It’s looking likely that Expedition League baseball in Butte is one-and-done.
Following a late-season meltdown by the Tommyknockers in Butte and numerous problems it exposed publicly in their inaugural summer, Butte-Silver Bow’s top official wants to sever a lease allowing the team to use 3 Legends Stadium.
The county’s Parks and Recreation Board endorsed the recommendation by Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher on Monday, and if the county attorney gives a nod to the move, he will advise the Council of Commissioners on where he stands.
Gallagher said the “nail in the coffin” for him came several weeks ago when organizers of Little Guy Football called to say the Tommyknockers had left the interior of the concession stand at the Copper Mountain Sports Complex in shambles.
“We were entertaining that it was possible for this (team and organization) to come back and be successful, and you know, repair the damages, but they eventually packed up and left,” Gallagher told The Montana Standard on Monday.
“When I went up to the concession stand at Copper Mountain, they left rotting food, they left beer out, they left all kind of things just there, and I said, ‘There is no way I can support these owners and this league anymore. I can’t endorse them ever coming back to Butte again.’”
Steve Wagner, who brought the private, college-level baseball league to Butte, said it was his understanding the concession stand was left in good order. There are others who have access to it, he said.
“We don’t leave stuff out. That’s just not how we do it,” Wagner, who is president of the league, told the Standard on Monday.
As to the bigger picture — Gallagher’s opposition to the league and team getting a second chance here — Wagner said he was “heartbroken over it and of course saddened by it.”
They had put together a corrective-action plan immediately at the beginning of August, he said, and could “take care of some of these potential issues and fix the problems” if given the chance.
“I certainly wanted to be back and I certainly still want to be back,” he said.
Wagner was a co-owner of the Tommyknockers while his son, Dane Wagner, was general manager. Dane Wagner took most of the heat for problems that became public when the team abruptly canceled its last six games on Aug. 1.
The team announced the cancellation via Twitter without explanation, but players provided several. They said there weren’t enough host families to house them this summer, food was inadequate and they had no medical personnel, among other things.
Dane Wagner was subsequently fired, and Steve Wagner appeared before commissioners on Aug. 25 and said there were numerous “corrective action plans” in the works for next season. Among other things, new owners and managers with baseball experience were being sought.
The club has four years left on a five-year lease for using 3 Legends Stadium, but Gallagher believes the lease can be severed given events this summer.
He said he is double-checking the legalities of that with County Attorney Eileen Joyce, and if she OKs the move from that standpoint, he will take it to council for input. The Parks Board endorsed it on a 3-0 vote Monday and several commissioners have criticized the team and questioned Wagner’s credibility.
Gallagher has done that too, saying there had been no early follow-through on corrective actions. There were other locales unhappy with the league, he said, and suggested it was “in a tailspin.”
“We can leave the lease (intact) and hold them accountable for continuing, but I don’t want any ties to these guys,” Gallagher said. “I just want to cut ties and they can go their way and he can try to save whatever he’s doing in other places, but I can’t endorse these guys coming back to Butte.”
There were 12 teams in the league this year, the others in North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska and one in Canada.
Wagner said he and others had “built up a wonderful league,” provided a nice game-day experience for fans and came to Butte with every intention of being here for a long time.
“Obviously we invested a tremendous amount of energy, emotions, time and money into bringing a new team to Butte,” Wagner said. “I think the baseball was outstanding, the talent was really, really good if you had a chance to watch it. I think the team was loved in the community.”
Several residents expressed similar takes on the talent and game-day experience to commissioners, and Gallagher said Butte had shown it could support such a team.
“It was the mismanagement of the league and the team management that caused the failure,” he said.
Gallagher had supported the team coming to Butte when he was parks director, before he became chief executive in January. He said he thought he had done a good job vetting the league but promised to “vet harder” if another chance comes along.
“We’ll make sure that it’s something that can be successful and make it work, but I worry that it has left such a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of commissioners and baseball enthusiasts, we may never see an opportunity again,” he said.
Wagner said he had tried to focus on solutions after the season and said news of Gallagher’s decision was disappointing. He sent a text to the Standard later Monday afternoon with additional thoughts.
“I don’t think a city/county should be able to terminate a lease due to a private company’s internal operating issues, especially since we’ve embarked on a corrective action plan,” he said in the text. “I also don’t think that a city/county should be involved in determining the ownership group or ownership structure of a business.”