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Peanuts from Heaven

Back to where it all started

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First and foremost, you may notice a dearth of postings in this area for the next week or so. We peanuts are on our way to Montana for a much needed vacation, and we'll try our best to be in the moment rather than on the computer, so the blogging slow down is inevitable.

This will be the first time that I (the male member of our salty/roasted snack bag) have been back to Montana in 7 years. My wife makes semi-annual trips to see her grandmother, uncle and relatives in Billings, while I, born and raised in the Big Sky State, have had little chance to go back with grad school and work eating up my life. I'm excited to see the prairies and the mountains, to hike the trails of Glacier and taste locally raised grass-fed beef again. But I'm also excited to go back to where my baseball fandom started. Great Falls, Montana.

I grew up about a mile from our local minor-league park: Legion Field and saw players come up at the very start of their careers in the Pioneer League. The League tours throughout Montana (Great Falls, Billings, Helena, and--at various points--Butte and Missoula) as well as other tourist hotspots (Ogden, Provo, Lethbridge, Idaho Falls, Casper, etc.).

Growing up in a small town it feels like simple is normal. You have a main street with grocery stores and fastfood, a bunch of side streets with houses on them, and if you want to go somewhere else you get on to the highway (usually only one) and go. I thought that was how it always was, but I didn't think about what it looked like to the young men who came to town to play for our local 9. (Something Omar Vizquel addresses here)

To them, this was just the first stop on the road to something bigger. They came, they played they moved up in the world. As a kid, I didn't really get that, why should you move up? Why shouldn't the majors include a Montana team? (Hopeless naivete was part of my life even then.)

Still, I would track the doings of the players who had come through town: Pedro Martinez, Raul Mondesi, Erik Karros, and my (unlikely) favorite: Jose Offerman. Our local stations showed no "games of the week," and cable was a luxury item in Montana, so I made do by reading box scores in the local paper, charting the standings, dreaming up the plays I could only imagine (without the help of SportsCenter).
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But while reading and dreaming was fun, the most fun I had was just going to games. The spur of the moment idea from my parents; stopping off at a rundown IGA grocery store between our house and the park for big bags of Twizzlers and peanuts that my mother hid in her purse. Walking through the damp, mildewy cement of the concourse to pick up 4 dogs and a Beer Baron Brat for my dad (bratwurst injected with cheese, boiled in beer). Sitting on the bleachers (or on special nights Home Plate box seats), and watching young guys try so hard to be grown men.
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That's where I learned to love not the numbers in the box scores, or the wins and losses, but the individual play on the field. The middle infielders, lunging for 8 hoppers up the middle; bubblegum chewing "sluggers" taking vicious cuts through the air; anxious pitchers who could not help but hear every jeer or cheer of every fan in the intimate park. I saw them not as pieces to be swapped or bartered, as rising talents or wastes of a draft pick, but as people living their dreams, trying to be great.

I left Montana and saw why the Majors won't be coming to Great Falls any time soon. Metropoli have no "main street" and housing is wherever you can grab it, after at least five years of confusion over free-way etiquette I can navigate 35, 94 and 62 with ease. And I came to respect the gung-ho fandom of a team that's consistently in playoff contention.

But I'm about to go home, to a simpler place. A place where I learned that baseball's not just about contending for a division title or a championship it's about the people you're around. The family, the friends, and the people who play a children's game for your amusement and their own desire to be the best. I'm going back to the place where it all started, and I'm awfully excited about that.

Comments

  1. Jim Crikket's Avatar
    Great piece! As a kid, our vacation at least every other year was to Cody WY where a sizable group of my relatives had moved to. If we took the train, that meant having someone pick us up in Billings. Now that I think about it, the only time I've flown out there to see relatives, we flew in to Billings, too. I do love that part of the country.

    I admit, however, that I never even recognized that they played baseball out there. It seems like all my relatives ever wanted to do was go to the rodeo!

    Enjoy the trip!
  2. TwinVike61's Avatar
    Very nice blog. I've had similar observations about the contrasts of major league baseball vs rookie league but mine were in reverse order to yours. I grew up in southern Minnesota and got to see a handful of Twins games at the old Met stadium but listened to a lot of games on 830 WCCO. Twenty some years ago I moved to Helena, Montana and have gone to quite a few Pioneer League games. You are right on about the intamacy of the games and players.

    Enjoy your visit.
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