BILLINGS — Matt Schoonover has long had a passion for baseball.
That passion for the game ignited what would turn into a Hall of Fame baseball career at Montana State Billings and his current job as assistant general manager and director of stadium operations for the Pioneer League Billings Mustangs.
“My earliest memory is me and my dad walking over to Legion Field — now Centene Stadium — to watch a Great Falls Dodgers game,” the 31-year-old Great Falls native said. “I’m too young to remember, but Pedro (Martinez) was there in ’88, and Eric Karros in the late ‘80s.”
A lifelong Dodgers fan, baseball has always been Schoonover's favorite sport.
“I could do it by myself,” Schoonover said. “I could throw a ball off the wall to myself. I wore out the side of my garage; I would throw all day and field grounders. I basically played entire games by myself.”
On Feb. 15, Schoonover will become the first modern-era baseball player inducted into the MSUB Hall of Fame and Distinction. Little remains intact from the early years of Yellowjacket baseball, with no trace of records from the first stint in the mid-20th century. Ten names associated with baseball are among MSUB’s hall of famers, and they include playing careers spanning 1947-75.
But after the mid 1970s, Yellowjacket baseball was lost for nearly three decades. On Feb. 9, 2005, MSUB announced that it would add baseball as an NCAA sport, making it the only four-year university in Montana to do so.
“Once MSUB announced it was starting a program, it became my focus more than anything else,” Schoonover said. “I saw potential for the program. There were enough good high school players in Montana, and if we could get the best of those guys then we had a chance to build something.”
Just over 12 years later, the Yellowjackets have become one of the premier teams in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and the NCAA D-II West Region. Last spring, MSUB won the regular-season title for the third time in four seasons, and broke dozens of records along the way.
“If you look back at the history of baseball in Montana, it is very rich," Schoonover said. "The Mustangs have been here for almost 70 years, and now that the college team is playing well we are getting more recognition. We wanted to make Billings a destination for guys who were thinking that college baseball in Montana was not a viable option. Now we are starting to get that success, and it is starting to show that there is good baseball here.”
Now as Schoonover watches the program he helped build contend for championships, he feels a sense of accomplishment. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and he knew that the early teams were not going to win much. He even knew that at times it would be hard to be motivated to play the game he had always loved.
Among the 36 players on the inaugural 2006 baseball roster, 28 were transfers. Only two of the eight freshmen saw action that season. Schoonover took a redshirt year under newly appointed head coach Chris Brown.
“The year I redshirted I got to know a lot of people, and then my first year playing in ’07 we were actually pretty decent,” he recalled.
The second team finished second in the Heartland Conference, going 24-26 overall and 16-20 in league play in 2007. Though the team was painstakingly close to .500, it wasn't until the 2015 squad (27-23, 22-10 GNAC) that they finally broke through with the first winning record.
Schoonover led with a .378 batting average, still the third-best single-season mark in MSUB history.
“I thought we were on the way up (after ’07), but a lot of guys graduated and we brought in a whole new crop of JC guys,” Schoonover said.
The 2008 team struggled through a 14-38 campaign and went 5-25 in its first year in the GNAC. Relocating to Pirtz Field complicated the season as the Jackets waited patiently for the transformation of Cobb Field into Dehler Park.
Things got better in 2009, when Schoonover led his team to a 24-28 record and an even mark of 16-16 in the GNAC to take second place. He batted .345 and tied for second in the conference with 61 base hits. But the Jackets slipped into the same two-year cycle and Schoonover ended his career with a bitter taste after an 11-35 campaign in 2010.
“It is rewarding to see their success now, but I’m also a little envious,” he said. “It would have been nice to have played at this (current) level of college baseball.”
The team results during Schoonover’s career were lackluster, but what he contributed in five years at MSUB is what makes him a hall of famer. Schoonover’s career average of .335 is No. 7 in MSUB history, he is No. 2 in hits, at-bats (635), and sacrifice flies (12), No. 3 in doubles (39), and total bases (282), No. 5 in RBIs (90), and No. 6 in runs scored (90).
Schoonover’s hit record held until Brody Miller, another four-year player, notched 249 from 2012-15. Miller was a pillar on MSUB’s first-ever GNAC championship team in 2015, kicking off the current run of team success with a cumulative record of 113-90 (.557) and 95-53 (.642) in league play since then.
Schoonover has witnessed the progression of constructing teams around top local talent, such as current senior all-region outfielder Jalen Garcia, and feels a sense of achievement in the fruits of his labor now paying off.
“The biggest thing is that we knew we were setting a foundation,” Schoonover said. “We knew we had to go through those hard times early in order to build a program that could compete for championships.”
A day at the park
Schoonover has never known a season without some kind of involvement in baseball. He started out running the scoreboard at Cobb Field as a student in the summer of 2007, and worked his way into a full-time position with the Mustangs over seven seasons.
Today he handles everything from customer relations to season ticket packages, to ballpark maintenance and game-day operations. His desk is lined with Cincinnati Reds media guides and during games he is responsible for relaying every detail of a game from the official scorer to Minor League Baseball’s hub in New York City via proprietary software in the press box.
“We do a little bit of everything,” Schoonover said of a team with just three full-time employees, including fellow MSUB alumnus Chris Marshall and general manager Gary Roller.
“Matt was an outstanding player, respected teammate, and a model student-athlete during his Yellowjacket baseball career,” Roller said. “For him to be recognized for his accomplishments is something very special. It is a tremendous honor to be inducted into any formal hall of fame, including one’s alma mater. Personally and professionally, we are thrilled for Matt and his family. We are extremely proud of him.”