“Take Time For Paradise…

“Take Time For Paradise” according to A Bart Giamatti, erstwhile Commissioner of Baseball.

Down the Line at SafeCo Field

Here is a view of SafeCo Field from the far right field. When I go to a ballpark I like to walk around the perimeter to see what I can see from wherever I am. It seems clear from this picture that the foul pole is really the “fair” pole in that it is in fair territory, so that if a ball strikes the pole it is a fair ball.

Because this is not so easy to see from home plate or the infield where the umpires usually hang out, they can, if they so desire, get help from the TV replays. I wonder if they will ever seek help on balls and strikes.

There are any number of peculiar calls from behind home plate. This calling of balls and strikes is not easy. The problem is that every umpire has his own idea of what constitutes the strike zone. And so the zone changes every day.

I remember when the TV people first started showing what might be the electronic strike zone. Tom Glavine was a very effective pitcher because he could throw a ball between 6 to 8 inches off the outside corner of the plate, which most umpires consistently called strikes. For most batters, balls out there are almost unhitable. When the umpires one year decided they wouldn’t call those strikes any more poor Tommy Glavine suffered a devastating loss of pitching skill.


Moving Right Along

Just can’t resist having a look at the progress on the new ballpark here in Billings. This was one of the first things I checked out when we returned from Rome, Italy. They are moving along: imagine that in December and January in Montana. Oh sorry, I’ve let out a usually well-kept secret.

Gary Roller, general manager for the Mustangs, has told me that I have some season seats just behind the Mustangs’ dugout on the third base side. See above for the dugout in the background. Those of you who remember the old Cobb Field will also remember having to look into the sun in the late afternoon and early evening because the home dugout was on the first base side. And see also the splendid web pages of the Parks and Recreation people here in Billings.

A Modest Proposal

While surfing the Net recently, I discovered that the 2008 baseball season will be the last at the House that Ruth Built. It will be torn down in favor of a New Yankee Stadium being built even as we speak just across the road.

And furthermore, that the new Washington DC Baseball Park will open for business in April 2008.

And Finally, that the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, will be saying a Mass at the Washington DC Baseball Park on April 17, 2008.

It seems to me that this might be a golden opportunity to combine history, urban amazement, entertainment, sport, and religious fervor in one glorious long Spring break. We could probably throw in a little old-time transportation kicks riding the rails from DC to NYC.


I had an eery feeling things would turn out this way after the first game, a blowout, and an almost predictable result after not playing for eight days, especially after winning a dizzying 21 of 22 games before that long layoff.

That kind of trip needs almost daily fixes. Any baseball team capable of winning 21 of 22 games could easily lose 4 in a row.

This picture just above is of Main St in Hustisford, more accurately Lake Street, but everyone called it Main St in those days and probably still do. It looks about the same as it did in the 40s. The picture to the right is from a recent entrance into that fair village. In the 40s the population was 564.

I was reminded of my rough introduction to beginning statistics by the Sox sweep of the Rockies. I was 10 years old. I had lied about my age to get a paper route. My father had not yet hit upon the idea of using my profits from delivering papers from 5 to 6am every day of the year in deepest Wisconsin to pay for my orthodontic beautification. So I felt fairly fat in the wallet in early October 1950.

Murphy the barber had one of the few TV sets in the village. He had it brought down from the apartment above the shop (we lived above the meat market too) and set it up in the barber shop (a little further down the road on the picture above) so his customers could all watch the Series. In those days that was all that happened in the world for that week or so, or so we thought.

The picture to the left is the house we lived in in the 50s. I remember drinking pop and sitting on the front porch in the cool evenings. Mr Johnson, our upstairs lodger, and the high school band and choral director and history and civics teacher, would join us. We thought we were fairly advanced in those days.

Perhaps you remember or may have read of the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies, the Whiz Kids they were called. They were to play the hated Yankees for the World Championship. In those days upstarts like Cuba and Japan were not even heard of in our baseball world. I was so convinced that the Phillies would humiliate the Yankees I bet Murphy the barber $1 on the first game. I couldn’t believe it when the Phillies ace, Robin Roberts, lost that first game.

Murphy kindly offered to double my bet on the following day. I was a little wary but since my income in those days was about $3 per week, I thought I would take the chance. Double or nothing, how could I lose? Of course, by this time I was deeply hooked and eventually out $27 by the end of the fourth and final game. That was 9 weeks of delivering papers in the damp, dark days of 1950!

So then I learned something about statistical arguments the hard way. After that I took to learning things the easy way: in school.

The picture above right is of the cemetery, duh, though I suppose it could easily be a setting for the 3rd Act of Wilder’s Our Town, a play I am reminded of everytime I visit this particular graveyard because I knew so many of the people whose names are carved on the headstones. I loved the idea of a Stage Manager and particularly one who could violate the fourth wall at will, and could speak to his audience.

Decline and Fall of Cobb Field, Billings, Montana

Back in the 1940s, when almost all of us were young, or not even imagined by our parents, though God probably had us in mind, a man named Bob Cobb and some friends built a ballpark in Billings, Montana. This guy was not related to the famous Ty Cobb, though he did invent a marvelous salad. Yes, that is true, leading to the now well known Cobb salad. A manly salad if there ever was one. This recent picture of Cobb Field shows the shadows, especially this past summer, getting longer.

I hope that one of these days someone will go through the back issues of the Billings Gazette in order to write a proper history of the ballpark. The little I know I gathered in dribs and drabs from folks who had been around the park since the beginning, guys like Ed Popp, who used to farm not too far away from the ballpark, and was a well-established long-time regular in the first row just outside the Mustang’s dugout back in 1980 when I first started coming to games here. I saw some of those old guys at the last ballgame, shaking their head and fighting off a tear. Ed and I patrolled that first row of boxseats fairly regularly in the 80s and 90s, sometimes allowing a real fan to join us, as long as they would buy the beer. The picture to the right would have been taken from that seat right next to the dugout that Ed finally gave up.

The bond issue went through on the second try in the spring of ’07 as all the fans realized they better get out and vote because otherwise their Mustangs were likely to pick up their spikes and head on down the road. Ironically, the first try at voting in a new park was a failure even though it had the slickest campaign I’ve ever seen here in Billings. The problem was it was so good it alerted every nay-sayer in town to show up at the polling place. Much better for the outcome was the low key, person to person campaign on the second go-around. The park aged fairly well, looking good even in the winter time. I used to love to sit in the bleachers about 9pm or so on a balmy summer evening, as almost all were at least in my memory, and watch an old DC3 still in service for what I don’t know, rising gracefully from Logan airport atop the Rimrocks, so full of time that if you used your imagination you could easily transport yourself back 50s years to when the plane was new. That was how I saw it anyway.

This old park has seen a lot of baseball in the 60 or so years it has been in existence. Legion teams and the Mustangs, rookie league advanced for the Cincinnati Reds, and now lately, the revived baseball program at Montana State University Billings, has usually meant at least on average a game every day from April through Labor Day. Dave McNally was a big name for the Legion team back in the late 50s, going to the final game of the Legion World Series in New Orleans in 1960 I think. And of course, he did have more than a few pretty good years with the Baltimore Orioles from 1962 into the 70s. He and Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith were instrumental in getting the old “reserve clause,” an almost medieval relic of a baseball rule overturned, and led to the modern day free agency.

Dave and Jeanne used to live a couple houses down from us on Ramada Drive here in Billings until he died from a lung cancer a couple of years ago.

There were others who played professional baseball from Billings. The one I remember the best was Jeff Ballard, who pitched and played 1st base for the Scarlets in the late 70s and early 80s. He went on to do well for Stanford and the Baltimore Orioles until he was hurt in an auto accident.

Some years ago I saw a guy start warming up in the park where the Mariners used to play; he still had his jacket on but his motion was so distinctive I knew it was Jeff from the stands in deep right field where I was looking around. I guess ways of walking and pitching and maybe thinking stick with us perhaps all of our lives.

The swimming pool was taken out even before the season was over. And lots of things were not repaired or replaced properly because we were soon going to have a new ball park, though in the end it was a remarkably close referendum. The old park, mostly wood, was knocked down fairly quickly and easily, and the early stages of the new park can be seen if you look closely. See above and below. The old outfield is still there with a few of the larger advertising signs still present as well as the old scoreboard. Maybe we will get an electronic one with all the bulbs working for the first time since I’ve been coming to the park.

Below is an artist’s and maybe an architect’s idea of what the new park will look like come July 2008. I found this in a Wendy’s Restaurant on Grand Ave. Let us hope it is playable before that time as the college and Legion teams start fairly early in the spring. Even as the old falls down the new starts popping up as you can see above right.

[ Added later, 31 October 2007: I just discovered that the City of Billings has a webpage with a series of pictures from the destruction of Cobb Field to the building of the New Field, whatever it will be called, and not only are the pictures good but they also have helpful and sometimes funny comments attached to them. Good going, Billings Parks & Recreation Dept! Check it out by clicking on the page New Field.]

Third crop of grass on Ramada Drive

When it rains, the grass grows. This is similar to a Law of Gravity here in Montana. This is now the third crop according to the guy that cuts it when it gets high enough to bother the squatting dogs, especially with the morning dew.

This is probably what happened for several years in a row back in the 19th century when people first started moving in to this area. The immigrants were tricked into coming and staying by a couple years of good rain. The prairie really does look like a grassy ocean, especially when the wind blows which is fairly often.

Of course, when the grass grows, then our four-footed bovine friends graze all night long into the early morning. Maggie the Dog loves to protect her turf from these critters. They pay no attention to her attention. Her courage waxes and wanes, sort of like her human masters.

You know that late spring and summer has arrived in Billings with certainty when there is a ballgame at Cobb Field almost every night, and often during the day as well. When the Royals play the Scarlets there is usually a fairly full house. On 2 June the Royals beat the Scarlets 2-1, the first loss of the young season for the Scarlets. All of the runs scored because of some critical errors. Both pitchers did well.

Oops, the picture I uploaded was from earlier in the game. Trust me, the Visitors, i.e. the Scarlets scored a run in the top of the 7th and the Royals scored two runs in the bottom of the 8th.