Story By FRITZ NEIGHBOR Of The Gazette Staff
MILES CITY — Near the end of an hourlong service to remember Brandon James Patch, the 18-year-old pitcher who died early Saturday after being hit by a baseball, the Rev. Grover Briggs said, "This is a tough inning, this morning."
Tuesday at Denton Field, home of the American Legion Mavericks, the flag flew at half-staff behind the wall in center. Beyond right field, the scoreboard was set to the moment that the line drive struck Patch Friday evening in Helena. The score was 3-3, in the fifth inning. The count was even at 1-1, with one out.
Around 1,400 people came to remember Patch, an 18-year-old southpaw who by all accounts was a high-spirited, gifted young man. While Patch's death has rekindled debate on the safety of metal baseball bats, Tuesday brought sadness, celebration and wonderment that this could ever happen, to this person, this soon.
"It still hasn't sunk in really. It's tough," said Darin Muri, a football teammate who was among Patch's closest friends. "It's hard to feel sad when you think about him. Because every time you think about a memory, it's a funny one. He always made you laugh."
The Helena Senators, who boarded a bus at 3 a.m., sat in front of the third base dugout at the beginning of the service. Patch's Maverick teammates sat in chairs on the first base side. Muri and the rest of the Miles City Cowboys football team, for whom Patch was an offensive lineman last fall, lined the infield grass. Patch's large extended family sat in four rows of seats behind home plate.
In all, 600 chairs set on the Denton Field turf were filled. The stands behind home plate were packed as well. Everyone stood for Jim Regan's rendition of the national anthem.
Then the Mavericks' public address announcer, Jeff Brabant, sang out both lineups: First Helena, then Miles City, and the players lined up on their respective baselines. "Leading off for Helena, No. 1, Zeb McCall," he began, then went on to introduce the rest of the Senators, and then the Mavericks, including their 25-year-old head coach, Bryan Larson. He ended with the person they were all there to remember.
"And on the hill … No. 11, Brandon Patch," he said, as eight pallbearers brought Patch's casket to a stand in front of the pitcher's mound.
And with that heart-wrenching scene began the healing for this Eastern Montana town of 9,500. The baseball teams went back to their seats, except for the Senator at the plate when Brandon was struck. He sat between Brandon's parents, Duane "Spud" and Debbie, and listened to remembrances.
"You are a left-hander in a league of your own, and I thought you should know, buddy," said Ron "Tater" Patch, Brandon's uncle. "I always said one pitch could make the difference. I never knew one pitch could make the difference in so many lives."
Brandon's aunt, Jamie Carlson, read a pair of poems, including one from Torger Myran, a former Maverick standout and a pitcher this past spring for Columbia Basin College.
The poem, "For Brandon," read, in part:
"Know that death's scent is a fragrance familiar to all
So when the Lord came to call
He said to Brandon, "I have an invitation to sit in the chamber of God's hall"
It has your name on it
and through God's will I have the strength to read this sonnet"
During the service, Briggs kept with the "baseball as life" metaphor.
"Competition is a great blessing," Briggs said. "But every once in a while, something still happens. And Brandon is this once in a while. Nobody had any idea when that game began in Helena that this would happen."
Then he added, "This game has some very tough endings."
Miles City had three more games left after the Helena contest, and didn't play them. The Mavericks ended up 16-36.
"This is probably one of the hardest things I've had to deal with," said Larson, an all-around athlete at Custer County District High School who played baseball at the University of North Dakota. "I've lost relatives, and this is easily as difficult. I feel like I've lost part of my family.
"Just the relationship you have with all these kids. They work hard for you, they do everything you ask. To have something like this happen is really a tragedy."
Patch's death may have been all the more shocking because he initially appeared to be OK after being struck. "I saw the ball come off the bat, and next thing I know Brandon's laying down," Larson said. "I don't think Brandon even saw it coming. He was out on the mound, he was talking to me, I was talking to him, and for about three minutes he was fine. And — that's when he just took a turn for the worst."
Nothing, it appears, could be done, which frustrates Larson. At the time, he remained hopeful.
"I knew he was on life support when he left (Helena, to be airlifted to Great Falls), and I still expected everything to be OK in the morning," he said. "I expected good news when I got up. Unfortunately that wasn't the case. I decided right there our season was over and to get back to our families."
At a reception after the service, Spud Patch was getting hugs and pats from everyone as they left the jam-packed Park Place eatery. He marveled at the turnout. "Not only the community support, but Helena's," he said, pointing at his wife who was hugging each of the Senators.
"Such a good kid," he added. "If there's any consolation, when it happened he was doing what he loved to do. He loved being on the mound. He loved pitching. It's not consolation to me, but that is — that is what he loved to do."
The first funeral service at Denton Field was 17 years ago, for Glen Denton, the longtime Miles City coach for whom the field is named. No one had figured Brandon James Patch would be the second.
"We are going to get Brandon's family and friends through this," Briggs said near the end. "And that's the plan for this inning. It makes the rest of the game possible."