BOZEMAN — Just to show you how wacky 2020 truly is, here we are closing in on the darkest days of mid-December, and the prime topic on the sports docket lately is … baseball?
That’s right. Call ‘em The Boys of Winter.
And why not? In Montana, we’ve booted college football to the spring, college basketball arenas are shuttered, and on the national landscape the COVID-19 pandemic has us reluctant to fully invest emotionally in the sports we do have lest the Astro-rug be pulled out from under us.
In 2020, up is down, right is left, and getting fewer votes somehow constitutes winning.
Across Montana, the national pastime is stealing headlines with Rickey Henderson-esque tenacity.
The Pioneer League has been downgraded — or upgraded, depending on your view — and is center stage at a time it’s normally completely out of mind.
In the Bitterroot Valley, known more for fly casting than fly catching, a petition advocating for the restoration of high school baseball has the peanut-and-Cracker Jack crowd imagining cries of “play ball!” come 2024.
Oh, and a summer collegiate wood-bat league has moved into Butte and is eyeing Helena. At a time when snowplowing figures to headline the agenda, baseball will be a central theme at a Dec. 16 City Commission meeting to begin deciding whether the American Legion program should share Kindrick Legion Field.
Given that it was 55 degrees a few days ago, I half expected to see kids with dusty ballcaps and worn mitts shagging flies on one of Bozeman’s still relatively green fields.
Odd as it might seem, the notion of baseball at the forefront of Montana's sporting conscience once wouldn’t have been far-fetched considering the game's rich tradition here.
Anyone who’s perused "Montana Baseball History" by Skylar Browning and Jeremy Watterson can’t help but be mesmerized by the grainy black-and-white images of townie teams from seemingly every dot — and Two Dot — on the map.
We might think of ourselves as a football state for colleges and basketball for high schools, but Lewis and Clark actually played baseball, or at least a semblance of it called “prison base”, on their westward journey. The first newspaper box score appeared in Virginia City in 1866.
And after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, the banned players took to barnstorming, two putting down cleats in little Scobey.
But baseball has faded from the cultural landscape.
High school ball was abandoned in the 1970s for lack of players, leaving only Legion teams in the larger towns. College baseball never existed or vanished at the varsity level at four-year schools until resurrected by Montana State Billings in 2006.
Where once we had Pioneer League teams in as many as five cities, we are down to three — Billings, Missoula and Great Falls — and Major League Baseball poured salt in 2020's wounds by pulling the plug on affiliations.
All of which makes the recent energy surrounding the Expedition League and high school baseball compelling and hopeful.
Both come with obstacles, though any time new ideas arise the naysayers and doomsayers are first to the podium.
With the Expedition League, it’s the ability or perhaps willingness of local American Legion organizations to share fields, most pressingly in Helena but also in another town the league covets, Bozeman. With high school baseball, the hurdles are significant, among them cost, lack of facilities and potential impact on the Legion monopoly.
All that said, I’m of the mindset that the more baseball the merrier.
Find ways to make the Expedition League work in Helena, Bozeman and perhaps Kalispell, filling a summer void for a broader audience than Legion. Find ways also to bring back high school baseball, providing more player opportunities.
Legion and the Expedition League coexist elsewhere. Legion and high school baseball coexist elsewhere, too.
And I promise: The impact on Legion will be minimal. For 16 years I watched and covered both high school and Legion ball in Oregon, and the Legion teams thrived.
Further, while the Legion game has been viewed here as a de facto high school sport because it's the only game in town, let’s be honest about what it is: A club program.
Perhaps in part because of Montana's baseball tradition, Legion has enjoyed a rarefied status that other club programs, such as soccer and softball, don't. But like those club sports, it is cost-prohibitive, ranging from $900 per player in Helena to some $3,500 in Billings.
High school ball has a bigger umbrella.
As for the Expedition League, though Legion programs certainly have laudably poured time, sweat and money into ballparks, the fields ultimately belong to the public — the city in Helena’s case, the county in Bozeman. Reserving them for single pay-to-play programs runs counter to broader community values.
In the end, it's really about a common love for baseball, and with all the wackiness 2020 has dealt us, the idea of more cries of "play ball!" echoing across our diamonds is somehow comforting and hopeful — even, or perhaps especially, in the darkest days of December.