“Bye, bye, baseball.”
— Deene Ehlis’ home run call
BILLINGS — Listening to Minnesota Twins games with his father while growing up in Eastern Montana, a young Deene Ehlis was enraptured by the easy-going banter between the announcers.
Every night, the announcers would share stories while painting a picture of a Major League Baseball game that floated through the radio at the Ehlis home, situated between Sidney and Glendive.
Like all young boys, Ehlis had dreams of being a Major League Baseball player. Every morning before he delivered the Billings Gazette, Ehlis would scan the box scores for information on his favorite team and his favorite players.
He participated in all sports growing up and was on the 1971 Sidney Class A state championship basketball team.
But as he got older, Ehlis realized his skill set was better suited for other endeavors. And he wanted to remain in sports.
“I originally thought I was going to be a teacher and a coach,” Ehlis said of his post-high school future.
He always had a way with words. When his first-grade teacher would step out of the room, Ehlis would offer a play-by-play on the actions of his classmates.
He’s still doing play-by-play.
And while not reaching his ultimate goal, Ehlis came awfully close.
He’s got the World Series ring to prove it.
Ehlis, who turned 65 on June 28, is in the twilight of a radio broadcast career with the Iowa Cubs that began in 1990.
The Iowa Cubs are the Chicago Cubs' Triple-A affiliate based in Des Moines, Iowa.
He announced his retirement in 2016, but still does home games and select road games.
So respected in the organization, Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts selected Ehlis as one of the few minor league personnel to receive a 2016 World Series ring.
“I got an email saying, ‘We need your ring size,’ “ remembered Ehlis. “I thought they were joking.
“The players’ rings are much bigger, but this one still looks nice,” he finished with a chuckle.
With a soft, comforting voice, he’s called thousands of games for Iowa Cubs fans across the Midwest. It was in Des Moines where he developed his signature home run call known to so many.
“Everyone tries to have a home run call,” said Ehlis. “I had, ‘Ball fly away,’ and tried ‘Off to home run heaven,’ but it just didn’t fit with the Cubs.”
The World Series ring is a fitting gift for a career that began at a small radio station in Red Lodge.
Following high school, Ehlis attended broadcasting school in Milwaukee. He and his wife Dari – they went to high school together – returned to their home state in 1972.
He did a little bit of everything in Red Lodge, working as an overnight DJ, “I think we were a Top 40 station,” Ehlis said, and sales work during the day. He also did some football and basketball games.
“I remember a big snow storm,” said Ehlis of his Red Lodge memories. “It was just fun to be a DJ and create something on the air.”
That was followed by a stint in Glasgow, “Where I got into country music,” he said. Ehlis also started broadcasting more sports and got his first taste of play-by-play announcing.
“We used to cover softball tournaments,” he said. “That was my first play-by-play experience.”
His time in Glasgow was broken up by a year in Malta – the same people owned both radio stations – where he was a one-man operation. He and his growing family returned to Glasgow for two more years.
Ehlis and his wife have four children – Adam, Tobin, Deana and Keith – along with 11 grandchildren and one on the way.
The Ehlis family also spent a year in Longview, Washington before returning to Helena.
Ehlis worked a decade in the state capitol, broadcasting Pioneer League games, along with Carroll College sports and high school games.
While riding the bus with the Helena team – then affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillies – he got to witness some of the greatest players in Pioneer League history.
“My fondest memory is we had a kid from Spokane the Phillies were pretty high on,” Ehlis said. “Ryne Sandberg was my first team broadcast.”
Sandberg, who would go on to star for the Chicago Cubs, was selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.
While happy in Helena, that original goal of being a major league broadcaster gnawed at Ehlis.
“I always had it in the back of my mind. I wanted to make it to the big leagues,” he said.
After much thought, Ehlis went all-in to pursue his dream job.
“I had a mid-life crisis,” he added. “I was in my 30’s and thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, it will never happen.’ So I better look around.”
Ehlis took a job in Midland, Texas, a Class AA affiliate of the Anaheim Angels. He worked with Monty Hoppel of Laurel for two seasons in Texas. Hoppel was the general manager.
Ehlis got the opportunity for the Iowa Cubs job in 1990. It was also a chance to work year-round for the team.
He’s been there ever since.
“I started working here and just liked it,” said Ehlis. “It’s a really good organization and I was just doing baseball.”
Ehlis chased a few MLB jobs but to no avail.
“It’s so difficult to get a job in the big leagues,” he continued. “There are so few jobs available and nobody leaves. Jobs are few and far between.
“We love Des Moines. It all worked out for a reason.”
Like those who rely on Ehlis bringing them games nightly, he appreciates those who helped him along the way.
“I appreciate all the players, all the coaches, all the personnel I’ve worked with,” said Ehlis. “The best thing was meeting all these different people over the years. All the managers I worked with.
“I’ve just enjoyed all the good people I met through baseball. All those people have one thing in common: They all love the game.”
With his new-found down time, Ehlis has been using social media to reach out to friends and former classmates.
“I’ve made one reunion because of my schedule,” he said. “The 20th. The 50th, I’ll make that one.”