Nobody understood why I wanted to go to Billings. Eight hours north of Boulder, where I was settled for the summer, and in the middle of the Great Plains flatness. Initially, I was too ashamed to tell my coworkers and friends that I was driving 500+ miles (each way) to watch a minor league baseball game. So instead I went for the "I've always wanted to go" route, which only makes sense in a "How could you not like a baseball player named Bubba?" way.
I went to Billings because it was there. In this vast country of ours, there is always more land, always an opportunity to leave your past behind you (as long as you're not a registered sex offender) and make something of yourself. The act of leaving, of driving into Ursa Major, is one of opportunism. We are leaving all we know and trust to make something of ourselves in the vastness.
Thinking about it, baseball players, especially at the youngest rungs, are fulfilling this Manifest Destiny that our nation was built on. Billings players are all fresh out of college or a year or two out of high school. They all think that they'll make it to the Big Show, when in reality only a few will. They're out there on a signing bonus and a promise, in f-nowhere, MT far away from any friends or family besides those they put their pants on next to. Though they have a few more zeroes on their checks, there's not much separating them from the Cornish gold miners on Deadwood; toiling in obscurity in the hope - vain for most - that they'll be able to provide for their family.
Baseball has earned its moniker as "America's Game" for many reasons, but I think the Minor Leagues is a huge one. Mike Leake excluded, everybody must do their time, everybody must survive the cheese sandwiches, the 12 hour busrides, and all of that. I think this helps us connect to the ballplayers. They are all Horatio Algers, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to get to the fancy cars and multiple houses. It's incredibly unfair, of course, but baseballers just aren't imagined as the entitled brats that make up the NBA and NFL. Baseball players are American Heroes. And at Billings, I was able to witness their origin story.
I last went out west on a family trip when I was just 5 or 6. I figured that, after being based in Denver and having a friend in Seattle, I would have the best opportunity I'd have to explore. So I convinced the good people at CU that I was "doing field research on water basins and agricultural districts" or somesuch to get get gas covered, grabbed a tent and sleeping bag, and went at it. This is the best way to see the West. I had a journey that brought me up to Billings and back (dropping off all my earthly possessions at a U-Store-It so they'd be safe) and then going Durango-Moab-Elko-Crater Lake-Eugene-Seattle. I saw some really pretty things and will take questions on them, but this story ain't about me.
Arriving in Billings, I realized...yeah. This place does kinda suck.
Pompey's Pillar is about 20 minutes away. William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame carved his name in it, and that signature is the only physical evidence left of the L&C trip. It also has a view of the Platte River, which is pretty in a certain way.
I found a place on Wikitravel that promised "A bar inside of a gas station" which sounded alright to me. I wandered over there, got a beer, and checked what time the game was. 7:00 Mountain.
And what's this? There's a promotion? It's CORKY MILLER BOBBLEHEAD GIVEAWAY? I was incredibly excited to have heard this news while sitting in Angry Hank's Bar and Brake Repair. But supplies will be short, surely. I ran the 7 blocks or so to the stadium.
Dehler Park is endearing in a way. It's tiny, of course. The park truly deserves the term "park", with more outfield than concrete, it's the platonic image of a baseball diamond without all the corporate froofery.
You can see the Rimrocks there beyond left field. The entire town is in the basin of sandstone cliffs, which does not look as nice as you'd hope. The whole town gave me a vibe somewhere between "Breaking Bad" and "Justified". This may not be deserved.
Our mighty Mustangs would be facing off against the Helena Brewers, a Milwaukee affiliate. Spoiler alert. I am very proud the Reds have some creative team names, there's nothing worse than the MLB nickname making its way throughout the system, with knockoff jerseys and inadequate mascottery.
Speaking of MLB castoffs, Eli Marrero, he of 7 years with the Cardinals and a .243 lifetime average, is the Billings hitting coach. Some gentleman named Eric Gjestulang is the strength coach, and I do believe there is a direct corelation between the number of consonants in a strength coach's name and his effectiveness. Here's Eli the elder acting standoffish with Juan Silva:
Tony Cingrani, apple of OGC Reds' eye, was the starter for the Reds. He's on a pretty strict pitch count, but he was somewhat filthy. During introductions, it was adorable to see him not let the little kid he led to the field touch the mound. The Rice product worked fast and well, 2 hits, no runs, 1 walk, 4 strikeouts. His arms also go well past his knees.
Although he went to Rice, Cingrani was born in Illinois. He got me thinking; are cold weather players the next market inefficiency? You could cobble together a decent team with Canadian and northern talent, and those are the folks that tend to go a few rounds later in the draft. Scouting them would be tougher than just going to ASU games and taking the shortstop, but one would think dividends would pay off. /Philosoraptor'd
He did get more help from his defense than you'd expect from Rookie League players. SS Sammy Diaz made a slick play or two, and Young Buckley did some scootin' himself. I was really impressed by Buckley. He had The Sammy Sosa: 1-4 with a HR and 3 K's. But he's the biggest non-pitcher on the team at 6'4" 220 (Scotty Scott is 6'4" 245, if you're curious) and he had a strong arm and good lateral motion. Here's Billings' left side o' the infield.
Helena was not an interesting team at all. Ned Yost IV is their manager, and he's a young guy with an ironic moustache. The Brewers had a couple of kids from Beaumont, TX - hometown of Jay Bruce - and that's literally all I have written down about them. The Mustangs went up early 1-0, but just decided to start hacking in the 2nd inning. So I decided to start wandering.
I bought a Michelada (Bud light, Tomato juice, and clam juice) for $4, which was...quite refreshing, actually. I hate bloody mary's, but this was nice on a hot day. Went well with my buffalo chicken sandwich. Looking around, the park was actually mostly full, which surprised me on a weekend night. There were a few HAMILTON 4 jerseys around, and the merch store had a good mix of Mustangs and Reds gear.
The Brewers got some runs off of the startlingly ineffective Cole Green, going up 2-1. Kyle Waldrop absolutely rifled a ball to the plate from RF in the 5th. The catcher kept on waiting for it to bounce and it never did. Poor Yovan Gonzalez got hit with the ball in the facemask just as the runner ran into him.
Billings came back in the 7th. Helena walked the first two hitters, prompting the PA to break into Dylan's Walking Down the Line. Chuckle. And a run! Nick O'Shea with the dreaded GIDP, no RBI given. But ties it up 2-2.
I also noticed that between innings, there's absolutely no sort of entertainment. No "kids running to home while putting on a comically large jersey" or "your section wins a free hot dog" or whatever. Not sure if they didn't have the budget for it or if there was just a purity movement or something. But worth keeping an eye on moving forward, for sure.
It was around now that a reliever caught my eye, snacking on sunflower seeds while protecting the warming-up bullpen. El'Hajj!
In my notebook I have "El'Hajj is a goofy bastard." Dude has a mohawk, and while everyone else just high fives Cingrani as he comes to the bullpen, Nick gets a full hug from Young Muhammad.
It then dawned on me. Goodlord. These are kids! Every single person on each roster is younger than me! I look at the bullpen bleacher. There is a very clear spectrum: Whites-Latinos-El'Hajj. They're all stuck in freaking Billings together. How many speak both Spanish and English? How do you keep a bunch of 19-21 year olds entertained and not at each others' throats? How BORED must they get?
My scorecard only went up to 10 innings, and besides, I needed to find some place to camp before it got too dark (I was too late, by the way: the field I selected received a full irrigation at 2AM. I ran back to my car cold, miserable, and wet. Blergh). I was able to see both innings of Muhammad, though. 2 innings, a sole bunt hit, zero walks, and 3 Ks. He once stumbled off of the mound into a cartwheel, landing on his feet. He was mostly fastball/slider, but he threw a curveball for a called strike that had everybody in attendance going "OOOOOH!" and feeling just terrible for the poor kid who had a look like a horror movie victim who just got stabbed in the back, and looks down to see the knife sticking out of their chest. I also got this sweet pic snapped:
I always liked the Futurism school of art and this reminded me of Woman Descending Staircase. But I digress...
I should've known better than to leave the game as a dude name Shackleford comes in. I don't know if there's a relation, but MiniLoveShack gave up a two-run bomb to Young Buckley after I left. Mustangs win 4-2, in 11!
I can't emphasize how much fun I had at the game. It was baseball distilled, to get George Will about it. Kids playing a kids sport, all in hopes of one day getting to the big leagues, getting past the 6 years of team control, of buying their mom a Mercedes and having kids who can go to private school. Of going back to the hometown and getting a parade. Or maybe of just moving up to the next level, finding a girl at a Dayton bar and falling in love.
I won't say that there were smiles all around and giddiness in the air. This was a single game in a long slog of a summer. It's a summer of long drives, shitty motels, and for most of the guys, the first time far away from home and not having tomorrow be in your control. It's not an easy life, but again, Horatio Alger. There's always a beginning to the story that has the NL MVP and a Sports Illustrated cover in its 8th chapter (the book ends with 5 straight World Series victories and the decision to just move the Baseball Hall of Fame to Cincinnati to cut travel costs).
America is indefinable, I'll admit. But if I had to do my best to use a word, I'd say "potential." Maybe its just because I love Teddy Roosevelt, but my United States, at least, is one that believes it can always be something better. That we're not done improving, that we are, of course a "More Perfect Union." Better than most, certainly, but not quite There yet. A summer's eve in a podunk town, watching a bunch of blustery hopefulls perform in front of the Billings crowd who probably never imagined themselves spending Friday nights in Montana's biggest town watching a minor league outfit.
By the time I arrived in Seattle, I was shaggy as Joe Biemel and probably as smelly too. My friend I'm visiting is a terrible time manager, so while he worked a job that stopped paying on 7/31 I wandered the city. I went to a Seattle Sounders game, which I can discuss in the comments if you want me to. The Seattle Art Museum, much to my gleeful surprise, had an exhibit about Our National Game. The 19th century statue of "The Ballplayer: Our National Game" is still our image of a professional pitcher. Steeley-eyed, brawny, and out for blood.
But it's the Jacob Lawrence paintings that I love and was excited for. They're basically visual Buck O'Neill stories; these little snippets of action that tell about the broad arc of the game, minutia by minutia.
As you can expect from a man who once wrote/illustrated a book about Toussaint L'Ouverture, he's embraced the Black side of baseball in a way that few celebrations of baseball do properly. As I said, we can all do something bigger.
We're all just trying to make it. Maybe for ourselves, maybe to impress a loved one or a loved one's father. Maybe to support our family or just try to start one. We all have our hopes and dreams, and fairly or not, we tag them, Kristy McCall-style, on to our baseball playing heroes.
The odds of one of those kids in Billings making their way into an exhibit, into timelessness, is worse than even that of a Dan Uggla 33-game hit streak. Timelessness and immortality isn't the point, I don't think. For me, and maybe for those kids in Billings, it's just the pursuit of personal perfection. Of trying to be the best person, as a ballplayer and as a person, you can. You're gonna commit errors, you're gonna walk the bases full. But when you throw that beautiful curve to strike out 6-time All Star Mike Trout in the World Series, the curve you were keeping in the back pocket all inning, waiting for that timing...yeah. Then all of those little kids not allowed on the Billings mound, all those motels watching Not Without My Daughter, all those birthday's you've missed and weddings you couldn't bring yourself to even RSVP to. It all seems worth it, doesn't it?