Cubs get great win on day they honor all-time great

Four-year-old Nolan Whitworth stands by a plaque honoring his great-grandfather Gail Whitworth during a doubleheader preceded by a June 24 ceremony paying tribute to the longtime Dillon Cubs manager
Nick Huber is met by a throng of celebrating teammates as he scores in the winning run in the opening game of a twin bill at Cubs Can-Am Field in Dillon on June 24, when the Cubs paid tribute to their longtime manager, Gail Whitworth.

Somebody up there clearly loves baseball.

And the Dillon Cubs.

And longtime Cubs Manager Gail Whitworth, who got called up to the biggest league of all last summer and seems to have already earned a spot helping arrange the outcomes of baseball games.

Because warm, sunny skies were delivered for the Cubs’ home doubleheader at Cubs Can-Am Field in Dillon on June 24, when Dillon’s American Legion baseball team swept the Anaconda A’s after honoring Whitworth, the Cubs longtime manager who passed away last August.

And the manner in which the Cubs won the first game of that twin bill suggested that its outcome had been orchestrated by someone with a deep appreciation of the unique dynamics and drama of baseball, and the lessons the game can impart.

“Gail would say, just keep grinding. Don’t quit,” recalled Craig Mills, a former Cubs assistant coach under Whitworth who made a special trip to Dillon to serve as an umpire in Saturday’s doubleheader and take part in the pregame ceremony honoring Whitworth.

“You saw that in the Cubs today. They hung around and came up with a clutch base hit when they needed it.”

Pete Gibson delivered that clutch hit—a bases-loaded double that scored three runs in the bottom half of the last inning to earn Dillon an 8-7 win in the doubleheader opener the Cubs hadn’t led before Nick Huber scored from first base on Gibson’s double.

The manner in which the Cubs won the doubleheader’s second game, 19-9, was less exciting, but perfectly appropriate in the context.

A bases-loaded, walk-off walk drawn by Dillon’s Preston Hales brought home Jade Morast and triggered the ten-run mercy rule in a game that packed 29 bases on balls into its five innings.

“Two wins are two wins, so we’ll take them,” said Cubs Manager Greg Fitzgerald of the Cubs sweep of the A’s following setbacks in all but one of Dillon’s other four games last week.

“We won half our games this week. We had six games in four days, which is a tough stretch, so I’m very happy with that.”

Still, the win that will continue to stand out in years to come is the one the Cubs notched Saturday in Dillon directly after honoring Whitworth.

“I thought that game was a little difficult at times. But the kids stayed the course and kept it close enough to be within striking distance in that last inning. Then we got some timely hits,” said Fitzgerald of the Cubs’ late surge to victory over Anaconda in Saturday’s first game following a pregame ceremony honoring Whitworth, the man who guided the Cubs to 481 wins, four straight district titles and a 1993 Montana State A crown during his 1982–2000 tenure as the Dillon Cubs manager.

“They knew how big an occasion it was. I didn’t have to tell them that we had to buck up and get it done.”

The Cubs’ memorial on Saturday for Gail Whitworth was staged with the help of his friends, former players, Dillon fans and four generations of his family—from his wife, Florence, to his four-year-old great-grandson Nolan, who in between innings of the games that followed danced, sang, laughed, offered his take on a variety of topics, providing plenty of fine entertainment to the crowd in the stand behind home plate.

“The ceremony was great. We are obviously thrilled with the turnout,” said Gail Whitworth’s daughter, Leigh-Ann Whitworth, who expressed gratitude to Mark Simkins and the rest of the Cubs board of directors for making Saturday’s ceremony possible.

“It was very fulfilling to add a marker to the field,” added Whitworth’s daughter of a plaque honoring her father placed on the front of the stands behind home plate at Cubs Can-Am Field for Saturday.

“You’re always sad when somebody dies, but there’s an immortality to a marker, so I’m grateful for that,” added Leigh-Ann, who helped create a special program for Saturday and displayed old Cubs jerseys, scorebooks, photos, hats and newspaper clippings from the seasons her father managed the team.

“We were cleaning out his house and went to throw away the mattress. There was something under the mattress. We checked, and it was old newspaper clippings, stats, Cubs scorebooks. That was under the mattress he slept on. Pretty awesome,” smiled his daughter, who turned over the microphone during the pregame ceremony to Kevin, her brother and a former Cub player.

“He loved coaching the Cubs,” said Kevin Whitworth of his father, Gail, whom he traveled with his family all the way from Alabama to help honor on Saturday.
“Ask former players about Coach Whitworth and you’ll hear heartfelt stories of a man who loved his players more than he loved the game itself—if that was even possible.”

Players from opposing teams also developed a deep respect for Whitworth, who played for three years in the minor leagues of the St. Louis Cardinals organization before going on to become the leading baseball figure in Dillon and, in many ways, the entire the State of Montana during his time managing in American Legion.

“Typically when you play baseball you want to play your very best to impress your coach,” former Butte Mucker Rob Hill wrote to Leigh-Ann Whitworth in a letter reprinted in the program for Saturday’s games.

“Whenever we played Dillon I wanted to play my best to impress your dad.”

The Cubs comeback on Saturday seemed even more remarkable when considering the troubles they suffered through earlier in the week.
During a road trip to Belgrade last Tuesday, the radiator of the Cubs’ team bus overheated and then their bats iced over in 11-1 and 19-2 losses to the Belgrade Bandits.

The chill wasn’t gone offensively for Dillon the following day in the opening game of a home doubleheader against the Bozeman Bucks, who blanked the Cubs, 10-0, behind a masterful pitching performance by Hunter Williams.

Mixing a deceptive cut fastball into his pitch repertoire, the lanky right-hander kept Dillon batters off stride, striking out seven Cubs and compelling numerous others to come over the top of pitches to hit easy groundballs to his infielders.

“He’s tall, so the ball was coming from a different angle than our hitters are used to,” said Fitzgerald of Williams, who didn’t yield a hit to the Cubs until the fourth inning and only gave up three total hits in the game.

“He threw with good velocity. And he hid his pitches really well.”

The dynamics shifted in game two, in a hurry.

The Cubs vaulted out of their offensive doldrums to earn a 20-15 triumph in which they scored more than twice as many runs in the first inning than they had in their previous four games.

“We were just hitting the ball hard,” said Fitzgerald, whose Cubs notched nine runs in the bottom half of a first frame the Bucks opened by tallying five.

The natural elements served as a sort of ‘fourth out’ for both teams in that first inning, and in several others.

“The sun and wind were wreaking havoc on both teams,” said Fitzgerald, noting that fielders were hampered by powerful gusts and the sun descending directly into their sight lines as the game wore on.

“Bozeman positioned its defense a little differently, so we were trying to hit the ball to different spots,” added the third-year Cubs skipper, whose hitters took advantage of some eccentric alignments employed by the Bucks’ outfielders, who often pinched into the middle of the field, leaving about a fairway worth of space inside each line.

Dillon clobbered four doubles in the first inning on their way to recording nine two-baggers in the game, and needed just about all of them.

Because the Bucks came back to score seven runs in the third inning and take a 12-11 lead before Dillon rebounded to score eight runs in their next three at-bats to take the slugfest.

“Bozeman is a good team this year, so getting a split from them was a good result,” said Fitzgerald, whose Cubs pounded out 17 hits in the game, three by Gibson.

“Pete’s been hitting really well,” said Fitzgerald of Gibson, who turned on an inside fastball to blast a leadoff home run for the Cubs in a game against the Bitterroot Red Sox earlier this month at the Maybelle Arthur Tournament in Dillon.

“He’s taking up the task of being in that leadoff role,” added Fitzgerald of Gibson, who has been batting at the top of the Cubs’ order in place of usual leadoff hitter Jamey Richardson, while Richardson recovers from a leg injury.

“He’s doing a really nice job of seeing pitches and hitting the ball. He’s a really good hitter, and he’s proving that again and again,” concluded Fitzgerald of the Cub third baseman and sometime pitcher who again flexed his adaptability with the game-winning hit in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader against Anaconda.

“It was a fastball on the outside part of the plate; it was a good pitch to drive into that gap,” explained Gibson of his walk-off double to the fence in right-centerfield that took the Cubs from two runs down to a one-run victory in one, fell swat.

“It looked pretty good off the bat and I saw it hit the gap and keep rolling,” recalled Gibson of the walk-off double that sparked a wild celebration on the field by Cubs players and in the stands packed with Cubs fans there to honor Gail Whitworth.

“After that hit,” mused Mills, who has umpired in three American Legion World Series, “Gail Whitworth would have been out there celebrating with his team, just like Greg Fitzgerald was.