I am not a religious man, but a little bit of heaven exists in Montana, and it has nothing to do with mountain lions or wilderness trails and bears. Instead, this paradise involves balancing a beer and a brat at Kindrick Legion Field, home of the Helena Brewers, one of eight teams in the 74-year-old Pioneer League.
The Pioneer League is Advanced Rookie Level, or one step below Class A ball, the lowest rung in the three minor league steps it takes to get to the majors. Teams include the Billings Mustangs, Great Falls Voyagers, Missoula Osprey, Grand Junction Rockies, Orem Owlz, Idaho Falls Chukars and tonight’s opponent, the Ogden, Utah, Raptors.
Each of the eight teams has a big league affiliate. Helena is connected to the Milwaukee Brewers and the Raptors to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Major League baseball stars Ryan Braun (pre-steroids), Gary Sheffield and Ryne Sandberg all once played in Helena.
Not one player on the Brewers roster is from Montana. They hail from places like Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, as well as from relatively nearby Camas, Wash.
Latin players have to take mandatory English lessons. I wonder if they will ever grasp what I take as the irony of the popular bumper sticker seen in sparsely populated Montana that warns “No Vacancy.” Perhaps newcomers are still not exactly welcome here – unless they can play baseball.
On this Monday night, there are 1,236 in attendance. From where I sit, I can watch the sun set behind Mount Helena and listen to the frequent whistles of coal trains. Kids with mitts roam the gravel parking lot for foul balls. A vendor calls out, “Cold beer, cold water, peanuts!” The team’s mascot is a coyote, I think, or possibly an odd-looking fox. Advertising boards in the outfield mix the local and corporate: Blackfoot Brewery, Titan Rentals, Miller and McDonald's.
This is Micro Monday, and we can buy specialty beers for only $2.75. For teetotalers, today is also Milk Monday, sponsored by the Dairy Farmers of Montana.
The Raptors go down in order in the first inning, thanks to the sharp pitching of right-hander Barrett Astin from Forest City, Ark. Before the Brewers come up to bat, there is a timed fly-fishing contest in which a lad named Zack deftly catches three paper coupons with his fly rod. Later promotions include “hillbilly horseshoes,” played with toilet seats, a giant dice roll, sponsored by BullsEye Casino (Helena is not short on casinos and gun stores), and a spirited foot race with three kids wearing tool costumes. (The saw outran the wrench and the hammer.)
The Brewers score first. The Raptors come right back with four runs on the strength of Jacob Scavuzzo’s three-run homer to right field, just below the Tri-County Disposal sign.
But Helena is not finished. Adam Giacalone, who was recently sent down from Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (the wrong direction for a young ballplayer), clears the bases with a double and the score is 5-4 Brewers after three innings.
This is a local crowd, including a neighborhood party of townies. I watch a father and his two towheaded boys share a giant helping of nachos. He wears a well-worn Danzer’s Paint Store shirt. A small contingent of diehards tries to start a “Let's Go, Brewers!” chant, but it quickly dies. Pigeons roost in the rafters, and the sun begins its long descent behind the mountains that ring Helena.
Ogden scores two runs in the top of the fourth to grab the lead and then brings in a new pitcher, Jordan Hershiser, the son of the famed Los Angeles Dodgers’ ace, Orel. The Brewers rattle Jordan for four runs in one long inning and go on to win 9-7.
Despite the inexperience of many of the players, and only two umpires, the game is well played, and the dreams of these young ballplayers are inspiring, albeit almost impossible to attain. In Lucas Mann’s book, “Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere,” he writes, “It’s best for the players not to think of the scope of what they’re trying to do.”
It’s true that they have about the same odds of making it to the majors as sockeye salmon have of making it from the Pacific Ocean back to Redfish Lake in Idaho. Still, for one glorious Montana night, their dreams are our dreams, and I consider that a darn good bargain for a $7 ticket.
Stephen J. Lyons is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op-ed syndicate of High Country News. He is the author of three books, most recently The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River.