Fields of Dreams


As baseball fever grips the city, Missoula's softball teams savor summer at McCormick Park

A warm July evening is drawing to a sweet close at McCormick Park. The sun is on its way down, casting fifty-foot shadows on men in the backfield. The game in progress is almost over with and members of the next teams up are warming up in the grass, standing in twos and threes and tossing balls back and forth. Each toss makes a different sound in each glove, variations on a theme that punctuates the light conversation with the dusky baritone of leather on leather.

"You been on vacation?" Theck.

"Nope, been working in Yellowstone." Thuck.

"Oh yeah? How's that?" Thup.

"Pretty cool." Thep.

It's district tournament time. The Ole's/Paradise Falls Plus-35 team, the two-time defending state champions, are preparing to take on a younger men's Class B team to stay in fighting trim for their trip to the state tournament. Craig Henkel, the Ole's six-foot-seven-inch first baseman, leans back on his elbows in the cool turf and surveys the competition.

"We like playing these younger guys," he says confidently. "It's a good way to get ourselves prepared to go to state."

Rick Meisinger heads toward third en route to a 35-plus tournament victory. "I'm kinda neutral on the stadium, but I like the Osprey," says Meisinger. "I've got season tickets.".

It's a genteel sport, this McCormick Park brand of softball. Men's teams, women's teams, co-recreational teams, teams for the over-35, teams for the over-40 all share the park's twin diamonds on alternating nights. Families converge with coolers and stadium blankets to watch spouses, parents and siblings play. They crack sunflower seeds and drink Bud Light. Between innings, the dugouts are often filled with popsicle-stained little kids raising a ruckus and coated with dust from one end to the other. The line demarcating players from spectators is so blurry, sometimes it's hard to tell who's playing and who's just standing around watching.

Two black Labradors tussle with a chocolate one; a tawny girlfriend stretches and takes a swig of mineral water. The mosquitoes are biting. The sharp crack of a solid hit rings out. Fans cheer as a sunkissed line-drive sails into center field.

Whenever spectators are involved, sporting events basically all boil down to the same thing: the majority acting through the minority. Even the resoundingly unathletic can participate through spectatorship, which has fired the collective blood since the wheel was big news. Anyone who's ever stroked a rabbit's foot or invoked the name of Our Savior to bring a runner in off third or help get the pigskin through the uprights will tell you there's a lot more acting on the outcome of the game than the just the players.

And there's a lot more at stake this year than just the tournament: McCormick Park is one of the proposed sites for a stadium that will ensconce professional baseball in Missoula. Right now, the park is home to more than 70 softball teams that use the park as their primary playing venue, but all that will change if the push to hand the site over to baseball promoters makes it through City Council. For McCormick, anyway, baseball will be the only game in town.

The Intrigue of Softball

So what's the big difference between softball and baseball, anyway? The ball itself, for starters: The official Amateur Softball Association game ball is a red-stitched "blue-dot," 12 inches in circumference, weighing a minimum of 6.25 ounces and a maximum of 7 ounces-unofficially speaking, an orb about the size of a large onion. As with a baseball, the core is either long-fiber kapok or a mixture of cork and rubber. And, name aside, it's not so soft that you'd want one kacking you in the head at top speed-although it is soft enough that you can actually dribble it in the dirt before you pitch.

The playing field has different specs as well. Baselines are 65 feet, or slightly over two-thirds of baseball dimensions. Pitching distance is 50 feet, compared with 60 feet, six inches from mound to plate in baseball. And, in men's slowpitch softball, even the innocuous pitch is subject to official constraints. You can throw it as fast as you want, presumably, as long as you do it underhand and the ball makes an arc a maximum height of 12 feet high and a minimum of six.

"They'll let you push 14," explains Michael Moore from the dugout of a team known as the Rhino Review of Books. "But they don't want to see any of these moonballs."

Velocity is attenuated by distance, and the laws of gravity are such that anything fulfilling the twin criteria of apex height and strike zone will come across the plate at a predictable speed of ... well, a hell of a lot slower than baseball, anyway. One of the first things you notice about a softball game is that you see a lot more of the ball between the pitching rubber and home plate. There's an extra player, too-an additional outfielder called a rover haunting the midfield.

These are just the most obvious differences; plenty of subtler ones concerning batting order, pinch runners and the like round out the rule book. But on the face of it, softball does bear more than a passing resemblance to baseball. So is it baseball for the kinetically-challenged? A training-wheels version of America's game? Why play softball?

"Where do you play baseball in this town?" snorts Matt Waldron between innings of a Sunday evening co-rec game.

"Yeah," one of his teammates chimes in dryly. "The Osprey forgot to recruit us."

Top: "I'll enjoy it totally. Totally, totally, totally," says Kirk Tennant, right, a softball veteran of 22 years. "If the stadium comes to McCormick, I'd move clear across town. Heck, I'd even play in the Bitterroot."
Middle: Gary Jahrig tore his Achilles tendon earlier this year and will miss the entire season. "It was pounding," Jahrig said, "but first I made it to second (base)."
Bottom: While the future of softball at McCormick Park remains tentative, Missoulians can be sure that whether it's softball or baseball, the bats will continue to crack at McCormick Park.

For first baseman Henkel, the game is less about competition than leisure. "It's mostly socializing with friends and getting out and running-well, I guess you could call it running-once a week or so," he says. "It just feels good to swing the bat." "It's a great game," says co-rec player Matthew Stergios, "very relaxing and a great diversion from everything else that's going on. I'm 42 years old and I can still play."

Softball is easier on a body than baseball, and some of the silver foxes you see have been playing the game for two decades or more. Montana B-softball's oldest age bracket is the 40-plus team, although some states offer teams up to 70-plus. Ron Pales, 52-year-old first baseman for the 40-plus division's Alberton-sponsored River Edge Resort team, explains that softball is the logical next step when baseball gets too taxing for a seasoned frame. "When I got out of college, I quit playing league," he explains. "I started playing softball in the Navy and here I am."

His teammate, 50-year-old Terry Lynch, nods in agreement. "It's a natural progression for old baseball players to go into softball," he says. "There's a lot of good athletes out there, they've just slowed down a little." True enough-although a baseball cap and a pair of pinstriped knickers make any man look sprightlier by 10 or 15 years.

Both Pales and Lynch used to play on younger teams in the Northside League. "I'm kind of a spring chicken around here," Lynch grins, noting that being a little bit older makes it easier to enjoy a friendly game. "Everyone wants to win, of course," he says, gesturing towards the twin diamonds. "But the urge to win isn't as strong anymore. These are guys who just like to play the game."

If anything, he says, the competition is slightly stiffer in the 35-plus division. This follows-a few nights prior, a fight nearly broke out in a 35-plus game when a forced out elicited a few unsportsmanlike comments and an alleged flyin' bird from the opposing team. That ruffled some feathers. It didn't quite come to fisticuffs, but the point was clear enough-it's still a sport, and as such some people take it way too seriously. Tales of dirt-kickings, umpire-throttlings and the like are legion.

For the most part, though, the worst you'll hear at McCormick is a lot of good-natured ribbing between rival teams. Isolated incidents aside, a friendly-game atmosphere prevails-even in the thick of tournament play. "This is about as tense as it gets," explains Moore. "Which is not to say that it's too tense."

No one seems to be in much of a hurry to leave after their games are over, either. Win or lose, there's a sizable contingent of men in identical shirts lounging in the grass and on the log fence that skirts the parking lot, drinking beer out of coolers and basking in the rather postcoital glow of a game well played.

Diamonds in the Rough

These salad days might be coming to an end, however. In order to host the Osprey, Missoula's new baseball club, Play Ball Missoula's promoters need some kind of greenspace to build a facility that meets professional specs, and if the McCormick Park site makes the final cut, softball players will have to take their game somewhere else.

The McCormick proposal has touched off an especially rancorous dervish of dissenting opinion in City Council. Supporters of a baseball stadium in the park list advantages like "clean, family-oriented fun" and the economic boost it would give to a "fragile" downtown already endangered by urban sprawl and economic decentralization. Opponents of the McCormick site decry increased decibel levels, environmental impact, parking and access hassles, defacement of a scenic area, and what they feel amounts to an unjust appropriation of public park space for private enterprise-in short, just about everything there is to decry. In reading the minutes from City Council meetings, it's evident that the haste with which the community is expected to arrive at a decision where to put the thing is as frightening as anything else. "Astonishingly fast" is how area resident Ross Best has described it, adding that "this chapter of the minor league baseball story is going to be one of the most disgraceful episodes in recent city history."

There's an added element of jeopardy for Missoula softball, of course, since the proposed stadium would wipe out not one but two playing fields, displacing the McCormick program and increasing the workload accordingly on the other fields. In an excerpt from a June City Council meeting, Missoula Softball Association coordinator Pat McDonnell minces no words about the "fractured promises" he feels Play Ball Missoula made to his organization, as well as the "dreadful precedent for parkland" set by a resolution that would turn public space and "the limited resources of this city" over to private enterprise. "Promise number one is that [which was] given by Play Ball Missoula representatives to the Missoula Softball Association when they claimed [they] would never take [our] fields unless [we] wanted [them] to have them. Let us be clear about this. We have never wanted you to have them, never. Only with the loaded gun of a moonstruck, panic-stricken, process-ignoring mayor and an acquiescent, process-weary council pointed at our heads we engage in this demeaning and disillusioning dialogue."

But for all the baleful rhetoric in City Council, the general consensus of the players doesn't seem to be one of anti-baseball furor at all-only steadfast opposition to baseball in McCormick Park. Pressed for opinions, four out of five softball players shrug and offer slightly different versions of the same mantra, one you hear a lot in Missoula these days, on as well as off the field: "I like the idea of baseball in Missoula, just not here." Or here, or here. Cautious enthusiasm for a baseball club, tempered with civic-minded concerns about traffic and access, and a twinge of regret that softball's days in McCormick might just be numbered.

Sentimental reasons aside, one of the problems with McCormick softball's ouster would be scheduling logistics. The loss of McCormick's twin fields would place a greater burden on the remaining venues and in all likelihood cause a scheduling nightmare.

"The city would be down two fields and eight games a night, basically," explains Michael Moore. "Fort Missoula isn't lit, and the Northside only runs three games a night because of neighborhood regulations. I don't have much faith in Parks and Rec to get us situated by next year. Softball's never been much of a priority for them."

The general consensus seems to be that another proposed site-the Champion property, currently an industrial vacant lot a few hundred yards to the west of McCormick-would offer many of the same location benefits with fewer of the cons.

"Softball has been here for years and years and years," says co-rec player Clint Roberts. "It's close to people. They can ride their bikes here. Families can walk here." Roberts waves westward towards the Champion site. "Putting the stadium over there wouldn't be that different. Putting the stadium out in the middle of nowhere's not going to benefit anybody."

"I like the idea of the Champion site," concurs Terry Lynch. "I don't like the idea of them putting a stadium on the McCormick site because I think softball's too much of an attraction for local folk to take it away after all these years."

For co-rec player Merrie Rampy, putting the stadium in McCormick Park is simply the least logical solution to the problem. "I think they've got better options," she ventures, keeping a careful eye on her turn in the batting order. "I'd hate to see the Osprey leave Missoula, but if they put a stadium here, the place will be locked up for any kind of use other than the Osprey stadium, which won't even be open all year. As it is, this park is used year round, seven days a week."

Teammate Matthew Stergios agrees. "Only if it's an absolute last resort and all other options have been exhausted," he states. "I mean, it's not like they're trying to build a smelter. There's worse things you could do to this park than build a baseball field here." Stergios glances thoughtfully at the moon-nearing full-rising above the mountains. "But I repeat, only as a last resort. Something really special would be lost."

In the meantime, it's play ball at McCormick, and the teams are winding down the last of the evening's games. It's hard to conceive that this summer could mark the end of an era, especially when there's nothing about this particular evening to set it apart from the last twenty summers in the park. A blizzard of insects hovers around every light. The tawny girlfriend has moved to a picnic table by the fence to get a better view of the game. A pair of ecstatic toddlers crashes through a thick carpet of discarded beer cans. The bat cracks out again, and a ball soars high over left field. It's gone.


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