Players and fans of the Bitterroot Baseball League keep the faith in America's game
Following the league's inaugural season, promoter and player Marty Essen may not need to bring back midget strike zones or sign-up any female pitchers.It's the second weekend in August, and a rail of a kid named Justin Abbey snaps warm-up pitches at the Hamilton Athletic Park's field, just off Highway 93 in the Bitterroot Valley.
Evening comes down in a blaze of eye-searing orange. It's a sweet time of year in the valley. The ripe smell of dirt and hay comes off the land. The setting sun casts a blinding light, which shines over the Bitterroot Mountains, over the park's ancient grandstand, right into the pitcher's eyes.
Abbey, the Tri-City Mud Hens' ace starter, throws some serious heat despite the glare. As they take the field, Abbey's teammates wear dark glasses against the sun which will surely make this evening game's first few innings a fielder's nightmare.
In the on-deck area, some Hamilton Cobras, who will challenge the Hens this afternoon, take muscular cuts. Both team's fans, mostly girlfriends and families, fill the southern end of the turn-of-the-century stands, cheering, laughing, talking baseball and shouting encouragement.
The Bitterroot Baseball League has enjoyed unexpected success in its inaugural season as Montana's only adult amateur hardball league. All summer long, people from Missoula and every corner of Ravalli County have been enticed to Hamilton Park by the clang of balls against aluminum bats.
For the first time in recent memory, baseball lovers who normally pick between high school-aged American Legion teams and major league franchises in Denver, Seattle or even more distant points, have had a chance to pull for teams composed of hometown boys of summer ages 20 to 40.
Founded by a hardball fanatic transplanted from Minnesota, the league has attracted enough players to fill five teams and hundreds of fans to the old ballpark in downtown Hamilton. The league has drawn notice from all of the local media, and even some totally unexpected attention from pro scouts.
Meanwhile, the Cobras, Mud Hens, Stevensville River Bandits, Missoula RedStixx and Missoula Warthogs have offered up good, old-fashioned hardball in one of the prettiest baseball settings imaginable.
But nobody on the field right now gives a solitary damn about all that at the moment. This is the Bitterroot Baseball League's Invitational championship, which has seen the elimination of three BBL clubs, two teams from Spokane and one from Minnesota.
It doesn't count in the local standings, but it's clear that there's a lot of intra-valley pride at stake.
The Mud Hens hail from Victor, Corvallis and Hamilton, hold first place, and have the deepest pitching staff in the league -- starting with Abbey. The Cobras offer a brutally efficient infield and an vicious hurler of their own in Jay Brockett.
Umpire Lindzi Brockmeyer, a mustachioed fireplug who won't have an easy time with this contest, calls proceedings to order, and Russ Fricke steps in for the Cobras, the designated visiting team. Fricke -- tall, lean and one of few BBL players to wield a wooden bat -- is hitting somewhere around .500 for the season.
Abbey strikes him out, his pitches smacking the catcher's mitt in the first salvos of what will stretch into a pitchers' duel. The next Cobra triples when an outfielder loses the ball to the sun, and then a grounder brings the run home.
A hard line drive puts men on first and second, but Abbey battens down and slaps a pair of "K's" on the score card as he strikes out the next two batters.
The Mud Hens tie the game in the bottom of the first against Brockett's fire-and-ice cocktail of fastballs and curves. The sun slips behind the grandstand, the light on the field turns grey-green and the fans settle back to watch the teams battle under the park's floodlamps.
It's fair to say that Marty Essen, league founder and Mud Hens' manager, is into baseball. His voice lights up when he talks the game. His eyes light up in a way that always betrays true love.
Essen lives hell-and-gone up in the hills outside Victor, in a house his wife Deb designed on land frequented by moose, a remote place for a man who lives to promote. He runs his communications business from his basement.
Today, he's wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a drawing of a pig named Saint, the porcine mascot of the St. Paul Saints, the notoriously weird club from the Midwest's independent Northern League, a team that's famous for signing female pitchers, having nuns throw out ceremonial pitches, and letting the pig run wild.
"I played Little League from the time I was in fourth grade," Essen says. "Then, years later, my son started Little League. He eventually stopped playing.
"I was having so much fun with baseball, I sort of rode a friend's coattails onto an adult amateur team, the Twin Cities Mud Hens. He was a real good player, and I wasn't a very good player.
"I'm still not a very good player. I just love the game."
Essen goes on to say that he was surprised to find no adult leagues in Montana to play in. But he wasn't hindered. Within a year, he spawned a league that appears built to last, tapping talent and passion from around the region, with promotional strategies usually limited to the minor leagues, ranging from pizza give-aways to a home run contest in which civilians can win a classic car.
"I'm going to go ahead and say, since there's no way to prove me wrong, that this is the most heavily promoted adult amateur league in the whole country," he says. "Back in Minnesota, we would literally play in front of my wife and my dog. The other players' wives wouldn't even come."
Essen's promotions, ranging from the home run contest to pizza give-aways to an early season game between the UM Grizzly club and BBL all-stars, swelled crowds at the Hamilton field, recalling the huckstering of Mike Veeck, owner of the St. Paul Saints and one of Essen's heroes.
The son of Bill Veeck, who once put a midget into bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951 (he was walked on four pitches), the younger Veeck was drummed out of organized baseball after Disco Demolition Night, a 70s promotion he engineered for the Chicago White Sox, degenerated into a riot.
Years later, he helped found the Northern League, a renegade outfit known for pulling wacky stunts and rescuing careers -- most notably that of rehabilitated New York Yankee Darryl Strawberry.
Essen took promotional inspiration from Veeck, and when some of the Bitterroot Leaguers looked too good to be true, he wrote the Saints owner and got a private try-out for some of the homegrown talent. Nothing clicked this time, but now Essen hopes to work with a few players over the winter, and try to crack the Northern League again in the spring.
But Essen's more interested in the spectacle of the game than whether or not he's going to get rich. "Baseball should be entertaining," he says. "What's hurt the majors, even more than the strike, are all the bad characters, the players who are constantly in legal trouble, players who, if they weren't baseball stars, would be on Skid Row. That's why I'm a minor league fan.
"If we could get some players signed into the Northern League, it would be great. Sure, they'd be making $1200 a month, but they'd be playing baseball for money."
More importantly for Essen, baseball is a vital connection to the outside world, and it sounds like he'll keep going as long as there's fun to be had on the diamond.
"I haven't regretted moving to Montana for a second," he says. "If I didn't have baseball, it might be a different story. Sometimes, I'll be standing out there, and I say to myself, 'Geez, here I am, an adult, out here playing ball. This is great.'"
Most of the Bitterroot Leaguers don't quite have pro chops, but they are hard-nosed as hell.
A week before the Invitational, Essen talks with Brian Temple, a hard-throwing lefty, who works best when Tri-City's up against the wall. Temple's been nicknamed "Toro" by his teammates, after the lawnmower -- as in, he mows 'em down.
Temple sits in the stands, discussing the possibility of a springtime trip to Northern League territory. "How badly do you want to go to the pros?" Essen asks, feeling out Temple's willingness to work out over the winter.
"Jesus, Marty, what kind of question is that?" Temple says. "I'd play for some Class A farm team for the rest of my life. I wouldn't care."
To wit, Temple's not the only player to stand out in a league filled with players as tough as they are solid.
Take Mark Bachik, the Hens' second baseman, drafted by the Houston Astros in 1974 but never called to the Show. He broke four bones in his foot in the first tournament game, played anyway, hit a monster home run in the semifinals, and even played the championship, lurching toward first each time he made contact.
Then there's Tri-City catcher-pitcher Mike Mayer, blind in one eye and carrying a wire in his leg, pitching and catching all the same, described by Essen's son Sean, who announces every BBL game, as an iron man. "He can pitch one game, win it, and then turn around and catch the next game," Sean says.
Or Mike Mathews of the Missoula Warthogs, who swallows a bee during warm-ups for a tourney game, gets stung in his throat, vomits up bee, venom, food and all, and plays anyway, even pitching one inning. "And he was throwing heat," Essen observes.
And of course, there's Jay Brockett of Hamilton, whose smooth, deceptive style has the Mud Hens in a hole as the sky goes black over the invitational championship's seventh and final inning.
It's been a weird game, played with tight-wound intensity by both teams. Umpire Brockmeyer threw Mud Hens catcher Kelly Fowler -- the oldest player in the league -- out of the game for arguing after a play involving a third strike that went into the dirt but wasn't called, an overthrow to first and a run scored.
Replacement catcher Meyer's stepped in, and has been running down loose balls and gunning down runners trying to steal. Abbey, meanwhile continues throwing well, but Brockett's been every bit his equal.
After a solo homer by Larry Standish in the fourth, the Mud Hens trail 3-2 as they take the field at the top of the seventh.
The crowd's attention hasn't wandered a bit, but now, apart from a couple squalling babies, a hush falls before each of Abbey's pitches. He seems to tire a little. Cobras shortstop Jason Hutson gets on, and then scores, before Abbey posts a final strikeout to bring the Mud Hens up for one last at bat.
Brockett starts to look a little wolfish as he takes the hill, smelling blood, and sure enough, the Mud Hens go like lambs. Brian Temple, hitting gamely with two gone, flies out to right, ending the game. The Cobras immediately collect the Invitational's trophy from Essen, and after a burst of applause the fans start to slide homewards.
Wives and girlfriends go out to hook up with their men on both teams, and some kids seize a few minutes of parental slack to take laps around the base paths.
Insects swarm through the emptying flood light, and some players from the Twin Cities Mud Hens, Essen's old team, wander down the third base line, out toward the foul pole, taking pictures. They drove 1,000 miles, played and lost two games, and don't seem to mind.
With two weeks left in the season, Essen's Hens have wrapped up first place in the regular season, but the league championship could go to anyone -- to the Mud Hens, to the Cobras, to the hard-hitting River Bandits, to one of the Missoula teams if they get upset fever.
Next year, Essen says there might be difficulty getting fields to play on. But tonight, at least, it seems like the majors could strike from now 'til Kingdom Come, leaving the game in good hands.
Out on the field, the summer night above seems particularly vast, and wandering through the outfield, all the clichés spouted about baseball seem actually true.
You really can smell the fresh-cut grass, and here in Montana already, you really feel autumn coming on in the slight chill.
Wrapping things up by the concession stand, Essen's not overjoyed to have lost, but he's not devastated either. There are fish yet to fry in regular league play.
"Hey, it wouldn't be any fun if the favored team always won," he says. "That's baseball."
The BBL wraps up its season with games on Sunday, Aug. 17, at the Hamilton Athletic Field, where the Cobras take on the Mudhens at 6:30, and then the River Bandits at 8 p.m. Also on Sunday, Aug. 17, at Missoula's Playfair Park, the Warthogs play the Redstixx at 6 p.m.
On Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 23 and 24, the BBL playoffs and championships take place in Hamilton all day.