BILLINGS -- Baseball was my sport growing up in Billings and when the Mustangs rolled in every June, that meant summer.
My grandparents had box seats near the third-base dugout. We'd always park across 27th Street at what was then Deaconess Hospital and I couldn't get to the front gates fast enough.
The first baseball season I vividly remember: 1983. Shortstop Kurt Stillwell was my guy. The parent club Cincinnati Reds took him with the overall No. 2 pick that summer and he instantly delivered our Mustangs to No. 1 -- and a Pioneer League championship. I can still see the celebration. Stillwell was doused in red Gatorade at home plate and I was hooked.
He went on to play nine years in the Major Leagues, became an all-star and is now ... a fishing guide.
Unlike today, it seemed like the best players would stick around all summer. There were no pitch counts. If you were mowing guys down you stayed in the game. If you got shelled, you got yanked.
I loved every part of Mustangs baseball in my youth. Applied to be a bat boy one summer, made it to the final cut, then got cut, ultimately like most of the players who came through the Pioneer League. I went down swinging, though, and general manager Lew Morris rewarded with me a season pass.
Before long, Bob Wilson took over with his noticeable limp and never-ending stash of cigars. Always top-notch.
I wasn't old enough to watch George Brett play for the Mustangs when they were affiliated with the Kansas City Royals in the early 1970s, but I remember his black and white Mustangs picture hanging in the dark hallway under Cobb Field's first-base stands. I could hardly believe he once played in Billings as I watched him win a World Series with the Royals in 1985.
What a summer '85 was. I was barely a teenager and these guys were kings. I'd rustled up some autographs in my earlier years, but in '85 I was invited to lunch with two players: pitcher Kent Huseby and outfielder Jeff Forney -- a friend-of-a-friend thing.
Trying to play it cool, I could barely swallow bite after bite. These guys were what I wanted to be, pro baseball players. After lunch they surprised with me a brand-new, glistening bat engraved with REDS and with, what they called a pearl, a game ball yet to be touched. I'm as grateful today as I was then. That was my first big-time luncheon.
Don Wakamatsu was my favorite catcher on that team. I still have his autograph on a ball signed by the team. Huseby once told me after a win that Wakamatsu was still in the clubhouse biting a bullet while the trainer removed his ingrown toe nail. A few years later Wakamatsu played 28 games with the White Sox, then spent the rest of his career coaching, eventually managing the Mariners and Rangers. Now, 35 years later, he's still in the Bigs as a bench coach in Toronto.
Lenny Harris was on that team. Lenny Harris! The third baseman played 18 MLB seasons until he was 40. Iron Man before Iron Man.
My parents would intentionally avoid driving by Cobb Field on game nights because if I saw field lights, it was over. We were going. And if we went, I was there until the final out. No school, no hurry.
I tried to 'grow up' in college but instead became a sportscaster, arrived home and start covering the team I'd grown up idolizing. That was a weird dynamic before I shifted from idolizing the guys to appreciating them.
My first summer covering the Mustangs: 1993. I still have a full set of team cards that included manager Donnie Scott, pitching coach Terry Abbott, catcher Paul Bako, who spent 12 years in the Majors, and pitcher Scott Sullivan, who played 10. The Mustangs won another league title that season. Overall they've treated Billings to 15 league championships, most in the Pioneer.
My other favorite memories start with Bobblehead Night honoring Mustangs who escalated to Major League careers -- many of them all-stars, some of them World Series winners and a few on to the Hall of Fame.
I also loved when Billings brought in the ZOOperstars, oversized inflatables like Harry Canary, Clammy Sosa and Ken Giraffey Jr. who entertained the crowd between innings. Sosa always managed to swallow a full-grown 'player.' Kids were amazed, adults were entertained.
The Mustangs are Billings' only professional team -- any sport -- to last the test of time, almost seven decades. Friday would've marked 68 years of minor league baseball here, 47 straight with the Reds.
Summer after summer, Mustangs baseball was a social event. The new Dehler Park offered the feel of a big deck party with a walkway fully circling the yard. High top tables overlooking left field added to the energy. Minor League Baseball at Dehler Park: one of the few pro sports venues left with beer cheaper than a game ticket.
Games were affordable, attendance dominated, and to this day the Mustangs have helped keep me from growing up.
If, in fact, they are gone, they'll be missed but treasured.