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Angels in the outfield: Remembering Mitch MacLean, Tanner Craswell

FILE PHOTO: Plenty of photographs in the home of Dianne and Irwin MacLean document both the love that Tanner Craswell and Mitch MacLean had for the game of baseball, as well as their dedication to the sport.
FILE PHOTO: Plenty of photographs in the home of Dianne and Irwin MacLean document both the love that Tanner Craswell and Mitch MacLean had for the game of baseball, as well as their dedication to the sport.

CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. – The spirits of Mitch MacLean and Tanner Craswell still live on the ball field, while the memories of the two young P.E.I. athletes remain strong in their families’ hearts.

Jerseys and awards, pictures and written memories celebrating the two young ballplayers decorate rooms in the homes of their parents, Irwin and Dianne MacLean and Keith and Cindy Craswell.

While today marks five years since the two were killed in a senseless shooting, the loss remains vivid and heart-wrenching for the families.

Jerseys and awards, pictures and written memories celebrating the two young ballplayers decorate rooms in the homes of their parents, Irwin and Dianne MacLean and Keith and Cindy Craswell.

While today marks five years since the two were killed in a senseless shooting, the loss remains vivid and heart-wrenching for the families.

Tanner Craswell

For Keith, it’s still hard to wrap his head around what happened five years ago.

“You think about the loss of what they could have been over the last five years and the memories you could have shared going forward,” said Keith, describing his son as a fun-loving guy who didn’t take himself too seriously. “He’s always in our hearts.”

The two young promising ballplayers saw their futures taken from them during a triple murder-suicide in the early morning hours on Dec. 15, 2011.

MacLean, 20, and Craswell, 22, were on their way to the Calgary airport to fly home for Christmas when they were shot to death on Highway 2 just outside of Claresholm, Alta.

RELATED: Two P.E.I. men dead, an Island woman in hospital, following Alberta shooting

Also in the vehicle were Alberta native Tabitha Stepple, who died in the attack, and Charlottetown’s Shayna Conway, who was shot multiple times but survived. The gunman – an ex-boyfriend of Stepple who was trailing the four friends in his own vehicle – then turned the gun on himself.

RELATED: Shooting survivor says ‘They still help me get through every day’

Adding to the tragedy, the four friends were celebrating Craswell’s birthday before heading to the airport.

News of the murders created a shockwave, not just among family and sports circles in P.E.I., but across the nation.

“It just seemed like the whole country felt it,” said Dianne.

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“It was such a tragedy, that it not only happened to us. It happened to the Island… that’s the way Islanders look at things.”

Keith Craswell

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Mitch MacLean

“We’re so lucky we live here because of the love and support we’ve received.”

With dreams of playing in the big leagues, the two players had moved to Alberta to hone their baseball skills with the Lethbridge Bulls of the Western Major Baseball League and associated baseball academy. 

It was clear the two made their mark with countless stories of their selflessness shared following the tragedy, from helping out with little league and rookie players to surprising their landlord by decorating his home for Christmas while he was away.

Those touching stories, as well as numerous pictures and videos, show the two were a hit in their P.E.I. and western Canadian homes.

“Their teammates (out west) came to love and adore them and admired them because they put their heart and soul on the ball field,” said Dianne. 

While dedicated to the sport, the two were also remembered for their fun-loving attitudes.

“They seemed to draw people to them, and everyone seemed to love hanging out with them,” said Irwin, who noted that the two were able to “turn a switch” on the ball field. “It was like a different person. Outside they were just two characters, but they meant business when they were on the field.

STORY CONTINUES BELOW

Island ballplayers Tanner Craswell, left, and Mitch MacLean, right, run a double play during a Lethbridge Bulls game in this picture that still hangs in MacLean’s parents’ home.
FILE PHOTO: Tanner Craswell, left, and Mitch MacLean, participate in pre-game ceremonies with the Lethbridge Bulls baseball team in Alberta.

“It’s just too bad it was cut short.”

In many ways, the two are still giving back to the sport they loved.

A scholarship is given to two Colonel Gray graduates every year, while Holland College announced the Tanner Craswell Memorial Award earlier this month for a member of the school’s baseball program.

A memorial stone and benches immortalizing the duo in Charlottetown’s Victoria Park, as well as the P.E.I. Baseball Association naming its provincial peewee and bantam baseball championships in memory of the two, are just a couple of the ways the pair has been honoured.

Keith said everyone in the province seemed to rally around the families and Conway following the tragedy.

“We’ve received nothing but love and support from one end of the Island to the other,” he said. “It was such a tragedy, that it not only happened to us. It happened to the Island… that’s the way Islanders look at things.”

However, while the two are often remembered for their dedication to ball, Keith said it’s the little things that are missed the most.

“His smile, the hugs, the ‘I love you’ here and there and talking to him on the phone,” said Keith. “Since the day it happened, that’s what you’ve got to come to grips with. And that’s something you deal with every day.”

Although their dreams of playing in the big leagues were never realized, the two received a major league send-off on a national stage during the Toronto Blue Jays’ pre-game ceremony for their 2012 home opener. The families were presented with glass frames holding Blue Jays jerseys with MacLean and Craswell’s names, along with their numbers, stitched on the back.

STORY CONTINUES BELOW

Dianne and Irwin MacLean look over a photo album created in memory of their son, Mitch MacLean, and fellow ballplayer Tanner Craswell. Today marks five years since the two, Alberta native Tabitha Stepple and the gunman all died in a triple murder-suicide near Claresholm, Alta. Pictures, jerseys and awards decorate the MacLean's basement as a tribute to their son.

Dianne said her family takes some comfort in hearing how Mitch had blossomed into his true self after moving out west and knowing that the two were chasing their dreams.

“When he left the Island, he opened up and became his true person,” said Dianne, who knows what she would say to her son if given the chance.

“Just that we’re proud of him and know how hard he worked. I know we’ll see him again someday.”

Mitch.MacDonald@tc.tc

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