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Today is Going to be a Tough Day: Heading Back to the Ballpark

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Today is going to be tough for me. Why is that?

I am heading to Lloyd Nolan Yard, home of the Prairie Baseball Academy Dawgs. It is also home of two great ball players and even better men, Tanner Craswell and Mitch MacLean.

Even though I have only been down in Lethbridge for almost eight months now, I was blessed to know these two men, even if it was in an Umpire/Player relationship.

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Both of these boys played for the Lethbridge Bulls, a summer collegiate team playing in the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL), a league I have had the opportunity to work with. In fact when I look back at the box score of my first plate game in the WMBL, both of these boys were in the starting line-up (I have that line-up card put away in a safe place). In my time in umpiring the WMBL, the Bulls were the team I saw the most while umpiring the Edmonton Prospects as my home territory.

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These boys also played for PBA, an academy that I began to associate with and umpire once I moved down to Lethbridge for school.

These boys were down here to play ball and get an education, hoping to pursue their dreams both academically and athletically. Tanner and Mitch were helping coach some of the other players during fall ball, which is used to determine the varsity and junior varsity teams for the spring collegiate season.

I was basically umpiring these games to help out and still have some fun umpiring in Lethbridge to close out my season. My last game of 2011 at PBA will always be etched in my mind.

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PBA was playing Vauxhall Academy, a high school based academy where Tanner played for and Mitch this day, was helping out Vauxhall by being their catcher as they were short bodies.

I was the home plate umpire that day, joking around with Mitch as he was the guy that made sure I didn’t get hit with a baseball or had a tough time seeing pitches. During a ballgame, the catcher is an umpire’s best friend so for that game, Mitch was my friend and well he did a hell of a job. Tanner also joked around as he coached the PBA boys, many of them I knew through umpiring baseball in Alberta for several years.

It was a regular game by all accounts, but I remember it completely since the tragedy occurred on December 15th, 2011. I also remember one moment of that game that still bothers me today.

Mitch was at bat, unfortunately his last at bat in this lifetime, and he made the most of it. He hit a grand slam so far that it is probably the farthest that I have ever seen a person his age hit a ball with a wood bat. When he came back to catch the next inning, the following conversation occurred.

Me: Damn you hit that ball far Mitch, nice shot!

Mitch: Thanks Jeff.

Me: Now, I probably already know the answer, but do you want me to save you the ball when it comes back and give it to you? (This is something that is customary when a kid hits his first home run and a funny joke with a older player.)

Mitch (laughing): No, don’t worry about it, I’ll hit another one soon.

Well, turns out it was his last home run down here with all of us.

I wish I would have given him that ball.

I can take solace in that Mitch and Tanner are turning double plays and hitting bombs in a ballpark that has no rain, no high winds, no gopher holes, and no crappy umpires (like me at times).

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When I drive past the site near Claresholm, I think about that game and those boys.

When I head to that diamond to teach the next generation of umpires today and when I go to umpire a game for PBA there, I will think about those two boys.

It will be a tough day.

I wear a wristband to remember the two ball players and more importantly people we have lost.

One of these days in the future, I will be able to see them again hopefully and hopefully I can finally give that ball to Mitch.

Until we meet again boys, keep playing ball.

Chip