LEWISTOWN — In August of 2012, Lewistown’s Ryan Sparks passed away unexpectedly.
Sparks had been a mainstay in the Lewistown community, where he graduated from high school in 1997. He returned to coach the Redbirds, Lewistown’s American Legion Baseball team, following his years of playing collegiate baseball at Dickinson (N.D.) State University and Dawson Community College.
While coaching the Redbirds, Sparks always had a goal of raising enough money to put lights up at the team’s field. His lifetime friend, Kyle Trafton, brought that dream to reality after Sparks’ passing.
Trafton started The RJ Co-ed Softball Tournament in 2013 as a memorial to his friend, but also to raise the money for lights to be put up on the town’s Legion baseball field.
“Ryan and I, we were good friends, roommates for a while,” Trafton said. “We played high school sports together, high school baseball. Close friends, really close. He’s one of the most competitive guys I knew.”
“It’s been cool to watch this tournament grow,” he continued. “The first year we started, it was eight teams, eight local teams just drinking beer and talking about stories of Ryan. Then it went to 10 teams for a couple of years, then last year it really blew up to 20. It became one of the biggest strictly co-ed tournaments in the state all the sudden. Now we’re at 16-20 teams every year and people on the waiting list to get in, so it’s cool to see how it grew.”
Teams from all over the state have traveled to Lewistown over the past few years to show their support for Sparks and the Redbirds program, coming from as far as Missoula, Great Falls, Bozeman, Havre and Billings.
The money raised through just two years of the tournament was enough to get the lights up on the field. Now, after six years, the tournament’s money is donated back to the Redbirds program, which is coached by Ryan’s older brother Scott.
“The proceeds from this tournament essentially pay our light bill to be able to run the lights for the kids,” Scott said. “It’s been such a great addition to our ballpark. It gives us the ability to host state tournaments, regional tournaments, kids can work during the day, come and play baseball during the night. Our crowds have been better. It’s just pretty cool to be able to go out to the ballpark and see lights on all summer long and know that it was for Ryan and that this tournament helps support him.”
The RJ Co-ed Softball tournament is exactly how Ryan would have wanted it. Ryan hated the rule in co-ed softball where a home run was an out, so the tournament plays it like in baseball where a home run is credited as such.
As the tournament has grown, Scott has noticed many of Ryan’s former players returning to town to support their coach.
“It’s just cool, all of his players that come back and support the tournament. Next year we’re going to tie in an alumni baseball game underneath the lights,” Scott said. “We’ve been talking to some of the guys that played for us. We’ve been talking about getting an alumni thing going, tie it into the tournament and play it Friday night, then roll into the tournament the next two days. I think it’s going to get bigger and better. It’s awesome to see all of these guys back here playing for Ryan.”
Thanks to The RJ Co-ed Softball Tournament and the new lights at Ryan Sparks field, home of the Redbirds, Ryan J. Sparks’ memory continues to live in Lewistown.