when more than a year of rehabilitation is in store.

“And we actually had a kid get injured, an arm injury, while we didn't have a trainer on staff,” said an unnamed source. “And he was never given any hospital appointment, anything like that; he wasn't taken care of by the team, even though he was playing for them while that injury happened. And it turned out he had torn his UCL.”

A torn UCL is repaired by Tommy John surgery. According to The Arm, by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, a player who undergoes this surgery is rarely back to 100% before 18 months.

Despite everything that unfolded during the Tommyknockers’ inaugural season, the players were adamant about wanting to continue playing — for the passionate fans of Butte.

The Expedition League is a wood-bat summer league for college players. Dane's father, Steve, is president and founder of the league. A message was left with him Saturday night.

Matthew Kiewiet is the sports editor for the Montana Standard and sports betting columnist for 406MTSports. Email him at matthew.kiewiet@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter @mattkiewiet406.

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