Back in mid-August I happened to be working on a Sunday afternoon when I got a call from Managing Editor Kristi Angel.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Getting ready to go cover a concert, I told her.
“How would you like to go to South Williamsport and cover the Little League World Series?” she asked. “You’d leave on Tuesday.”
The sports writers were buried in a pile of fall sports previews they had to complete, she said. And the paper wanted to send a reporter to cover the Big Sky All-Stars at the Little League World Series.
As a Red Sox fan and the wife of a Little League umpire, I’m no stranger to baseball. Heck, I even wrote a sports column once.
I liked the idea of hanging out at a well-manicured ball field, watching and writing about baseball games and eating an occasional hot dog.
So I hopped on a plane two days later, landed in Scranton, Penn., and headed in my rental car to the town that explodes every August with Little Leaguers, their families, baseball lovers and scads of reporters from around the country and the world.
The Big Sky team was one of eight regional champions to play in the United States bracket of the Little League World Series. The 12 boys from central Billings, ages 11, 12 and 13, were the first Montana team ever to do so.
They were accompanied by manager Gene Carlson and coaches Tom Zimmer and Mark Kieckbusch. The players’ parents, who had just spent two weeks in California for the regional tournament, scrambled to find flights to Pennsylvania and hotels.
I got in a daily routine of loading my backpack with a laptop, notebook and pen, World Series stats and notes, then making my way to the stadium to do interviews, watch games and write stories. I also tweeted during games -- sometimes with entertaining results when my iPod auto-corrected my words.
I had lots of help from longtime Billings Little League volunteer Merle Piefer, who came just for the love of the game and, of course, Gazette photographer Paul Ruhter.
I got endless cooperation from the coaches and the parents. I also saw the unfailing politeness of the players and their ability to stay focused on the task at hand, and to have fun.
When it was time to practice, they got to work. When it was time for a game, they played together like a well-oiled machine. Andy, Jet, Sean, Pearce, Ben, Patrick, Gabe, Cole, Brock, Conner, Dawson and Ian soon became familiar names and faces to Billings fans.
I loved the fun injected into the proceedings, such as when Dugout, the mascot, got the players and the coaches out on the field to boogie with him. It took a little of the tension out of the game.
Impartiality went out the window as I openly rooted for the boys from Billings. As they won games and moved up the bracket, I saw people from around the country join the Big Sky bandwagon.
My one-week trip stretched into two after the Big Sky team won their second game, which put them into the semifinals against the Western Region champs from Huntington Beach, Calif.
Big Sky won that game in overtime in a nail-biter that ended when Ben Askelson hit a solo homerun to win 1-0. Two days later, in the U.S. championship game, the California team returned the favor, winning 11-2 and ending the dream season for the Cinderella team from Montana.
The most poignant moment for me came when the boys met with their parents after that last game. Tears that mingled with hugs gradually gave way to smiles. A day later, the team got a nice welcome home at the Billings airport, and, a few days after that, players enjoyed an even bigger night of recognition at Dehler Park.
I know for the players, their families and the coaches, the time spent at the Little League World Series will remain unforgettable. For me it was entertaining, exhausting and an unexpected delight.