On the southeast corner of Rimrock Road and Virginia Lane in Billings, Montana, there is a parking lot. It's an ordinary patch of asphalt, bushes and a few trees. That ordinary parking lot is the starting point of the incredible and unlikely story of the Billings Big Sky team in the Little League World Series.
Last night, the Big Sky boys beat the heavily favored California team who had won 14 straight games and won their two previous LLWS games by a combined score of 21-0. Big Sky is the first team to ever represent Montana in the LLWS.
In a twist of fate, the play-by-play was voiced by Brent Musburger, who happens to have grown up in Billings and has unique ties to Little League in Billings.
Back in the 1950s, Cecil "Cec" Musburger, Brent's father, read about an organized youth baseball program and wrote to find out how he could start a league in his hometown. Little League in Billings was born.
They played their games on a plot of land owned by Gene Lissa located on the southeast corner of Rimrock Road and Virginia Lane. It was called Lissa Field. Unfortunately, Lissa is nothing but a memory, as it became a parking lot about 25 years ago. Otherwise, it is where these Big Sky Little Leaguers would probably have played their home games.
As I young baseball player, I longed to play at Lissa. My Little League, the Western Giants, played at Central Park. The facilities were adequate but lacked the appeal of Lissa. Perhaps it was the fact that Central has a adjacent full-size field or all the open space surrounding it, but it lacked the "big time" feel of Lissa, which was tucked into a neighborhood and surrounded by trees. Where Central was cookie-cutter, Lissa had character. Central was Riverfront Stadium, Lissa was Fenway Park. I never played there, though my dad took me there a few times for some batting practice.
Lissa Field is where Brent Musburger played Little League. A couple years after, a left-handed kid named Dave McNally played there. Musburger went on to become a Minor League umpire, and, of course, a broadcaster. McNally pitched 14 seasons in the Big Leagues, won 20 games four consecutive years for the Baltimore Orioles and, along with Andy Messersmith, paved the way to modern free agency in Major League Baseball.
Musberger managed to sneak in more than a few local references in the broadcast, including a photo of his father with his brother Todd's Little League team. He mentioned his childhood friend McNally and another Oriole lefty, Jeff Ballard, who also calls Billings home. He suggested his broadcast partner, Orel Hershiser should visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks and take the Beartooth Highway into Red Lodge, continuing on to Billings. (He even mentioned his long-time friends, the Cox family, who also happen to be good friends of mine. They were my next-door neighbors growing up. In fact, I met Brent Musburger at the Cox home when I was a kid.)
It seemed as if the baseball gods understood this confluence of circumstances and the bounces tended in Billings direction. California hit some solid line drives, but they went right at the kids from Montana. Remarkably, Big Sky's starter Cole McKenzie and his reliever Sean Jones held the high-scoring California team scoreless through seven innings. That was long enough for the game to end storybook fashion off the bat of Ben Askelson, his walk-off home run adding another chapter in the story of the Big Sky Little League.
It's a story that started at the southeast corner of Rimrock Road and Virginia Lane some 60+ years ago. And it continues this Saturday in the United States Championship Game.
(First image: AP, second: Google Maps)