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.