2015 Bitterroot, Montana All-Stars Honor Young Athlete lost in 1980 Accident
The boxes filled with all-star uniforms had been gathering dust after being stored away for years. They were purchased a quarter century ago from monies donated to a memorial fund for an enthusiastic young Hamilton, Montana baseball player who died following a tragic accidental shooting.
Rial Owen Hanson had played on the league's all-star team the year of his death in 1989. Everyone assumed that he would be on the 9-year-old all-star team in 1990.
"He was a live wire," said his mother, Carla Hanson. "He was funny and sweet. And he really loved the game of baseball."
She can still remember the hodge-podge of uniforms that her son's first all-star team wore in 1989. "They kind of looked like the Bad News Bears," she said. "Everyone had something different for pants."
After her son's death, the family started a memorial fund that raised enough money to build batting cages and a throwing wall the league still uses today. With part of the fund, the Hansons purchased the uniforms that the 1990 nine-year-old all-star team wore to win the state championship and to play in the regional competition.
For many years afterward, all-star teams from the Bitterroot Valley Babe Ruth League proudly wore those same uniforms.
"We had them laundered and put away until they were needed for the next year," Hanson said. "Fifteen years ago or so, they went to a new style and people quit asking about the uniforms, so we packed them away." And the boxes with summertime memories gathered dust.
A little while back, Hanson decided it was finally time to let the uniforms go. And so she put them in an online yard sale where the wife of this year's coach of the Bitterroot 9U All-Star baseball team spotted them. That coach, Jason Ekin, went to Hanson's home to take a look.
"When he came over to see the uniforms, I took one look at him and said: 'Hey, I know you," Hanson said. Ekin's father, Craig, was the assistant coach of that all-star team 25 years ago. His brother, Chad, was one of the players.
"Of course, I knew who Carla was," Ekins said. "I was only 14 or 15 at the time of the accident, but I still remember it. I knew how she and her family had helped sponsor my brother's team afterwards. At the time, I had no idea these were the same uniforms from that first year. When I told Carla my last name, she said she thought my brother may have actually worn one."
As it turned out, those long forgotten uniforms were just the right size to fit all the members of this year's all-star team. "Apparently, that first team had similarly sized boys," Ekins said. "It was kind of fluky."
2015 is the first year that Ekin has served as a head coach. He was getting a good deal of help from his father and brother. Both have volunteered to be assistants.
"My dad has coached both teams. He was an assistant 25 years ago and now he's back helping me," Ekins said. "My brother played on that team 25 years ago that won state and went on to play in the regional tournament, just like this team."
Ekins' brother will never forget what it's like to play against the best the region has to offer. "When my brother found out we had this opportunity, he started saying...'go, go, go,'" Ekin said. "He said we need to find a way to drum up the funds. It was one of his fondest memories of growing up. He told me it was like going to the World Series as a 9-year-old."
When Curtis Brickley, a father of one of this year's all-stars, heard the connection these uniforms had with the past, he thought it would be nice to honor Hanson's son. "Baseball fans know that the game is never just a game," Brickley said. "Sports in general, but the game of baseball specifically, teaches young people about failure and how to manage it; one pitch, one hit, one dropped ball or one strike at a time."
Beyond the obvious lesson that everyone needs to take great care when handling firearms, the Hanson's generosity to a generation of youngsters offers hope that something good can sometimes happen from something incredibly bad.
When Brickley met with Keith and Carla Hanson to ask permission for this year's state champion team to honor their son at the regional tournament in West Linn, Oregon, he wondered if they might be able to borrow Rial's glove for good luck.
"Baseball is sometimes a superstitious sport," he said. "I could kind of see his glove hanging in the dugout where the boys could touch it before they went to bat or took the field," Brickley said.
The Hansons agreed they would go home and look through the box of Rial's belongings to see if it was there.
"When they were going through the box to get his glove, they remembered that Rial was buried with it," Brickley said. "Nothing says love for the game more than that."
They did have one of his jerseys that they offered to loan, which was hung in the dugout signifying a reserve seat for Rial with the team.
Before the tournament, the coaches and parents took the team to visit Rial's grave. After they stood there and talked about Rial - a young baseball player who would have fit right in with the group of boys gathered around the gravestone - the young ballplayers unexpectedly voted to add him to their team.
"As we were leaving, Brickley's son Justus pulled the "Champion" pin off his cap and quieted walked over and left it on the marker," Brickley said. "When I asked him why he did it, he said, 'Because Rial is a champion too.'"
The 9U Montana State Champs headed to the Regionals wearing 25-year-old jerseys, taking along their 13th man, Rial Owen Hanson, in spirit. During tournament competition, the team had 6 kids hit .722 or better, 4 more hit .500 or better, and only 3 hit below .500.