As we take our seats in the Cobb Field bleachers for our first look at the Billings (Mont.) Mustangs on July 6, my son Jamie, 11, says, "I got the second baseman." Second base is his Little League position. Jamie scans the program for the player's name. "Gill. Chris Gill. Number 4."
Seconds later, as if by magic, Gill ranges far to his right, stretches to grab a grounder headed for centerfield, leaps in the air to get some force on the throw and nails an Idaho Falls runner at first by a half-step. Now that he really has Gill, Jamie can't understand why the Long Beach State product is not at that moment winging it around the infield at Riverfront Stadium with the big club—the Cincinnati Reds.
My other son, Chris, 9, and I aren't yet ready to commit to a favorite player. Donna, my wife, takes her time and does not select rightfielder K.C. Gillum until late in the game when Gillum, after grounding out, bangs his helmet against the fence and lets fly a stream of invective mixed with tobacco juice.
"I'll take him," Donna says.
My family and I have come to Billings and Cobb Field because we have never been to Montana and because we want to see baseball in the wide open spaces. "The players think they're going to be fighting Indians when they first get here," says Bob Wilson, the Mustangs' president and general manager.
Wilson is the team's only full-time, year-round employee, but everything seems to get done. The Mustangs, affiliated with the Reds since 1974, are members of the Pioneer League, whose teams wander the West about as much as the original settlers. Even the other in-state clubs—Butte, Helena and Great Falls—are at least 220 miles from Billings, and the Mustangs travel everywhere by bus. That means a lot of sight-seeing on the way to Pocatello and Idaho Falls, Salt Lake City and Medicine Hat, Alberta. The Pioneer is now a half-season (70 games) rookie league, meaning that the players are in either their first or second year of pro ball.
"Long hours, low pay and...'Play ball!' " third baseman Steve Vondran says the next day. "That's what I expected, and that's what I got."
Vondran and his teammates are signing autographs in the Big Bear Sporting Goods store in Billings. The Mustangs, clean-shaven and mostly wearing collared shirts, resemble a varsity-club receiving line as they meet and greet Billing sites. Except for K.C. Gillum, that is. K.C. (short for Kenneth Charles) wanders around the store in sweatshirt and jeans, pausing now and then to spit tobacco juice into a Pepsi cup.
"How come you guys look so nice?" I ask Vondran.
"Organization rules," he replies. "Whenever we appear in public we're supposed to have a collared shirt. Or if we don't, we're at least supposed to look presentable."