Lumber Mavericks

Miles City Mavericks pitcher Seth Crawford put power behind his smooth swing as he warmed up for his team's opening game at the Terry Jablonsky Wood Bat Classic with a golden Louisville Slugger bat.

Miles City Mavericks pitcher Seth Crawford put power behind his smooth swing as he warmed up for his team's opening game at the Terry Jablonsky Wood Bat Classic with a golden Louisville Slugger bat.

At that moment, Crawford couldn't have been happier.

"I think it's good that we're playing against wood," Crawford said. "I don't know if I could go back and throw to aluminum, it's been so long."

Crawford and his teammates have spent the past four summers playing with wood bats in hand. They haven't hit, or played against, aluminum since 2003 when tragedy struck the small Montana town.

That summer, Mavericks pitcher Brandon Patch was killed after a ball batted off an aluminum bat struck him during a game against Bozeman, Mont.


From that day on, the Miles City American Legion baseball club vowed never again to play with aluminum bats, or face teams that used them. For the most part, opponents were happy to comply.

That is, until last summer when Bozeman coach Mitch Messer - with is team in the thick of the Montana Class AA state title hunt - called Miles City coach Matt Phillips two days prior to their scheduled game and asked if his team could use aluminum bats.

Phillips promptly refused and forfeited.

"We literally had no time to prepare," said Phillips, who said he may have considered if Bozeman had given his team more time to prepare and make a consensus decision. "... For me, it was kind of a safety concern. I didn't know if any of my pitchers would be mentally ready for that."

What happened in the coming weeks and months put a black mark on Montana's Legion baseball program, sent Miles City reeling and provoked another swarm of national media - much the same as after Patch's death - on the isolated town of 9,000 in western Montana.

The Montana American Legion's baseball board of directors subsequently suspended the Mavericks from conference play for refusing to play teams with aluminum bats. That led to Miles City being stripped of this summer's Class AA state tournament, as well as the chance for the Mavericks to compete for any postseason awards.

Phillips said what hurt the most was the effect the decision had on his players, especially those heading into their final summer of baseball.

"I just want my kids to have some respect, it's tough enough if you're just from a small town," Phillips said. "... It'd be tough enough if you just had low numbers. It'd be tough enough with just the wood bat controversy. It'd be tough enough if you just lost the (state) tournament."


Crawford echoed his coach, but said playing in wood bat tournaments - the Mavericks scheduled four such tournaments this year, including the Jablonsky and two of their own - have helped ease the pain of not having the chance to compete for a greater prize at year's end.

"It's a great thing that Dickinson invites us down here to play in this tournament," Crawford said.

The Mavericks have been lucky enough to avoid scheduling issues after being removed from their conference lineup. They are playing 23 regular-season, non-tournament games both on the road and at home.

They play the Dickinson Roughriders five times this season, including a game at 5:30 p.m. tonight during the Jablonsky Classic.

Phillips said he respects Dickinson coaches Cory Hansen and Andy Emerd for playing his team with wood bats last summer when Hansen was the coach of the Billings Scarlets and Emerd the coach of the Billings Royals.

"They both maintained their games with us," Phillips said. "At the same time it kind of sucked for them. It was respectable that they maintained."

With no end of their conference suspension in site, some Mavericks players say their team may eventually - and resentfully - be forced to switch back to aluminum bats.

"At some point in time, Miles City will have to make a choice," said Ryan Harris, a recently graduated high school senior from Miles City. "If they want to get back into Legion, they'll probably have to go back to aluminum."

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