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These Bullets came into being four softball seasons ago, in Lewistown.

Originally sponsored by a pair of Lewistown businesses, which were run partly by a couple of team members, it was decided early on that a nickname was needed.

“Jeff Perry gets the credit,” said Scott Koterba. “He said, ‘We’ve got to have a name to go with it. We can’t just have “JP’s Drain Service” and “Milestone Surveying.” We need a nickname.’ “

So, they’re the Bullets. Along the way, they added: a few players, like Lewistown native and former Triple-A utility player Jim Clinton; and a few sponsors, like First National Bank in Lewistown. And Sunday, they won their second gold medal in the men’s softball Upper C bracket, at the 16th annual Big Sky State Games.

They beat Pratt’s 12-11 in eight innings in the championship game, capping a 4-0 weekend. This being softball, where you have former baseball players spending the twilight of their careers misjudging line drives that soar over the heads – I’m thinking here of Koterba – it’s nice to have a steadying influence. That would be Clinton, a 1985 Fergus High School graduate who was drafted out of the University of Illinois-Chicago by the Texas Rangers, in 1989.

He spent that first professional season in the baseball mecca that was Butte, America.

“We get there, and we’re all thinking, ‘I’m playing pro baseball,’ “ said Clinton, now 34. “And we go to the park, and the groundskeeper’s dragging the field with a motorcycle.”

Well, first impressions only go so far. Clinton said his experience in Butte, partly due to the managing of Bump Wills, was positive.

“The people in Butte were great – better than any other stop I made,” said Clinton, who was drafted as a shortstop/second baseman in the 29th round, then became a full-fledged utility man while working his way up the Rangers’ farm system.

After Butte came Gastonia, N.C.; then the Florida State League; then Class AA Tulsa; and Class AAA Oklahoma City. He counts his best year as 1991, when he played for Wills again in the FSL: he put in 130 games, played every position but pitcher, and committed just six errors.

“My defense is what kept me in the game,” he said. “My offense and my (left) knee is what kept me out of it.”

And then, in 1995, he was back in Lewistown. Three summers ago, he went with the Bullets to that super-suds of all softball tourneys, the Denton Invitational. He’s stuck as their shortstop since then.

“He’s got range, and a cannon,” said Koterba, who in addition to a series of excellent defensive plays saw Clinton hit a 3-run homer in the win over Pratt’s.

Clinton, for his part, didn’t feel like the hero. The aforementioned Perry hit a tie-breaking grand slam in a Saturday win over The Fort out of Big Timber, and that was one of the things that stuck with Clinton.

“Jeff was probably the reason we won this tournament,” he said, then added that Shane Philps was key, that Jeremy Long “played an unbelievable third base”….

And so on. Only eight Bullets made this trip. Dave Longfellow, who of course has the handle “Shorty,” Jarhett Berger, Rich Nearhoff and Kevin Rector traveled the 130 miles to Billings. Added to the mix were local players Jason Pfau and Dobie Beck, the latter a teammate of Koterba’s when both played on the Montana State University baseball club in Bozeman.

All of them carried themselves well over the weekend. The new additions particularly enjoyed Clinton’s stories of knocking around the bush leagues.

“It was like “Bull Durham,” except it was real life,” said Beck.

Clinton’s knee began bothering him again this year, and he was thinking he might have to have another operation. Physical rehabilitation has allowed him to sidestep more surgery.

“I’m getting by,” said Clinton, whose owned the Poor Man’s Southwestern CafÈ in Lewistown with his wife, Monica, the last two years. “I’m not 100 percent, but I’ll keep playing.

“I’ve got a 4-month old, my first son. I’m hoping to play at least until I can play ball with him. Throw a ball around.”

With a future Bullet.

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 657-1396 or fritz@billingsgazette.com

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