If the Big Sky Little League All-Stars didn't know how many people supported their recent World Series bid, they do now.
About 4,500 people came to Dehler Park on Saturday night to show their appreciation for the first Montana team ever to win the Northwest Region championship. The team then made it all the way to the U.S. Championship game at the Little League World Series.
Adults and kids gave the 12 players and three coaches a standing ovation when they entered the baseball stadium. The boys, coaches and some of the players' moms rode in a motorcade that started at the Chamber of Commerce building and wended its way along several downtown streets.
The boys rode in two fire trucks, escorted by Billings Police and Yellowstone County Sheriff's vehicles with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Bystanders dotted the route and waved to the players as they went by.
But the majority of people awaited them inside the stadium for a ceremony that let the boys feel the love from the town that watched their games and cheered them on over nearly two weeks at the World Series.
Mayor Tom Hanel and his wife, Robin, emceed the half-hour program. After several members of Big Sky Little League's other championship teams recited the Little League player's pledge, the mayor read a proclamation recognizing the team's achievements.
The crowd cheered as Hanel touted each of the team's milestones, noting that the team captured the imagination not only of Billings and the state but of the entire country.
Stan Eliason, board member for Big Sky Little League, spoke to the crowd next.
"On behalf of Big Sky Little League, we want to thank Billings and the entire state of Montana for the incredible response and reception that this team has received," Eliason said. "We never imagined the impact that this team has had on bringing together the state of Montana as a unified family cheering on one of its own."
He also thanked the players, the coaches and their families "for reminding us that dreams really do come true."
Gov. Brian Schweitzer also briefly stepped up to the microphone that was positioned on home plate. Schweitzer talked about the pressure on a 12-year-old standing at home plate who has been instructed by a coach to bunt the batter from first to second base, or get a homerun.
"You're 12 years old, this is the loneliest place on the planet," Schweitzer said, garnering laughs. "You trust your coaches, you trust your team and when the pitch comes, you take your swing. It sounds life, and on that basis, we have a wonderful group of players that will be successful not just in baseball, but in the game of life."
The Big Sky All-Stars players, who were standing on the fence of the third-base dugout up to this point, watched intently as a video of their World Series highlights was shown on the outfield screen.
The audience applauded at specific points where team members made particularly good defensive plays or got big hits. After that, Billings sportscaster Rocky Erickson introduced the players one at a time and they ran out and lined up on the field.
Manager Gene Carlson and coaches Mark Kieckbusch and Tom Zimmer also came out and took a bow. After a fireworks display, the players and coaches were presented with championship jackets, a framed copy of the proclamation, along with a bolo tie from the governor.
The players each came to the microphone to thank the crowd for their support.
"Thank you guys for all the support you gave us," Gabe Sulser said. "It was awesome."
"This is crazy," said Ben Askelson, and the audience laughed. "It's pretty amazing, so, thank you."
And Pearce Kurth called out, "We love you Montana!"
Carlson also thanked everybody for showing up.
"It means a lot to this team to see the community support us this much," he said. "Everybody in Billings knew we could play baseball, and I guess we proved it to the world that we could play baseball."
Zimmer said the crowd on Saturday may not have been the biggest crowd the team had played in front of in the past 26 days, "but it's definitely the best crowd," he said.
"Everyone's support has been unbelievable," Mark Kieckbusch added.
Afterward, the boys sat at a long table and signed autographs for a long line of fans. The players signed everything from baseballs and posters to shirts, cell phones and even arms. They seemed to take it all in stride.
Big Sky player Dawson Smith paused from signing and said he was excited to see the hometown fans. Ben Askelson said he was surprised by the size of the crowd.
"We knew there was gonna be some people, but we didn't think there was gonna be this many," he said.
Connor Kieckbusch, a crowd favorite, called the evening pretty amazing.
"It feels pretty great to know that people are supporting us here," he said.