Saturday, September 7, 2013

Memories and Memorials in Montana: Game 87 in Billings

It’s that simple and certain.  I love Montana—its rivers that laugh their way toward human delight, its mountains that outreach imagination, and its sky that stretches all the way from memory to hope.  

Montana's big sky above the Big Hole River.

In two summers prior to our anthem tour, Bonnie and I had vacationed in the western region of the state, staying with friends in Anaconda and taking daily trips and overnight outings throughout the region.  We coursed beside the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers before picking a picnic spot at one of the frequent places for public access to the ever-flowing streams.  We watched the antelope gambol across the valleys and slopes north of Ennis as we meandered away from Yellowstone, and farther north, we saw a grizzly bear paw its way across a meadow as we neared St. Mary’s Lake.  We rose toward earthly orbit, it seemed, on the historic Highway to the Sun in Glacier National Park.  

St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park not far from the Canadian border.
We mourned the tragic oppression of Native Americans commemorated at the Big Hole National Battlefield near Wisdom, where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce had engaged the pursuing U.S. Army in the bloodiest battle of their five-state flight toward possible freedom in Canada.  

The field of Nez Perce defeat near Wisdom.
We visited the local historic museum in Dillon where we saw on display an early map of Beaverhead County surveyed by Bonnie’s paternal grandfather, whose engineering firm had also been the first to publish a detailed sectional map of the entire state. 

Bonnie's grandfather's firm's map, which hung in classrooms throughout the state.
We explored the ghost mining town near Philipsburg days after we had read a letter from Bonnie’s maternal grandmother about her friends, about their families departing from the community following the silver market collapse caused by the government’s shift to the single monetary standard of gold at the turn of the twentieth century.  
The abandoned mineshaft where Bonnie's great grandfather had worked.

Fifty summers before our recent forays into Big Sky country, I had first experienced warm feelings toward the state when my family had stopped in Butte to purchase hoodies for our tent camping in Yellowstone.  When we had left our Mississippi home weeks earlier for a vacation featuring western National Parks, we had not packed enough winter wear, not fathoming the summer need for so much warm clothing.  As stunning as I recall Old Faithful, I was awed even more by the expanse and heights of Montana’s landscape, especially its glorious, grand mountains that punctured the wide black ceiling to pixelate the night sky with stars.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I made sure to design our anthem tour route to coincide with the Pioneer League’s short season schedule and to coordinate dates with most of Montana’s teams—the Mustangs in Billings, the Brewers in Helena, and the Osprey in Missoula.  The state’s fourth team, the Great Falls Voyagers, had agreed to let me sing if things worked out, but they were on a road trip during our trek through the state.  Unlike my previous ventures to the region, however, this time our schedule restricted sightseeing to ballpark vistas and Interstate panoramas, spectacular nonetheless.

The big sky above the picnic panorama at Billings' ballpark.

Although I had no personal memories of Billings, my introduction to the three-year old ballpark there was filled with memories of a different kind—impressive memorials to local baseball heroes and passionate fans.  Nearest the main entry gate stood a life-size, bronze replica of former Baltimore All-Star lefty Dave McNally, mid-delivery to the plate.  
A local “product,” McNally had achieved stardom in the Billings Little League, but had been unable to play in high school since Central Catholic High School, where he attended, couldn’t field a team because of the short spring and lack of schools with whom they could easily compete.  Even so, he excelled on the city’s renowned American Legion team, which played a summer schedule sometimes of 80 games, longer than the Mustangs’ Rookie League season.   During his American Legion career, McNally once struck out 27 batters in a single game (including five in one inning), he had posted a nearly perfect 18-1 record one season, and he had led his team to the American Legion World Series title game before signing with the Orioles.  Outside his professional baseball career, McNally lived his entire life in Billings. 

The narrative tribute accompanying his statue also featured his role, with “Andy Messermith” (a regrettable typographical error omitting an “s” between the “r” and “m” in “Messersmith”), in winning the suit against Major League Baseball to end the “reserve clause.”

Opposite the statue of McNally was an equally active, bronze tribute to his former American Legion coach Ed Bayne, who had taught fundamental baseball skills to young players for more than a quarter century. 
Bayne’s teams won twenty state championships and had advanced to World Series play on four occasions.  As celebrated as he was for these coaching accomplishments in baseball, Bayne was even more respected by the Billings community for coaching kids about life, summed up in this way by one of his former players: “He taught me right from wrong, he was tough, [and] he challenged you to reach the level your ability would allow.  He showed respect for you whether you were the last guy in the dugout or one of the best players.  We learned the fundamentals of baseball but we learned also how to be successful in life.”

At the ballpark in Billings, the American Legion tradition appears to rank more highly than professional baseball.  While many Minor League ballparks feature a Hall of Fame of former players (and sometimes managers) who set franchise records or later achieved stardom in the Major Leagues, only a handful display walls of recognition of collegiate players who have shared the facility, like the one in Peoria, or American Legion Posts, like the one in Casper.  By contrast, the dugout-length wall of fame in Billings—by far the biggest bronze tribute that I had seen at any ballpark—honors local American Legion coaches and players.   
In the first two years of its existence, the organization inducted more coaches than players.  Of course, leading the roster were Ed Bayne, whose name now graces the award given to inductees, and Dave McNally, whose name is associated with the award given to supporters of American Legion ball.  

Others also were recognized in less formal ways.  Between the two statues, the walkway to the main gate featured bricks inscribed with tributes to fans and former Billings baseball personnel.  The children and grandchildren of Alvin Schlenker remembered his love of the Mustangs, “especially when they were winning.”  One inscription honored coach Dennis Sahli, who inspired players to love the game, and nearby another recognized Andy Andrews, the “fantastic” concession manager from a half-century earlier.  Noteworthy was the message describing his work—that he gave “many kids [their] 1st jobs.”

While the sculptures, memorials, and tributes were inviting, we were deterred by several unexpected difficulties.  To our surprise, when I went to the Will Call Window, there was a single ticket for me in the envelope, none for Bonnie.  And since the game was sold out except for picnic and berm seating, the staff member couldn’t locate available, adjacent seats.  Recalling the distress that we had experienced in Durham when separate seats were finally offered, I insisted that our inclusion of Billings on the tour demanded appropriate seats.  After making several offers of disconnected seats, the ticket seller finally departed to secure authorization for us to sit in a reserved section. 

While our entry was delayed by the search for tickets, we nevertheless felt welcomed by the Mustangs.

The second challenge was unique.   As I moved to the area behind home plate about 10 minutes before singing the anthem, Matt, the staff member  coordinating pre-game presentations, pointed above the bluff behind the trees beyond the left field wall and said that the end of the runway at the Billings airport was less than a mile away.  “Every night between 7:00 and 7:05,” he said, “a FED EX flight takes off and comes over the field.  Some nights, it’s during the anthem.”  

If that happens, I immediately thought, whatever you do, don’t stop. Although it was certainly possible that my rendition might get blasted by the roar of the jet’s engines, I also thought that it might be fun for the timing to work out to make the departure a fly-over as the anthem ended.   Alas, the fly-over occurred before my singing, which meant that I appreciated the full introduction about my anthem tour while not worrying about a possible interruption by FED EX’s departure.

As I moved toward the dugout following my rendition, Billings pitching coach Bob Forsch asked, “How many games?” 

“Tonight was number 87,” I replied. 

“Where’ve you been?” 

“All over: Texas, Florida, North Carolina, New England, the Midwest, and Wyoming and Montana for the Pioneer League.”  And I added that several years ago I had once sung for a game that his brother Ken had pitched at Anaheim. 

“Did he win?” 


“Too bad.”  Ah, the memories of sibling rivalry!

The storm rolls in above the bluff that provides the airport's runway.
The third unanticipated difficulty was a thunderstorm that approached during the third inning.  When lightning began to strike nearby, the game was halted; and rather than wait out the delay, Bonnie and I left the ballpark as raindrops started to splash quarter-size spots on the memorial bricks at the front gate.  We didn’t expect the storm’s threat to be brief, causing a rain-delay of less than half an hour.  So we missed the scoring in the Mustangs’4-1 victory over visiting Great Falls, highlighted by a homerun by their slugging third baseman Sean Buckley.

The pot of gold seemed to mark the entrance to the freeway as we left the ballpark.