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As participation numbers dwindle, baseball faces uncertain future in Montana

Posted: 12:00 PM, Jun 02, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-04 18:25:51-04

Baseball has long been considered America’s pastime for a reason.

“You make friends for a lifetime. Playing for Tri-County is something special. And baseball is just a fun game to play,” said Braedon Hutton, a player with the Tri-County Cardinals. “Every night, come here around six o’clock, it’s nice outside, you can chill with your buddies. Then on the weekends you go to tournaments, stay in hotels. There’s just nothing to hate about it.”

“You develop really great friendships, because you do play a lot, you do travel all of the state. We’re packed in our a little bus, and the relationships you can form through baseball are so important,” said Lewistown Redbirds coach Scott Sparks. “It’s always been one of my favorite games just because they’re so much to it. … It pushes them a little bit mentally and physically. It gets you out of your comfort zone. But when you have success in it, I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding.”

But, as rewarding as finding success on the diamond can be, fewer and fewer Montana athletes are stepping up to the plate.

“This season has been a lot like a lot of the past seasons. We started out with 12 kids, lost two, then have since recruited two kids, one of whom is a double roster, so I say one-and-a-half a lot,” said Tri-County coach Bjorn Swanson.

Swanson and his Tri-County Cardinals draw from seven different towns to form one American Legion Baseball team. The baseball programs in Sidney folded, and the Butte Miners moved from Class AA Legion ball to Class A.

Programs across the state are seeing dwindling participation — even in the healthier baseball markets.

“Twenty-five years ago, the same age group, we had 10 teams. Now we’re down to the point where we’ve got two teams, and it’s a challenge each year,” said Sparks. “We get younger each year. I don’t know. I hope, because we provide a really first-class program, we’ve got a great facility, a community that’s always supported baseball, I hope it’s able to sustain through the long haul. I think we’ll always be able to field a team, I think you’ll just see it get younger and younger.”

“We used to roll 100 kids out for the red side and blue side, so we’d have 200 Legion Baseball players out in Billings trying out to make one of the four teams,” echoed Billings Scarlets coach Adam Hust. “You’ve seen those numbers cut in half over the last three, four, five, six years. Now that that’s happening, it does, it makes you appreciate what we got, but it also kind of makes you wonder where these kids are going and what they’re doing.”

Many coaches point to three reasons for the decline:

  • Cost
  • The increase in travel and club teams
  • And sport specialization

“There’s a lot more opportunities for kids. We have a lot more soccer leagues going on, some lacrosse going on, kids are kind of specializing in one sport a little bit more than they used to,” said Helena Senators coach Jon Burnett. “I don’t know if that’s what’s attributing directly to it, but I think that probably does affect it.”

“I played Legion ball about 15 years ago, and we had a lot of guys that played football and basketball and baseball and track, you know, that did a bunch of different sports,” said Tony Forster, the Great Falls Chargers coach. “I think nowadays kids are starting to specialize on one, maybe two sports.”

Great Falls used to be central Montana’s hub for Legion baseball, but the Electric City is down to just one Legion baseball program.

“I think a big reason is, you don’t have high school baseball in Montana, so you’re not school-funded,” said Forster. “So, a lot of it has to be fund-raised and some kind of money out of pocket, which can be a little stressful at times for people. That’s kind of a big reason, the money issue. I think if we had high school baseball, where it was school-funded, it might be a different issue.”

Montana is just one of three states not to offer high school baseball, according to Montana High School Association executive director Mark Beckman. South Dakota and Wyoming are the others.

Since the MHSA’s inception in 1921, it has never sanctioned baseball. New sports are only added when member schools bring forth proposals to study the interest and feasibility. The schools then vote whether to form the committee to begin the process. Girls wrestling, for example, is currently in that process. Member schools voted to form a committee, which is now researching the possibility of adding girls wrestling.

“The same thing would be for baseball. If there’s interest in it, it would have to be generated through our member schools,” Beckman said. “In the Association, in my 22 years here, I think, from my recollection, probably three times it has come in front of the membership, and it hasn’t got past the approval to even form a committee.”

Part of the old thinking, according to Beckman, who was previously a Legion baseball coach: Why disrupt the successful American Legion programs?

But what about now, when cracks in baseball’s foundation are starting to surface?

“It isn’t just baseball,” Beckman said. “We take a look at some of our sports are having declining participation. We’re having fewer and fewer sub-varsity teams and all that. So what is that problem? Is the problem that it’s baseball and where it’s at? Or is the problem some of our club sports? Or some of our other sports saying you will work all summer long and work on this sport or that sport and be involved in these camps? … We strongly discourage that, of course. I believe in diversification of kids playing all the activities or athletics that they want to, but that isn’t the case now. We have to continue to combat that specialization focus that we have.”

“I think high school baseball would be huge for us,” Sparks said. “I mean, we’re fortunate that our Legion programs in the state are strong. We do have a good schedule that’s ran through April, May. But I think those three or four kids that are on the fence of whether they want to commit to playing Legion baseball in the summer, if they played high school baseball and have a good experience, I think they roll into a Legion season.”

And that’s the key: Kids who are making the commitment are reaping the benefits.

“You do see numbers going down a little bit. There’s so many alternative sports out there and kids specializing and whatnot. We still run a great program. Whether the numbers are down or not, you still get the kids out that love baseball and want to commit to you and want to do great things in the sport,” Hust said. “We got a lot of good, quality young men out here, so it makes it a lot of fun.”

Beckman said the MHSA will continue to combat sport specialization, encouraging athletes to play multiple sports, including Legion baseball. As of now, though, member schools have shown little interest in adding baseball as an MHSA-sanctioned sport.

MTN Sports’ Isaiah Dunk, Sam Hoyle and Dan Dragan contributed to this report.