The smell of fresh, spring air, the crack of a bat solidly connecting with the ball, cheers from the stands, baseball has been one of America’s favorite sports for over 100 years and the love of the game lives on in the hearts of quite a few young men, right here in the area. The Tri-County Cardinals baseball team’s love for the game has proven stronger than the challenges the team has been facing.
“The Tri-County Cardinals are struggling to stay in the game, as they have little support outside of some close-knit family and friends,” said Ted Bunnell, father of team member Briton Bunnell. “They don’t know much about advertising, and to tell you the truth, neither do I, but I know they need help.”
Currently the team is utilizing an old, rundown bus, with no air conditioning, that left them stranded on the side of the road more than once last season. Their uniforms are 23-years-old and their equipment, well, it’s by no means new.
“Some problems, due to low funds, would be not getting the best equipment, like bats,” said Tri-County Cardinal Kolby Kovatch of Choteau. “Usually we just use another player’s bat, unless they take them away from us. And transportation can be a pain, because we cannot afford a new bus and the payments to repair it are too much.”
The team currently has only $4,000 in its bank account, which may sound like quite a bit, until you take into consideration needing to not only replace equipment but also finding a better mode of transportation, on top of the money needed for a season of hotels, gas, food and the list goes on.
“Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges, their hearts and love of the game took them to District last year, where they took second place,” said Bunnell. “A feat that brought them a winning season they hadn’t seen in five years.”
The players don’t count on others to fund their season. Each member of the team pays to play, and it’s not cheap. The player fee for the first year is $425 and each returning year is $375.
“The boys are also required to get sponsorships and advertising to offset the cost of keeping the program running,” said parent Crystal Freeman. “We are currently working on a gun raffle as a fundraiser and tickets will be available soon to purchase.”
The team, coached by Bjorn Swanson and Mike Hansell, currently boasts players from Shelby, Conrad, Choteau and Dutton. Anyone 14 to 18-years-old who would like to join is welcome. In the past, the team also included players from Cut Bank and Valier.
Glacier County is included in the Tri-County Cardinals, but there are no players from there on this year’s roster.
Practice for the 2019 seasons will get underway later this month, when weather permits. The Cardinals first game is May 12 against Great Falls, with the first home scheduled in Conrad on May 19 against Havre.
“It’s very important that our program continues,” said Tri-County Cardinal Briton Bunnell. “Not just because we love baseball, but also because of the strong friendships that are built during the season. I love my boys.”
The opportunity to be able to keep playing is very important to all on the team, each having their own reasons for why. But the bottom line, these boys have a passion for one of America’s oldest sports and they don’t want to miss the chance to keep playing.
“To me it’s important that we are able to keep playing because baseball is America’s pastime,” said Matt Riehl. “My mom used to tell me that when she was younger they had a legion/high school team in each town. It’s kind of sad that the only two within 100 miles now are Great Falls and Conrad. I think that it will help keep the sport alive.”
Getting outside with your friends and playing a game that you love, it doesn’t get much better than that. In order for this group of young men, and future Tri-County Cardinals, to continue playing, the communities they call home are needed to step up and help. Donations of any size are greatly appreciated and the team is dedicated to doing what they can to help in raising the funds.
“If anyone would like to donate they can contact Bjorn Swanson or myself,” said Freeman. “I will get the information to Bjorn or another board member.We will accept any kind of donation.”
“I know we cannot each come up with $50,000, but I do know we have some amazing restaurants, mechanic shops, barbershops, bars, stores of all sorts, and other businesses throughout our communities,” said Ted Bunnell.
Checks can be made out to the Tri-County Cardinals and deposited in their account at Stockman Bank drop off locations or with Karrie Crabtree.
“I know we love to get together and have a good time, and we all like to save a little money at tax time with a couple of charitable donations. Please look into your ability to lend a helping hand to your Tri-County Cardinals so they can pull it all together this year for an amazing season and build our community as a formidable champion community of Montana,” he concluded.