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Red River Pilots coach says player safety, league mismanagement at core of Grand Forks exit

Pilots coach Matty Holem said his players became increasingly concerned about league pitching depth.

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The Expedition League announced earlier this year the new Grand Forks team will be named the Red River Pilots.
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GRAND FORKS — Red River Pilots coach Matty Holem, who resigned from the Grand Forks Expedition League team earlier this week, said player safety was at the root of he and his college summer team's decision to leave town.

On Friday, Expedition League commissioner Steve Wagner announced Holem wasn't authorized to dismiss the team. Wagner said he will attempt to reassemble a Pilots roster for the remainder of the 2022 season.

Holem, however, said it was a group decision to cut ties with the league after players' college coaches became concerned about the league's pitcher management and general safety.

"It was a long string of things that weren't safe for our players," said Holem, who lives in North Carolina. "People were put in danger. I'm not in the business of doing that. We had some guys hurt, and I wasn't going to bring anyone else into this mess. I also wasn't going to be like the other teams in this league and pitch position players.

"We tried to do things the right way and got to a point where I felt like we asked for help with people, and we didn't get help. We decided, the coaches and players and interns, to be done with it. It was better to cut our ties."

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Holem detailed a number of other issues with the league including position players pitching, pitcher overuse, inexperienced umpires and inadequate travel accommodations. Holem also said the team's interns were expected to pay for items out of their own pocket.

"It's money over player safety," Holem said. "Player safety is last. At this level, you can't do that. You can maybe do it in pro baseball but when it comes to player safety and well-being, these are still young men. They still need to be taken care of the right way. That just wasn't happening."

The Expedition League went from a 12-team league last season to a four-team league this year. This was Grand Forks' first season with its own team. The Wheat City Whiskey Jacks of Brandon, Manitoba, played out of Kraft Field last summer due to pandemic-related border crossing issues.

"When I took this job, I never knew much about the league, but I heard it was a decent league," Holem said. "Then all the news started coming out. I was struggling to sign players but I had already made commitments to certain guys. It was a mess for the guys. I just felt like our team got no help at all."

Seven former Expedition League teams formed an Independence League after last summer following complaints of player mistreatment with the Mining City Tommyknockers of Butte, Mont.

The former teams include the Badlands Big Sticks, Canyon County Spuds, Casper Horseheads, Fremont Moo, Hastings Sodbusters, Spearfish Sasquatch and Western Nebraska Pioneers.

According to the Hastings Tribune, Wagner sued the defecting franchises. Those defecting teams then filed a counterclaim lawsuit.

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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