The Helena Brewers are Pioneer League Champions, but not because they had the best team ERA or best batting average. They didn’t.
A large reason the Brewers were able to bring the trophy back to the Capital City for the first time in 14 years was because of an immeasurable factor—something that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, something often forgotten in a sport that places so much emphasis on individual performance.
First-year Helena manager Joe Ayrault talked about it from the first day he set foot on Kindrick Legion Field, stressing the importance of camaraderie and coming together for a common goal. He’d mention it after almost every game, especially wins.
Occasionally, I’d throw a quote in my story about the team’s chemistry, but more often than not I’d toss it aside as cliche.
It wasn’t until talking to Cody Hawn after Thursday’s victory over Ogden in the Pioneer League Championship Series clincher, that I truly understood. Something he said jogged a memory that I had long since forgotten.
“I knew there was something special about this group at camp, our chemistry was just amazing from day one,” Hawn told me over the phone.
It reminded me of a rainy day in June, one of the first scheduled practices, and players were still just becoming acquainted with one another. I went out to the ballpark hoping to talk to Ayrault about what pitchers had stood out so far, and who was swinging the bat well. But because of the weather, the skipper hadn’t gotten to evaluate his new club much at all.
Instead, that day’s work out had consisted of sitting in the clubhouse, as each player went around the room and told his teammates something about himself. Ayrault stressed to the group of young 20-somethings that this would be their family for the next few months. He told them of how he still kept in touch with many of the guys he played ball with.
Even before knowing the kind of talent this team possessed, the Brewers’ new leader knew it would be important that this was a tight-knit group.
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Before long, it was obvious this was a special group of kids. Helena came from behind to win its first three games against Missoula, showing heart and grit and never giving up when the deficit seemed insurmountably large.
As the Brewers won eight of their first nine games, you got the feeling they were playing this hard so as not to let their teammates down. Even more than that, you got the feeling they didn’t want to disappoint their manager. After all, he had their backs during every game — even if it meant being ejected.
It wasn’t long before, like any team, the Brewers would hit a skid. They had fallen out of first place, and seemed to be stuck hovering right around .500, and one began to think maybe that’s all they were — a mediocre team in a Pioneer League full of parity. Ayrault would say that’s just baseball, that every team is bound to have its ups and downs. Even through the toughest of times — a six-game losing streak comes to mind — Ayrault never lost confidence in his team, and it became clear through interviews that his players hadn’t lost confidence, either.
Even as the Brewers took their time clinching the final postseason spot—falling out of first place and missing a shot at the second-half North Division title to settle for a wild card berth — it was like they knew they were destined to win a ring.
They’d have a handful of new players to help them. As five guys — Charly Bashara, Kenny Allison, Nick Shaw, Tony Roberts and Jose Sanchez — were promoted to Helena after winning the Arizona League Championship, a player who had been with Helena all year was asked if that changed the dynamic in the clubhouse. After all, this was a close group of guys, many of whom carpooled together to practices or dined out with one another after games.
Like any player thinking of the good of the team, this one told me that the new guys only made things better. The competitive fire increased, he said, because these guys talked about how great it felt to win a championship. Now, 30 other athletes were hungry to experience that same feeling of being the best.
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Upon first meeting Ayrault, it was almost impossible not to like the guy. The outdoors enthusiast was fired up to be in Montana, and ecstatic to start teaching young players the ins and outs of baseball. He had a smile that never seemed to leave his face, and an attitude that made you want him to succeed.
His players bought into his team-first mentality. His staff bought into it as well. Seeing the end result—they won the Bob Wilson Trophy by beating Great Falls and Ogden, teams with the top overall records—it’s hard to imagine Helena buying into anything else.
Amber Kuehn: 447-4079 or firstname.lastname@example.org