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Growing up in Billings more than six decades ago, Gary Neibauer lived only three blocks from Cobb Field, the historic stadium built in 1932 and taken down in 2007. Neibauer fondly recalls sitting in the wooden stands and gaining an appreciation for the game of baseball.

“I’m positive that Cobb Field is the place where I got my love of the game,” said Neibauer, a former Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies pitcher who now resides in Aurora, Colo. “My dad and I always sat on the first-base side above the visitor’s dugout and, during rain delays, we’d go down underneath the stands to try and stay dry. But the rain would leak through the roof anyway.”

The rain never stopped Neibauer from enjoying the action at Cobb Field. “I especially remember all the players who left their gloves in the outfield when it was their turn to come in and hit,” he said, chuckling. “Lord only knows how a play would have been scored if a batted ball had struck one of those gloves.

“Cobb was a beautiful setting which I’ll always remember. I always put on my Mustangs cap when I went to see a game.”

Surprisingly, given his affection for the venue, Neibauer acknowledges that he never played so much as an inning at Cobb Field. “I was too young to play for that great Billings Royals Post 4 American Legion baseball team that my father’s friend, Ed Bayne, coached,” he said. Under Bayne, the Billings Royals reached the National Legion World Series four times.

When his family later moved to Scottsbluff, Neb., Neibauer’s chances of playing for the well-regarded Bayne evaporated. By then, Bayne had found himself a pitcher whom The Gazette and Sports Illustrated would eventually dub Montana’s Athlete of the Century: Dave McNally.

Though he hung up his spikes nearly 30 years ago, Neibauer’s love for baseball hasn’t been dampened. “There’s nothing like it,” he says. “Its grace, its beauty. The sport continues to thrill me to no end.”

Debuting with the Braves in 1969, Neibauer enjoyed modest success as a rookie, going 1-2 while posting a respectable 3.90 ERA for the Braves in 29 games. He capped his first season by throwing a hitless, scoreless inning against the Mets in the National League Championship Series.

All told, Neibauer, a four-sport letterman at the University of Nebraska, went 4-8 during his playing days with a 4.78 ERA. He later worked as a scout for the Texas Rangers before beginning his post-baseball career as a mortgage broker.

While the national pastime itself may still thrill him, the business side of baseball is another matter. For the past three years, Neibauer has served on a special Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association committee working to get nonvested, inactive players such as himself retirement benefits. Since 1980, all a player has needed is one game day of service to be eligible to buy into the player’s umbrella health insurance plan and 43 game days’ worth of service credit to qualify for a pension.

However, along with nearly 900 other men who played between 1947 and 1979, Neibauer was denied a benefit because he didn’t satisfy the four-year vesting requirement needed to earn a pension at that time. And neither Major League Baseball nor the Major League Baseball Players Association was willing to retroactively restore or grandfather the affected men back into coverage.

That changed last April 21, when the league and the union announced with much fanfare that players such as Neibauer would receive life annuity payments of up to $10,000 per year for their service credit and contributions to the game. Each affected player is guaranteed $625 per quarter of service, up to four years, or 16 quarters.

By comparison, the minimum salary every ballplayer is scheduled to make starting this season is $480,000, a 16 percent increase over the $416,000 they earned last year.

Neibauer received his first payment in September 2011; a second check was scheduled to be sent to him last month. In the joint collective bargaining agreement unveiled two days before last Thanksgiving, both the league and the union extended these life annuities through 2016.

The payment plan does not provide for health insurance, nor can the payments be passed on to spouses or other designated beneficiaries when the former players die.

“Through our tenacity to keep pushing and prodding, we accomplished something memorable,” said Neibauer, whose advocacy work on behalf of these men is chronicled in the critically acclaimed book “A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees A Curve,” released by Word Association Publishers in 2010.

“In a perfect world, I’d want what the ballplayers today are getting. And I know the deal isn’t perfect, but it is something.

“I was very glad that I was part of the group that helped get this done. I felt more relief than self-gratification. And perhaps it’s the starting point for something more.”

Some of the other men who are also receiving the payments maintain that being permitted to obtain health insurance is just as important to them as the life annuities, according to published accounts. It comes in handy as well for Neibauer, who suffers from Type II diabetes and has two metal prostheses in his hips.

In spite of such physical impediments, the former hurler is healthy and happy. Married to Christine Law, an elder-care attorney, Neibauer especially enjoys the instructional pitching clinics he runs at Hit Streak in south Denver.

Asked whether he’d be able to get today’s hitters out, Neibauer doesn’t hesitate.

“I can still bring the heat when I want to,” he said, smiling.

At 67, though, Neibauer is just as content to go fishing and hunting nowadays as he was during his playing career.

“My parents instilled in me their love of the outdoors and I’m glad to have been able to pass it along to my kids,” said Neibauer, a father of three.

And he still has Billings connections. Dorothy Drain, whom Neibauer calls “my dear old auntie on my mother’s side,” resides in Billings, as do some of his cousins. That’s why he regularly returns for family reunions and vacations.

“I’ve always been proud to say that I was from both Montana and Nebraska. They were a good combination,” he said. “As far as morals and values go, you can’t find better people than in those two states.”

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