Small town ball is alive and well

13_cardinals_3396TRI-COUNTY CARDINALS  — The team consists of a mixed collection of teenagers. In front from the left is: Josh Ashworth, Conrad; Zach Johannsen, Sunburst; Scotty Bye, Sunburst; and Seth Kitchin, Dutton. In back is Kyle Schmidt, Power; Robbie Miller, Shelby; Tyler Tharp, Sunburst; Trevor Walker, Milk River, Alberta; and Ryan Clark, Shelby. Not pictured is: Tyler Padilla, Conrad; Clark Judisch, Conrad; Cooper Hawke, Valier; and coaches Tyler Bucklin and Tyson Anderson.  Photo courtesy of Tyler Bucklin

By Eric C. Anderson, Courtesy of the Great Falls Tribune

In Montana, the saying goes: “everybody knows everybody.”

And for Tri-County Cardinals Legion baseball team, that adage does not appear to be threatened by extinction anytime soon.

The melting pot of cities that comprises the Tri-County team includes teenagers — with ages ranging from 15 to 19 — from a cluster of different towns like Sunburst, Shelby, Power, Dutton, Valier, the Milk River area and Conrad — where the Cardinals call home.

“We play all of our games in (Conrad),” manager Tyler Bucklin said. “We try to practice in Shelby and break up the travel miles for the kids. We’ll practice here for a week, or Shelby for a week, so we kind of rotate around. Once the season starts, we just practice here.”

Bucklin, a Conrad native who also teaches middle school math, is in his 11th year of coaching after the Tri-County team was founded in 2002. Not only does Bucklin coach his mixed collection of players, but he also acts as a human itinerary.

“It takes lots of text messages and group messages back and forth,” he said of coordinating between all his players. “They respond pretty quickly. Bus rides get a little long picking them up. We got kids here, Shelby, and all the way up to Sunburst.”

For the players, who often are fierce rivals come football and basketball season, the opportunity to break down barriers between communities is a welcomed notion.

Leftfielder Ryan Clark from Shelby is one of the youngest players on the team. At age 15, he relishes the opportunity to be mentored by older players and tweak his game to mesh with his more experienced teammates.

“It’s faster; it’s a lot more up-tempo, you have to think faster,” he said. “It’s unique to have a bunch of guys from all over, make new friends and just bond together and learn how to make new relationships with new people. “I like the new experiences; it’s a whole different thing than anything else I’ve ever done before.”

Despite their geographical differences, outfielder Tyler Padilla, a Yuma, Ariz., native now living in Conrad, said his team is similar to other teams — they’re together most days of the week. He added that without baseball, he would have been unable to establish the friendships he now has.

“It keeps baseball going,” he said of having a collaborative team. “You’re not going to have it forever, it’s fun to play for them while you can.”

While the communities vary in population, from the minute to the relatively minute, players have the opportunity to embrace each other’s home town cultures.

“It’s different but it gives us a chance to meet kids we wouldn’t normally meet if we just had a team from Conrad,” said Josh Ashworth, the Cardinals’ 16-year-old catcher from Conrad. “We have a really small town, so it definitely opens our eyes up to other people outside and what other towns are like.”

But as is the case for a lot of the sporting scene in Montana, summer’s are for baseball. Ashworth said he also welcomes the tutelage of older players on the team and in fact, he lives for it.

“It’s what I look forward to all year,” he said. “Ever since I started playing, my life has always been about baseball.”

With their love of the game and the new bonds they have developed — the players agreed that years down the road they would maintain friendships — the Tri-County Cardinals appear to have something that is as good as gold.

Maybe that’s why we call it the Treasure State.