This past weekend featured some of the best softball games I had seen this year at the Southwest A divisional tournament in Hamilton.
Host Hamilton held off a furious Butte Central comeback, and Anaconda won on an emotional walk-off hit to secure its spot in the Class A State tournament, which will be in Anaconda this weekend.
But the reality of the weekend was that the girls should have never been on the field in the first place.
Persistent rain throughout Friday and Saturday turned the fields into swamps, relegating the teams to just one field on Saturday. The conditions and "solution" put every player from the six teams in danger.
When one fan makes a quip that they need to throw the third base coach a lifejacket, and players take the field wearing rain jackets, maybe those should be taken as signs that the games should not have been played.
It tells you how bad the conditions were when the first thought entering coaches' minds on Saturday wasn’t winning a title, but worrying about the safety of their players.
The fear of injury was especially prevalent for a team like Butte Central, which only had 11 players.
“My whole fear (Saturday) was that somebody was going to get hurt,” Butte Central coach Kelci Thatcher said after that day's games. “I don’t have a ton of players, and you’re going to tell me I have to risk my girls? That’s what I didn’t understand. It’s not that we didn’t want to play, because you want to get better before state, but you’re putting your girls at risk. That’s not fair.”
Sadly, that same sentiment seemed to escape the tournament organizers. Thankfully and luckily, none of the players from Hamilton, Butte Central or Anaconda, the three teams who advanced to state, were injured in the conditions.
Hamilton ought to throw the grounds crew at the tournament a parade, because they threw more dirt in two days than most gravediggers do in a year just to try and keep the fields safe.
Throughout Saturday, parents in attendance asked me what I thought of them putting the kids on the field, and I kept coming back to one word: embarrassing.
Embarrassing that after working all season to be at their best, the players were forced to play in the worst possible conditions.
Embarrassing that tournament directors thought it was OK to send players out onto a field that was a legitimate safety hazard at every step.
Embarrassing that tournament directors or umpires didn’t have the decency to step in and say enough is enough.
On Friday evening, the rain fell so hard that Stevensville’s Carly Vercruyssen, and very solid pitcher, at one point walked six batters, hit one and threw five wild pitches without getting an out as puddles formed around the mound and bases.
And yet they played on.
At one point the catcher walked the ball out to the mound and handed it back to Vercruyssen in an attempt to keep the ball dry.
It finally took a coach to tell an umpire, “She can’t even hold on to the ball,” before play was finally halted.
I understand wanting to try and crown a true champion on the field, but even that didn’t happen.
After Hamilton defeated Butte Central in the “championship” game, Central and Anaconda were forced to take the field again for a game that determined seeding for the state tournament. But the winner of the game never got the chance to challenge Hamilton for the top seed.
One player before the game started, upon hearing they wouldn’t get to challenge Hamilton said, “We’re both going to state, why are we playing this game?”
That question summed up the thoughts of everyone who sat through that last game, one that mercifully ended in the fifth inning on a walk-off hit when umpires finally determined the field was too poor to continue.
“Why are we out there freezing in the middle of the rain in unplayable conditions when there’s no chance to play Hamilton?” Thatcher asked. “It’s frustrating.”
I understand wanting to play the game so players and parents don’t make the long drive for nothing, but I also understand that above all else, player safety should be the top priority, and that wasn’t the case this weekend.
Tournament organizers, unlike the players actually on the field, dropped the ball this weekend.