As we take our seats in the Cobb Field bleachers for our first look at the Billings (Mont.) Mustangs on July 6, my son Jamie, 11, says, "I got the second baseman." Second base is his Little League position. Jamie scans the program for the player's name. "Gill. Chris Gill. Number 4."
Seconds later, as if by magic, Gill ranges far to his right, stretches to grab a grounder headed for centerfield, leaps in the air to get some force on the throw and nails an Idaho Falls runner at first by a half-step. Now that he really has Gill, Jamie can't understand why the Long Beach State product is not at that moment winging it around the infield at Riverfront Stadium with the big club—the Cincinnati Reds.
My other son, Chris, 9, and I aren't yet ready to commit to a favorite player. Donna, my wife, takes her time and does not select rightfielder K.C. Gillum until late in the game when Gillum, after grounding out, bangs his helmet against the fence and lets fly a stream of invective mixed with tobacco juice.
"I'll take him," Donna says.
My family and I have come to Billings and Cobb Field because we have never been to Montana and because we want to see baseball in the wide open spaces. "The players think they're going to be fighting Indians when they first get here," says Bob Wilson, the Mustangs' president and general manager.
Wilson is the team's only full-time, year-round employee, but everything seems to get done. The Mustangs, affiliated with the Reds since 1974, are members of the Pioneer League, whose teams wander the West about as much as the original settlers. Even the other in-state clubs—Butte, Helena and Great Falls—are at least 220 miles from Billings, and the Mustangs travel everywhere by bus. That means a lot of sight-seeing on the way to Pocatello and Idaho Falls, Salt Lake City and Medicine Hat, Alberta. The Pioneer is now a half-season (70 games) rookie league, meaning that the players are in either their first or second year of pro ball.
"Long hours, low pay and...'Play ball!' " third baseman Steve Vondran says the next day. "That's what I expected, and that's what I got."
Vondran and his teammates are signing autographs in the Big Bear Sporting Goods store in Billings. The Mustangs, clean-shaven and mostly wearing collared shirts, resemble a varsity-club receiving line as they meet and greet Billing sites. Except for K.C. Gillum, that is. K.C. (short for Kenneth Charles) wanders around the store in sweatshirt and jeans, pausing now and then to spit tobacco juice into a Pepsi cup.
"How come you guys look so nice?" I ask Vondran.
"Organization rules," he replies. "Whenever we appear in public we're supposed to have a collared shirt. Or if we don't, we're at least supposed to look presentable."
"What about him?" I say, pointing to Gillum, who is inspecting a sneaker.
"Oh, K.C.? He's a rebel," Vondran says.
Gillum, 19, out of Gahanna, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, is one of only five players of the 27 on the Mustang roster who have come to the minors straight out of high school. As rookie league teams go, the Mustangs, with an average age of 21, are considered "old," and most are former college players who are smart and fundamentally sound, but who are not, by and large, the organization's brightest lights. The players know this, and yet they don't really want to know this. Most are on a journey midway between blind optimism and hard-eyed realism.
The Mustangs are also struggling to come together as a team, to know one another as individuals. If there is a common theme sounded by the college players, it is this: College ball was fun, the minors are cutthroat.
"You get back to your room after a bad game, there's nobody to talk things over with," says centerfielder Scott Pose, with a sincerity that takes me aback. "Everybody's in the same boat."
Gill speaks up: "One of the hardest things is learning about each other, knowing when to keep quiet, when to talk. A lot of us still don't know."
Other Mustangs nod their heads, and the conversation proceeds in that vein. I'm convinced that they aren't talking just to get quoted. It's more that they need to say things to an outsider that they can't say to teammates.
As we leave the store, I know I'm hooked on the Mustangs, and so are my kids.
"You think they're happy?" asks Chris.
"Yeah, basically," I say, trying not to sound like Ward Cleaver. "They're doing what they love. But they're worried, too, and maybe a little scared."
Wilson had promised Jamie and Chris that they could be ball boys that night, and so we show up at Cobb Field at 3:30 for a 7:30 game. That is two hours after a group of Mustangs had arrived for a session with Jose Cardenal, a Reds' roving minor league hitting instructor, a delightful man but one who never uses one obscenity when five will do. After working with the players for three hours under a searing sun, Cardenal suddenly grabs Jamie and Chris and directs them to the grass behind the batting cage. For 15 minutes he hits grounders and pop-ups to them, mixing praise and criticism in equal measure. In four years of playing catch with Chris, who has natural ability but questionable powers of concentration, I never had his undivided attention the way Cardenal has it now.
A few minutes before the game, Chris motions me over to the dugout steps. "Jose and Mike [pitching coach Mike Goedde] want me to get the key to the bullpen and the lefthanded curve balls," he says. "Are they kidding?"
Could there be a finer moment for a father who scuffed around sandlot infields until he was 21: To discover that baseball players still get a kick out of sending kids on fool's errands and that tonight those kids are his?
The game begins, and so do the rhythms of a summer night at Cobb Field. In the small press box behind home plate, Hank Cox, who has been the Mustangs' public address announcer for 30 years, tells a group of youngsters over the P.A. system to sit down before they get "blood on our bleachers."
"Hank says that every damn night," says a guy next to me, shaking his head.
"That's right. I'm talking to you in the yellow T-shirt!" booms Cox to a youngster who has not moved quickly enough.
Next to Cox sits official scorer Jack Skinner, who played second base on the first Mustang team in 1948. "And right down there's my double-play partner," says Skinner, pointing to the silver-haired Les Barnes. "A lot of us from that team liked it here, so we never left."
Meanwhile, Jamie and Chris are having a ball. Between innings they bring water to the umpires, and later Chris will confess that he misses the umps, Steve Beaver and Keith Denebeim, almost as much as he misses Jose. Most of the players pay the ball boys no mind (and why should they?), but others pat their heads for luck or tap them on their helmets. My sons have rarely had a better evening.
Which is not true for the Mustangs, who lose 3-2 to the Idaho Falls Braves. I am unprepared for the depression that hangs, like black crepe, in the locker room. An hour after the game, when we meet at Dudley's, a bar on the west side of town, the players still are down.
"What is it?" I ask them. "Is it because Chief Bender I the Reds' vice-president of player personnel] was here?"
"Maybe a little," says Gill. "But it's mostly because we're playing so badly, so much below our potential." (The Mustangs were 8-10 at that point.)
"We let Idaho Falls come in here and beat us three of four," says Vondran. "Shouldn't happen. Most of us come from winning college programs, and we're just not used to this." (Vondran played for Fresno State.)
They don't really cheer up until they win a volleyball game from a local pickup team, on Dudley's lighted outdoor court. Some of that good feeling will sour when the players discover that manager Dave Keller, who is respected by most of them for his stern but even-handed approach, has called their rooms. The AWOL players will each be fined $25 for violating midnight curfew.
By 2 p.m. the next day. Chris, dressed in his Mustang shirt and heavy sweatpants, announces that he's ready to go to the park despite the fact that it's another steamy, 100° afternoon. Since Chris's choice of attire for a funeral would be shorts, sleeveless T-shirt and sunglasses, this is somewhat of an upset. "I don't want to miss Jose's practice," he says. Chris has chosen Cardenal as his favorite Mustang.
As Chris takes Cardenal's practice, I notice Jamie staring at Gillum, who is removing a can of tobacco from his back right pocket.
"What happens if it falls out when you slide?" Jamie asks.
"Always slide on my left side," says K.C., a practical young man.
Pose comes by, leans on his bat and chats for a while. A young man of quiet intensity, Pose is from Des Moines and played for the University of Arkansas. "I just hope they put me up at Cedar Rapids [a Class A team] next year," he says. "I'll be just two hours from Mom and Dad then." I hope he makes it. He has become my favorite Mustang.
We're winding down. The Mustangs lose again, this time 7-0 to the Butte Copper Kings, and Keller intercepts me as I enter the dugout.
"Make sure Jamie and Chris are away from the door," says Keller. "I don't want them to hear this." And for 10 minutes he rages at the players. When the clubhouse door finally opens, most of the Mustangs agree that they deserved the manager's criticism.
Jamie and Chris could hardly have had a better two days, but they feel bad that they did not bring the Mustangs even a little bit of luck. I try to joke about it, but in truth, as we say our goodbyes. I am almost as discouraged as the players. Empathy has its perils.
We leave for a side trip to Yellowstone Park the next day, at about the same time that our favorite team is trooping over to the Dos Machos restaurant, where fans are waiting for "Breakfast with the Mustangs." We wonder if K.C. is wearing a collared shirt.