This story appears in the Crookston Times' May 27 Community Connections issue.

Brady Butt’s favorite sport to play is football. His father, Scott, is Crookston’s head football coach, and he’s all set to play college football at the University of Jamestown in the NAIA next fall.

But the one thing he’ll remember about his high school baseball career? He always, always enjoyed himself.

On a team that’s won just two section games in each of its last three seasons, no less. And even though he readily admits that winning games is the best part about sports.

There’s a good reason for that.

Butt was one of a whopping 11 seniors on the Pirate baseball team this year. The vast majority of them have been playing together for nearly half their lives. They were looking forward to making a big improvement on last season’s record, of course, but more than that, they were close.

“If you look at the grade that was above us, we had zero seniors, and the grade below us has like two or three (people), so we always were a family,” Butt said. “We never really had to bring kids up to be on our team. We were always together.”

Added head coach Mitch Bakken: “All these kids, this is what they worked for. ... They really enjoyed baseball. It wasn’t just something they did in the spring, it wasn’t just go hang out with your buddies. They genuinely enjoyed the game of baseball.”

The road for Crookston’s 11 seniors was often bumpy and uphill. With no players in the grade above them, they were expected to be leaders earlier than they would have been otherwise, playing against teams with an extra year of experience and development. Rarely were they the oldest kids on the diamond. Even one year made a huge difference.

But two years ago, during their age-16 summers, the Pirates got a glimpse of what might be during the Babe Ruth League season in the summer. With an age advantage for the first time, they won 18 games, losing only one.

Even as Crookston struggled last season, Bakken saw encouraging signs from his juniors. For one, they had to be de facto seniors with no actual seniors on the team, meaning that the 2020 Pirates would be led by an entire lineup-worth of “two-year seniors.” Furthermore, they carried themselves like seniors already.

“We would have had a lot of leadership,” Bakken said. “Sometimes, you get two or three seniors and they almost try to do too much. … It wouldn’t have been like that this year because they know the drill. I just think the steps they made last year, they would have made huge strides this year.

“Our team is super quiet, which is odd, but we have several kids, including Brady, who lead by example. That’s what you want.”

Bakken has known Butt for 16 years now, ever since Bakken was the head softball coach at Minnesota Crookston and Butt’s father was on the Golden Eagles’ football coaching staff. And from the time Bakken started coaching Butt, he recognized that work ethic and leadership by example, and knew exactly where it came from.

“He knows what coaches are trying to do, he knows why we’re critiquing things,” Bakken said. “If we’re working with him on something, he knows why. He’s very easy to coach, and he’s a good teammate. … He doesn’t do it to try to earn any kudos, it’s just part of his mentality growing up in his family. That’s the way it is. He knows how things are to be done.”

Off the field, Butt was the type of teammate who, instead of waiting to instruct underclassmen to bring out the equipment to get ready for practice, did it himself and trusted others to follow. On the field, he was the type of player to know what needed to be improved in his game and how to make those improvements.

In 2018, he attended a hitting camp run by former Pirate star Chris Bruggeman. Prior to that point, his swing was often unbalanced, and would fall out of his stance while swinging, causing him to swing and miss often and sapping him of power when he did make contact.

“(Bruggeman) taught me how to use my lower half and be stable, so I was able to generate more power,” Butt said. “After that season, I turned a corner on my hitting.”

In turning a corner, Butt was named to the All-Section 8AA team, hitting .392 while playing at catcher, first base and designated hitter. On the mound, he pitched 22 innings, leading the Pirates with 21 strikeouts.

“His biggest strength is he’s a competitor,” Bakken said. “He’s a left-handed bat, that’s always huge, (and) he doesn't get cheated when he’s up at the plate. … (As a catcher) he’ll wear baseballs in the dirt even if nobody’s on, he’ll be working on blocking and doing things just to work on it. Pitching-wise, he goes after people. He wants to challenge people, and he's always had faith in his defense and confidence that if he throws a good pitch, there’s gonna be a ball in play that his defense can handle.”

And with Butt helping to lead the way, and the 10 seniors with him since the beginning, it’s not too difficult to see where his confidence in the Pirates’ potential this season came from.

“Not gonna lie, we were expecting to make a run in the section tourney,” he said. “Now that we were all the seniors, we felt like we were gonna make a run for the section tourney and for the section championship.”

Instead, Butt and his brother, Brooks, a sophomore on the team, were relegated to playing catch in the driveway to keep their arms fresh and hitting the ball off tees in their backyard, waiting for the inevitable MSHSL cancellation due to COVID-19.

“We had some different things planned for practices to help everyone reach their full potential, so the excitement was there and then gone,” Bakken said. “ … (But) I think they would have made some noise this spring.”

Every once in a while, Butt will text one of his teammates, or his teammates will text him. The seniors try to stay in touch as much as they can, but it’s more difficult now, as the pandemic continues. Many have jobs now, and all will be off for the next stage of their life in a short time.

Butt tries not to think much about what he’s missing out on. It’s not only the Pirate seniors that are losing something, in his mind, so the most he can do is stay positive.

And hang on to the memories he’s made over his long baseball career: the wins when they came, yes, but the bus rides and simply hanging out with friends.

“Even when we struggled, we always had fun,” he said. “We were always with each other.”

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