Bob Sandler has a big heart, and anyone who knows him can hear it loud and clear, the thumps like a pop of a fly ball into an outfielder's mitt.
Baseball has been in Sandler's life for almost all of his 65 years.
It was part of his youth and adolescence when he played first base then outfield, and pitcher in moments of desperation. The game was a factor of fatherhood, starting when he coached his son's Little League and Legion teams. And it's been part of an 18-year career choice with American Legion, during which he's played the part of lawn-mower, league-director and, now, ballpark manager and announcer.
Sandler grew up in New York City, in a time when he had the good fortune to have the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees all within a subway ride. Afternoons took him to see Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, and at night, he witnessed the artistry of Willie Mays on the baseball diamond.
Life imitated that art for Sandler, in that he loved playing ball, but his big-league dreams were dashed by genetics — as his friends continued to grow toward the 6-foot mark, he stopped at 5-6. But that didn't stop Sandler. He wanted to play baseball as long as he could.
"My mom was five-foot, and my dad was six-two. I took after Mom," Sandler said with a laugh.
College years resulted in a baseball scholarship to Rocky Mountain College, but, after his graduation, a new passion put his game on pause. Sandler became an English teacher and spent 35 years teaching high-schoolers the finer points of literature and grammar.
"When I started teaching English here, people asked how I was going to do that when I couldn't even speak it," he said, referring to his New York accent.
Coaching baseball teams is a byproduct of his role as father to two sons. David, 33 and now an attorney in Kalispell, remembers playing a lot of catch in the front yard with his dad.
With an old wooden bat that was a gift from Bob, David began hitting pitches from his father at the age of 5 or 6. T-ball was his first organized team, and Bob was coaching various teams through David's play with the Blue Jays.
When David went to Portland for college on a baseball scholarship, the elder Sandler took a seat in the stands as an avid fan.
"We went to the batting cages all the time, and he would throw hundreds of pitches, even until I graduated from high school and during the summers when I was in college," David said.
Ardent baseball fans like to describe the game as religion. That's the case for Bob Sandler, and the starting lineup serves as his prayer. In 1988, the announcer at Cobb Field had to leave in the middle of the game and turned the microphone duties over to Sandler. Like Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pipp, Sandler's been in the box ever since.
Ask Sandler to share his announcer voice, and he claims that it's the same as what's used in everyday conversation. He does concede, though, that his New York accent thickly sneaks into speech during announcing duties for the Skyview High Falcons football team and American Legion baseball games. Even after 40 years as a Montanan, he's known for that accent and it serves as a beacon for fans as they cross the parking lot to Skyview's football field.
Sandler said he loves announcing, and, when it's time for someone else to take over the microphone, he'll miss it the most of all his sports-related duties. With the best seat in the house, he announced two state championship football games and every game of a Legion tournament one year, crossing the 20-game line in a matter of days.
David Sandler credits his dad with teaching him more than baseball on the diamond.
Patience is learned by any lover or player of baseball, David Sandler said, and his dad displays his as a father, teacher and baseball aficionado.
The virtue rubbed off on his sons, David said, and probably on lots of other kids with whom Bob has interacted over the years. David said he learned "sometimes, the ball just doesn't bounce your way," and the game brought father and son closer together during his youth and now as an adult.
"I still go to watch Legion games (in Kalispell), and he and I can talk about what's going on in the league and the majors, everything like that," David said.
Sandler is the AA Director of Legion Baseball and has led the league as general manager. He doesn't miss the hard work of fundraising that the position required, but is now the man-in-charge at Cobb Field. He serves as ballpark manager and is the one who makes sure everything runs smoothly at the field.
Younger son Scott has helped his father since he was 10 years old, mowing fields and keeping everything in line. This year he is taking on some of the ballpark-manager duties to make sure someone is holding down the fort while Bob is in the announcer's booth.
Taking care of the ballpark has led Sandler to every crevice and corner of Cobb Field, and he said that he's watched the place deteriorate to the point that a new stadium is necessary.
"I've seen this place from inside out," he said. "There are some places in these stands where you're lucky if your foot doesn't go right through the floor."
Sandler is proud of Legion's scholarship program, which rewards kids who, like Sandler, live and breathe baseball. For players who are skilled in the classroom as well as the field, Legion can generally award a scholarship. Even with the financial pressures of running Sandler called a "first-class program," the scholarships are part of what has motivated him to stick with the league so long.
The financial pitfalls of youth sports are dealt with throughout the West, and it's become harder for Sandler to get regional teams to Billings for tournaments. Attracting good teams is the hardest part of the job, he said, but, with good fans in the stands and good play on the field, Sandler is confident that Legion baseball will continue to turn out a good program.
He jokes that he's reached stardom through the league, having been deemed "Mr. Baseball" by The Gazette a few years ago, and appearing on ESPN during a controversial debate on the merits of wooden bats versus aluminum bats. He had to live down the newspaper title for a few weeks, but told friends that he had to pay $2,000 for its publication. That, by the way, isn't true.
The Scarlets and Royals have met under Sandler's watch for decades, and at times he's been accused of favoring both teams. But he said that's not true, and he's remained neutral with a poker face through the most exciting plays. His sons played sports for Senior High during his teaching days at Skyview, and he learned that the best coping tool was to cheer for both teams' greatest plays.
"I just love that the team with the best talent wins," he said.
Contact Angela Buckley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1241.