Angels in the Infield

By IAN WILSON

Ultimately, nothing could stop Tanner Craswell and Mitch MacLean from having a lasting impact at the ballpark.

Six years after the former Lethbridge Bulls’ infielders were gunned down – along with Tabitha Stepple – in a senseless murder-suicide in Claresholm, the baseball-loving duo are still making their mark on the game.

More than a dozen young players who are chasing their baseball dreams have received scholarships that honour Craswell and MacLean. Hundreds of even younger players have received instruction through an annual kids baseball camp at Spitz Stadium that was established by the Tanner Craswell and Mitch MacLean (TCMM) Memorial Fund.

These are just a couple of the legacy projects that emerged following their deaths. Memorial games and events in both southern Alberta and their home province of Prince Edward Island illustrate the enduring popularity of a pair of players who are still revered as “dirtbags” for their gritty style of play.

“Their uniforms were always dirty,” said Prairie Baseball Academy’s Todd Hubka, who coached both players.

“They played the game the right way. They were just very good teammates and they played with a smile on their face. That’s one thing with those two guys, you could tell they were sure having fun playing the game.”

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Craswell (left) & MacLean (right) … photo courtesy Tyson Ford

Craswell, 22, and MacLean, 20, lived with Kevin Kvame – the president and general manager of the Bulls – when they were set to head home to P.E.I. for the holidays on Dec. 15, 2011. They, along with Stepple and Craswell’s girlfriend Shayna Conway, were on their way to Calgary to catch a flight when Stepple’s jealous ex-boyfriend Derek Jensen hit their car from behind near Claresholm.

A short time later, Jensen fired shots into the rammed vehicle, killing Craswell, MacLean and Stepple. Jensen then committed suicide. Conway, who was also shot, was the lone survivor.

‘SOMETHING HAD TO BE DONE’

“After the tragic event, we all knew something had to be done,” Kvame told Alberta Dugout Stories.

“A few of us decided that a scholarship fund would be appropriate to help other aspiring baseball athletes seek out their dreams.”

The scholarships are offered through the Lethbridge-based Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA), and the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball, where Craswell played shortstop in 2007 and 2008.

“It goes to help with the financial stress of attending the academy,” said Vauxhall Academy head coach Les McTavish.

“It was used for a ballplayer that was struggling financially. We’ve used it for those reasons,” added Hubka, who estimates upwards of 20 baseball players have been assisted by the scholarships over the years.

In Charlottetown, memorial scholarships are also offered at Colonel Gray High School and Holland College, and peewee and bantam championship baseball tournaments have been renamed to pay homage to MacLean and Craswell.

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The 400-foot marker at the centre field wall of Spitz Stadium is flanked by memorial tributes to Tanner Craswell (13) and Mitch MacLean (6). Photo by Ian Wilson

Beyond the envelopes, handshakes and scholarship photo ops, several on-field events have also helped the players’ former teammates, coaches and loved ones heal following the gut-wrenching tragedy and pay their respects to a couple of guys who gave everything they had to the game of baseball.

BETWEEN THE LINES

In addition to the one-day kids camp at the end of May, which offers lessons to as many as 150 children at Spitz Stadium and a steak dinner on the patio for the parents while they watch, the TCMM Memorial Fund hosts a benefit game between the Vauxhall Jets and the Lethbridge Bulls in advance of the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) season.

“It’s perfect timing because the Vauxhall Jets season is ending, as the high school athletes look to head home for the summer and the college players have just finished with their school programs and are getting into Lethbridge to join the Bulls for their summer season,” said Tyson Ford, a former teammate of MacLean and Craswell, who now organizes most of the Memorial Fund events.

In July, the annual memorial game and home run derby – also held at Spitz Stadium – make it possible for alumni of the PBA, Bulls and Vauxhall Jets to reconnect and share memories.

“I don’t think there is any better way to pay tribute to their legacy than lacing up the spikes, rubbing in some pine tar, and getting some dirt in your teeth in remembrance of two of the greatest competitors, teammates and friends to play the game,” Ford told Alberta Dugout Stories.

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Tyson Ford (L) gives 2017 TCMM Memorial HR Derby Award to Ryan MacDonald (R). Photo by Cindy Adachi

“This is where the magic happens. All your old teammates and friends getting together for a game serves as great reminder of why many of us chose to pursue baseball in the first place. The game has rewarded us with many gifts,” added Ford, who won the 2015 TCMM Memorial Home Run Derby.

“When you reflect on these experiences you realize the most valuable rewards were the relationships you developed with your teammates and coaches.”

PAINFUL ANNIVERSARY

Hubka said each December is always difficult as the anniversary of the murders approaches. This year was made even more difficult with the passing of another Bulls and PBA alum, Rob Hogue, who died after a sandblasting incident at a work site in Acheson, near Edmonton.

But he said the alumni game does a great job of helping people through the tough times.

“It brings Tanner and Mitch’s friends all together again,” said Hubka, before pausing and taking a deep breath to compose himself.

“I think that’s what’s special about it. As you move away from a tragedy like that, you start to heal as a person and the kids do, too.”

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TCMM memorial jerseys

While the “sting on the community tends to fade” as the years go by, Ford said the Memorial Fund initiatives are helping to create and preserve a lasting legacy.

“I know that it helps at least a little bit knowing Mitch and Tanner are not forgotten and their legacy will continue to live on,” said Ford, who played in the outfield for the Bulls in 2012.

“We are trying our best to turn a very unfortunate and negative story into something positive by providing financial assistance to aspiring Canadian athletes who are pursuing their academic and athletic dreams.”

HONOURING THE FAMILIES

The efforts of the TCMM Memorial Fund and the baseball community in southern Alberta have also been a blessing to the parents of Craswell and MacLean.

“We are very honoured that our Lethbridge family created the Memorial Fund,” said Mitch’s mother Dianne MacLean.

“Mitchell’s passion for the sport was evident in the way he played and the way he helped younger players develop their skills. He would be very touched to know the Memorial Fund was created.”

Kvame said Tanner’s parents – Keith and Cindy Craswell – share those sentiments.

“Keith still coaches baseball and gets satisfaction teaching other players the game that he and Tanner loved and shared together,” said the Bulls president.

The aftermath of the loss of two bright young men has also united the baseball community in southern Alberta.

“The baseball community has been extremely supportive over the years,” said Kvame, who also serves as president and CEO of Under the Lights Sports & Entertainment Inc.

“All of the programs were there supporting the families … back in 2011 and have supported these initiatives ever since.  Of course, it is something that connects the Bulls, PBA, and Vauxhall Academy and probably always will. We all lived it together and supported each other through the process. That bond continues to this day.”

And what would Tanner and Mitch make of the Memorial Fund bearing their names?

“I think they would be very proud that their passion for baseball led to this,” said Kvame.

“They certainly would want it to be about the (scholarship) recipients and not about having their names pasted all over the place because they did not have big egos. However, because they have such outgoing personalities, they probably would have a lot of advice for the recipients about things to work on, and how to become better baseball players, as well.  If they could, they would get out on the field, practice hard for the time between the lines, then get together for a cold one after and recap the practice, give everyone some frank advice, and find some way to turn the next block of time into some more fun.”

Hubka said the memorial scholarships and events are a strong testament to the impact they had in the relatively short time they were in Alberta.

“It just shows how many friends they had and how well liked they were in the community,” said Hubka, who played baseball in Claresholm and Fort Macleod before playing college ball in North Idaho.

“It shows that they were two young kids but they had a lot of love from a lot of people. I think that is the number one thing that they would be proud of, to see how many people they affected in their playing time.”

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2017 TCMM Memorial Benefit Game between Lethbridge Bulls & Vauxhall Jets. Photo by Cindy Adachi

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