• The Corner of Rimrock and Virginia

    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)

  • Montana is Big Sky (Little League) Country

    Montanans are typically very proud of our state – our beautiful landscapes, world-class rivers, abundant wildlife and our Big Sky. This August, we are proud of not just the Big Sky above our heads, but the Big Sky on the diamond. Billings Big Sky Little League is the first team from Montana to ever represent the state in the Little League World Series. And they have represented us very well.

    Pundits said that if the Big Sky team won a single game, the tournament would be a success. But they won their first two games (against South Dakota and Louisiana respectively) and earned their way into the semifinal game tonight against the team from Ocean View, California. The California boys have won their previous games by a combined 21-0 and are the favorites to win the entire tournament. The winner tonight earns a berth in the United States Championship.

    Montanans joke that we have two seasons – winter and tourist. (Some consider "road construction" to be a season, but it occurs concurrent to "tourist.") Summers are short here. Spring and fall sometimes are on a Tuesday. As such, baseball season is pretty short, too.

    The Big Sky boys in Williamsport have played more games as an All-Star team working their way to the semifinal than they did in their entire regular season. But they have competed well against teams from warmer climates who can play baseball all year long.

    My first love was baseball. I grew up playing Wiffleball every summer day from daylight until the street lights came on. We pretended to be the heroes who got the key hit in the World Series. These Little Leaguers are living that dream. It is something they'll remember for the rest of their lives. (My brother's Little League team got to the regionals in San Bernadino in 1973 and my dad still talks about it.)

    While these kids are the first Montanans to play in the Little League World Series, they play in the tradition of great Billings, Montana baseball players who have competed in the American Legion World Series (including second place in 1960), the College World Series and even the professional World Series. In fact, had the Mets' Les Rohr not been hurt, there could have been a pitching matchup featuring two lefties from Billings in the 1969 World Series when the "Miracle Mets" played the Baltimore Orioles and Dave McNally.

    McNally's two World Series championships and grand slam in 1971 (the only one ever hit by a pitcher) has long been the pinnacle of Montana baseball achievements. But these Little Leaguers from Billings are making a case for their season taking a place right beside Number 19.

    It's wonderful that the biggest topic of conversation uniting Montanans is this Little League team from Billings. It's a shared source of pride. We're Big Sky (Little League) Country!

    (Image from AP/Billings Gazette.)

    An aside about Dave McNally – He let me wear his World Series ring once when I was a kid, and it is still one of my fondest memories. As such, he was always a hero to me, though he was such a down-to-earth guy, it'd be hard to tell he was ever a star on baseball's biggest stage. I saw his grand slam on ESPN once and happened to see him later that day at Cobb Field watching a Billings Mustangs game. As only a 10 year-old boy can do, I ran over to him and reported that I saw him on TV hitting a grand slam. His soft-spoken reply was something along the lines, "Did it still get out of the park?"

    There's a statue of Dave near the entry to Dehler Park, our new baseball stadium opened in 2008. It's bookended by a statue of legendary American Legion coach Ed Bayne, who coached Billings teams to 20 state championships and to four American Legion World Series. I'm honored to say I knew them both.

  • Photoshoot: Moe Family

    Nate & Sarah Moe are good friends so it was fun to get a chance to take portraits of their family. It was windy and overcast in Billings, but the views at Zimmerman Park were beautiful.

    The kids got a little tired, and it was difficult to have elevated moods considering Nate's Saints and my Broncos had both lost earlier in the day, but we fought through! I think we ended up with some really good photos, too! View More Photos...

  • Photoshoot: Hoge Family

    My good friend Scott's wife, Jenn, asked me to take fall family portraits of them, and I'm glad she did. We had a lot of fun on a Monday afternoon in Riverfront Park in Billings. We were fortunate to have good light, no rain and we caught the fall colors still nice and bright. Overall, I was very pleased with the way the photos turned out, and better yet, so was Jenn. View More Photos...